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Debunking the Portuguese 'saudade'?

66th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

notes by Michiel Philippaerts

Debunking the Portuguese 'saudade'?

The oldest short film festival in the world rolled out its red carpet for the 66th time this year, albeit completely digitally this time. In a normal world the events in Oberhausen would have coincided with those of the French mother of all film festivals, but the global Covid19-crisis ultimately forced Thierry Frémaux to his knees and Cannes 2020 was cancelled entirely. This, of course, meant that many cinephiles worldwide eyed an empty Croisette, in need for a 'fix'. Did this starving group find solace in the selection of the German, less conventional festival? Those who checked out the Country Focus certainly did.

For the very first time in its rich history, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen programmed a Country Focus. Lars Henrik Gass’ team didn’t make an obvious choice when choosing Portugal. The country has been a trendy attraction for European travellers for several years, but never has it been the obvious go-to for average film lovers. This is, naturally, partly due to the strict dictatorship of "good man" Salazar, which made it challenging to make a certain kind of cinema. At the same time, the indifference of the Portuguese public towards its national cinema also contributed to that, as Portugal remains one of the European countries with the lowest cinema attendance for its proper local productions. Arthouse critics might swoon over the work of Manoel de Oliveira and Paulo Rocha, but the average Portuguese cinema enthusiast stayed at home. That made it very hard to facilitate the development of a strong national cinema culture.

However, over the past two decades, the South-European country has been working hard to put itself on the cinematic map. It even birthed two grandmasters: Miguel Gomes and Pedro Costa. One characterized by a formalistic playfulness, the other by dark pictorialism - both adored by great hordes of critics and filmmakers, both also marked by a complex relationship with that self-proclaimed "most important film festival in the world" on the Côte d'Azur. Such giants can easily cast a shadow over lesser-known filmmakers, which makes it intriguing to further investigate the new players entering the short film circuit.

How does this all translate to the selection Indie Lisboa-programmer Miguel Valverde composed for Oberhausen? Valverde divided his guest program into three sections: All About Us, Future is Present and Strange is Fine, each consisting of five shorts that were made between 2010 and 2019. A way for Valverde to keep a finger on the pulse on Portuguese cinema, a task that obviously suits him well as programmer of the best visited film festival in his country.


All About Us can be interpreted quite literally: Valverde chose five short films that focus on "the Portuguese" and their psyche. In 'Onde o Verão Vai (episódios da juventude)' David Pinheiro Vicente even tries to stuff as many attractive twenty-somethings as possible in one shot, forcing one of the protagonists to stick his head out of the crowded, sweltering car to breath. When the title card appears, the colours and sounds create a libidinous ode to summer — à la ‘Call Me By Your Name’. Another parallel is to be found in Louisiana Mees’ short film ‘Waithood’ from the same year (2018). Does Vicente also portray a disillusioned youth, trapped in a liminal state of eternal game, fully assigned to eacht other? It doesn't seem an unreasonable assumption. Curious to find out if Mees and Vicente crossed each other during Indie Lisboa 2018, where they were both selected that year.

In contradiction to this collective psyche we discover personal soul-stirring in the essayistic 'Où en êtes-vous, João Pedro Rodrigues?' by infamous queer filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues ('O Ornitólogo'). “Where am I,” the director wonders, while we’re forced to look at the man’s penis thanks to a cleverly framed medium shot. His musings, assisted by incoherent home videos, are always vaguely poetic, but the whole is too autobiographical and the links between image and text are too far-fetched to have a real impact on the audience. It proves that the All About Us-section is at its strongest when the focus is on ‘us’, rather than ‘me’.

Look at Leonor Teles' ‘Balada de um Batráquio’ for example, in which the filmmaker exposes xenophobia in her home country through a string of strong metaphors. Or ‘O Que Arde Cura’ in which João Rui Guerra da Mata, João Pedro Rodrigues’ partner, uses the Portuguese forest fires of 1988 as an allegory for a blistering romance. Da Mata strikes intriguing links between the personal and the historical, without it ever feeling too constructed. These are two perfect examples of short films that tell something about their country in a very culture-specific way.


In the second section, Valverde determinedly opts for meta-cinema that dares to look into the future. This kind of self-reflexive filmmaking can easily become annoying, but we’re saved from that due to Valverde’s on-point curation. Most explicit in its references to cinema: ‘The Great Attractor’ by Rita Figueiredo, a feverish space epic composed of archive material. Figueiredo examines the shadowy boundary between the urge to explore and self-destruction through beautiful editing. The human obsession with movement is put central and the theme is at its most powerful when images of a space exercise are unexpectedly linked to the first experiments of Muybridge.

Jorge Jácomo's fittingly titled ‘Past Perfect’ clearly bears the stamp of Le Fresnoy, the French postdoctoral research center for audiovisual art that seems to focus very specifically on unorthodox video essays. In his poetic film about nostalgia, he glues distorted images of fake dinosaurs and a gorgeous sunset together in an elliptical montage, but he also directly asks how our visual culture generates or even shapes that nostalgia. Read a full review on Jácomo’s film here.

Maybe we should mention those two contemporary Portuguese grandmasters again? A young man is sucked into a greenscreen in Diogo Baldaia’s ‘Destiny Deluxe’: a playful intervention that almost openly refers to Miguel Gomes - just like the musical interludes (80's synthesizers & Portuguese pop) woven throughout the film. Narratively the film wanders on aimlessly until we arrive at the coast of Nazaré — a well-informed tourist knows that the highest waves in Europe can be measured here. Under a blue filter, coming from an enchanting moonlight, some young people are frolicking in the sea, echoing Pedro Costa's stylistic signature in elegant chiaroscuros. But what is the purpose? Like his characters, Baldaia seems a bit lost and loses himself in a hollow and all-over-the-place style exercise.


Oh meu Deus: Portuguese genre fun and extravagant colour explosions are collected in this last section. Although we would like to note that the films are not less serious here. For example, Patrick Mendes’ ‘A herdade dos defuntos’ bears the characteristics of a grainy exploitation film at first sight, but also harbours a sharp critique on neo-liberalism. In ‘Barba’ Paulo Abreu uses the silent film to tell a story about "the origin of Portugal". We follow four prehistoric humans who wander over snowy mountain peaks, when one finds a hollow leg and thus seems to invent cinema. An audio snippet at the end links it all up to the 2008 financial crisis, when the Troika pledged financial aid to Portugal in exchange for strong economizations — all a bit too thoughtful, but nevertheless a remarkable film, with a leading role for slow cinema filmmaker André Gil Mata, whose short film ‘Casa’ is also included in the program.

In ‘Ao lobo da Madragoa’ Pedro Bastos builds a tight tribute to the 18th-century satirical poet António Lobo de Carvalho, also known as “the wolf of Madragoa”. His poetry was famous for irreverent and sexually explicit writings that went against Christian morality. Bastos transforms that into picturesque taboos, populated by naked females that are exposed to emblematic Catholic hypocrisy. A puny piece of non-narrative cinema, which is positioned mainly as a beautiful homage to the Portuguese tradition of depreciating sacred houses. Here, too, the director opts for a thorough formal exercise to render an interesting interaction between social and political subtext — arguably, the main thread of this section of the program.


In addition to thematic similarities, Valverde also discovers fascinating visual motifs (lava flows, purple hues, naked bodies), but the great constant throughout his program appears to be a certain cerebral aspect: a big chunk of theory remains hidden underneath every film. Something to be admired for sure, as it produces thought-provoking cinema. But - and we unfortunately can't get around that – it can also be a natural turnoff for those audiences who prefer to experience cinema through the heart. A challenging selection that fits Oberhausen’s quirky profile perfectly and is also an indispensable addition to Gomes and Costa — giving colour to the versatility of the land of the Lusitanians.

One more thing. Something we have noticed when encountering Portuguese cinema in the past: the (over)use of a (whispering) voice-over. Often melancholic, sometimes poetic, rarely 100% convincing. We've always attributed it to that Portuguese “saudade”, with a forgiving shrug and wink. Good news though: it’s a cliché that was largely invalidated by Miguel Valverde and his curational decisions. Mission accomplished?

© Images

1 'Balada de um Batráquio' (Leonor Teles)
2 'Onde o Verão Vai (episódios da juventude)’ (David Pinheiro Vicente)
3 'Past Perfect' (Jorge Jacome)
4 'A herdade dos defuntos' (Patrick Mendes)

This article was previously published in Dutch on Kortfilm.be.