Now in its third year, the burgeoning Lisbon International Documentary Film Festival is a hugely enjoyable and stimulating event; and with most films priced at 1 or 1.5 euros, well worth a visit. Housed in a palatial centre for arts and commerce, two cinemas show a steady stream of screenings until the early hours of the morning, and three other rooms house free continuous video projections. With several competition strands, a wide variety of output was on offer this year, the work of home-grown Portuguese filmmakers, of post-Soviet Russia, world-wide investigative journalists and more artistically-inclined, experimental directors.
There was also an entire retrospective of American documentary-maker Ross McElwee’s work, which, judging by the packed houses, was a great success. Occasionally dubbed the ‘Woody Allen’ of documentaries, McElwee’s most fascinating and personal films examine his relationships, with friends, family and lovers, both erstwhile and new. Born in North Carolina, his best-known, award-winning film, Sherman’s March, charts his attempts to make a documentary about the general’s destructive civil war march through the South, but ends up as a personal travelogue and meditation on the nature of love, longing and intimacy. Time Indefinite, a funny and extremely moving rites of passage films, encompasses his father’s death, his own and the birth of a child. Six O’Clock News considers the proliferation of fear through news stories, and the place of his newborn son in such a world. In his most recent feature, Bright Leaves, McElwee again journeys through the South, this time to glean more information about his great-grandfather, the man who produced the formula for Bull Durham tobacco, and the possible inspiration for the 1950 Gary Cooper picture Bright Leaf. Alongside shorter documentaries such as Charleen and Backyard, films he has made with other collaborators also screened, including Something to Do With the Wall.
The Grand Prize for Best feature Documentary was awarded to two films, Before the Flood and Alimentation Générale. As the jury pointed out, despite their disparate subject-matter, both were united in their focus on ‘communities at risk of being submerged’. Yan Yu e Li Yifan’s Before the Flood, which also won an award for Best First Documentary Work, follows the relocation of Fengjie to escape the flood that will affect the region before the Three Gorges Damn is completed in 2009. Amongst the pathos, there’s some very funny character detail: one woman on the local church committee suggests it might be politic to have two sets of accounting books so as to benefit from several funds; and the local council officials are determined in their pomposity to adhere to a strict regime of order despite the dissension and obstinacy of the locals.
Alimentation Générale is set in a grocery store in a French neighbourhood, the only shop still remaining in a shopping centre nestling amidst tower blocks housing poor, often immigrant families. Ali, the proprietor, is relentlessly caring about his customers, having groceries sent up to ageing women, spending his time with all manner of disaffected and troubled residents. The only real social space for everyone to congregate, the shop takes on the character of a refuge. The issues addressed in Chantal Briet’s documentary have since taken on a chilling aspect, since with much of the recent rioting in France occurred here in the streets of Epinay-sur-Seine.
Best short documentary was awarded to Samagon, the story of an old woman in Belarus who lives simply and distils moonshine, so legendary that it once saved her village from destruction when she offered it to invading soldiers. At once moving and entertaining, it’s a beautiful and intimate portrait that also succeeds in taking in the sweep of European history.
El Cielo Gira/The Sky Turns, a film that has been winning plaudits at festivals round the world, focuses on the final generation of a village in Spain that has witnessed over a thousand years and now has only 14 inhabitants. The perfectly framed shots and long takes capture a magnificent landscape, but are too distancing to encourage sympathy for, or empathy with, the characters. It adequately hints at a disappearing place but not enough, a personal way of life. A more preferable film that deals with a similar subject-matter, is Raymond Depardon’s Profils Paysans: le Quotidien.
Another documentary worth seeking out, that won the Universities Jury award for best feature documentary in the International Competition, is By the Ways (A Journey with William Eggleston), by Vincent Gérard e Cédric Laty. Measured and elliptical, aesthetically, it captures the photogapher’s slipperiness, his resistance to comment on his work, whilst at the same time presenting a vision of the Deep South and the small details of the landscape and life that have featured so much in his own work. Dennis Hopper, Tav Falco and David Byrne are amongst some of the interesting names interviewed. A must for Eggleston fans, it has several screenings during the ICA’s upcoming Eggleston season (17th November onwards).
Other highlights included Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s portrait of bear-enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who was killed along with his girlfriend in a bear attack in Alaska in 2003, and left behind video footage of his life lived in the wild trying to communicate and ‘protect’ the animals. Hubristic, self-delusional madman? Unsung naïf hero? In the final instance, perhaps a mixture of both. He’s another of Herzog’s extreme characters and his downfall is mesmeric to watch in this most cautionary of tales. Equally compelling is The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, a Finnish documentary about children in Russia and Chechnya, and a legacy of war and hatred. The first section introduces the audience to the lives of several boys at the Krondstadt Cadet Academy, mostly abandoned street children, who are there to learn discipline. The second, shot in black and white, follows Hadizhat Gateva, the woman who walks the ruins of Grozny, as she seeks out needy children. The third focuses on people living in the refugee area of Ingushetia. Serious, deliberate and filled with ominous detail, it’s exceptionally well-crafted and cinematic. The music is by turns dramatic, elegiac, haunting and portentous, and perfectly underscores the gravity of these people’s lives. The scene where Gateva comes to take away three small children from their ill mother is so shattering it is almost unbearable to watch. Screened here out of competition, it’s deserving of the numerous awards it has won worldwide.