Mapping Contemporary Cinema

A short guide to post-recession Portuguese cinema

Since 2007, Portugal has been one of the nations in Europe which has most suffered as a result of the global economic crisis. The continuous rise of its public debt, austerity measures and financial bailouts have resulted in the cutting of art funding across all sectors. According to film scholar Belén Vidal, “After the implementation of a so-called rescue package, severe cuts across a number of sectors ensued; culture, including film, were no exception. The new government, elected in June 2011, just two months after the bailout was agreed, dismantled the Ministry of Culture and suspended all public funding for the audio-visual sector”, including cuts to the Portuguese Film Institute (ICA) (135). Filmmaker Miguel Gomes responded by stating that “Portuguese cinema is in danger!” (qtd. in IndiewireTeam). Through a tax on television production, the ICA had allowed young Portuguese filmmakers the financial means to make films without the added pressure of generating profits. Due to the financial crisis the government proposed a slight taxation rise which the television operators refused resulting in no financial aid whatsoever between 2012 and 2014. Journalist Alexandra Lucas Coelho called this period “ the year zero of Portuguese cinema” (qtd. in Coelho). However, the economic crisis and austerity measures didn’t result in the death of Portuguese cinema. On the contrary, the film industry has managed to adapt.

Miguel GomesGomes and João Salaviza are two Portuguese filmmakers who proved that the economic crisis has had a positive impact on the industry. In 2012, the year funding at the ICA was cut, these filmmakers attained major prizes in Europe’s most important film festivals. At the Berlin Festival, Gomes won the Alfred Bauer and the FIPRESCI awards for his feature film Tabu (2012), whilst Salaviza brought home the award for best short film with Rafa (2012). Furthermore, since then, filmmaker Joaquin Pinto won three prizes (Silver Bear, FRIPESCI and Young Juri) at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2013 with his film What Now? Remind Me (2013), Pedro Costa and João Pedro Rodrigues won the prize for Best Director in the 2014 and 2016 International Locarno Film Festival for their films Horse Money (2014) and Ornithologist (2016), respectively. In 2016, Leonor Teles with Batrachian’s Ballad (2016), and Diogo Amarante with Small Town (2017) in 2017 won the Berlin Festival prize for Best Short.

Gomes is indicative of how Portuguese filmmakers have reacted to the crisis. His long feature films have always been limited by budget cuts, but he has shown that this can be used in a positive way. In his first feature film O Meu Querido Mes de Agosto (2008), what was meant to be a simple fiction film but the budget ran out halfway through. This didn’t discourage Gomes who realised the only way out was to start filming it as a documentary without the actors and adapt the script on a daily basis depending on what was filmed. What was meant to be the story of a father, daughter and cousin returning to their village to celebrate the rural summer parties of Portugal. As the funding failed, the director was forced to use real people from the villages they were shooting in. This resulted in the film gaining a new dimension, not only providing us with his original story of a father’s opposition to his daughter’s love for her cousin, but also giving us an insight on the Portuguese émigrés whom return home during the summer holidays. Furthermore the filmmaker decided to include himself in the film, as we see him discussing with his producer the reason they can’t make the film as planned, and these scenes  almost become a film within a film. Through his smart improvisation Gomes managed not only to display a more unknown and simple side of Portugal and its émigré population but also shed light on the terrible condition of the Portuguese film industry.

TabuHis prized film Tabu, also had to adapt as a result of running out of money during production. Although this time the film’s narrative was established, a co-writer, editor and Gomes himself were forced to conceive on a daily basis the scenes to be filmed the next day, depending on what they had at their disposal. Gomes did this in a very smart way, without making obvious the lack of funding. Tabu  is divided in two parts: Lost Paradise and Paradise. The first part takes place in Lisbon and focuses on a lonely old lady named Pilar. She is the neighbour of Aurora, an even older lady who hides a past full of mystery and adventure which Pilar seems to envy. Nevertheless, Pilar can’t help but feel the need to aid whoever is in need, and when Aurora is hospitalised she vows to find her long lost and mysterious lover Ventura. In the second part of the film, we follow Ventura’s adventures in Africa, where everything changes, as if we were transported to the past. In this part, there is no more dialogue, only Ventura’s voice over describing his adventures as an young explorer in Africa and how he met Aurora. The incredible thing about this second part, is not only the way it provided a solution to Gomes’s lack of money, but rather how he does it by taking the viewer into Portugal’s colonial past and a story of lost and forbidden love which so many Portuguese couples lived through. However, the spectator is also taken to the past of silent movies, with the elimination of dialogue and Gomes adapting a pre-1930s cinematographic style and letting the music lead the action. The name of the film itself was borrowed from Murnau’s Tabu (1931) which clearly inspired the visuals.

3Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (2014) is another film which draws heavily from the cinematography of Murnau, with his many extreme close ups turning his subjects into almost other worldly characters amidst the heavy shadows of his claustrophobic mis-en-scene. Furthermore, his film deals with the neglect of African immigrants after the fall of the dictatorship, showing again a preoccupation not only in bringing back the nostalgic and universal feeling of a lost cinematography but also in touching on matters of vital national importance. Also, most of the actors are real people who lived and live the same desolate lives as the characters portrayed. Ventura, the main character of Horse Money, is the same Ventura from Gomes’s Colossal Youth (2006) and in both films he depicts the alienated and forgotten residents of the Lisbon slums. Even though the decision of using real actors and a minimal crew of little more then three people are Costa’s preferred method of practice, he recently acknowledged in a workshop at the Barbican Centre that these decisions were very much influenced by the lack of funding.

Vidal argues that even though the Portuguese cinema is suffering, the crisis is manageable due to the fact that the sector has always been in crisis. For Vidal, Portuguese cinema seems to have enabled itself to react in a way it never did before and ‘“the crisis has allowed for a maturation of the turn to the transnational. The year 2012 marks Portuguese cinema’s dismissal of the national question and a commitment to international affirmation” (146). As writer João Maria Mendes points out, the Portuguese cinema was so dependent on public subsidies aiding its productions and had so little international distribution that it kept itself marginalised from major European film circles (102). This explained its parochial national focus. With the loss of this funding Portuguese filmmakers have displayed an eagerness to associate themselves with a more international cinema and have started to find references, parallels and inspiration in other national film cultures (Alvarez 104).

We must also acknowledge how today’s Portuguese society inherited its past forms from the dictatorship of the New State, the Carnation Revolution of 1974 and the consumerism promoted by the Third Republic. Film theorist Ivan Alvarez recognises this, and states that “Portuguese cinema, in parallel, reflects society’s imaginary, where there are always past continuities and international influences. It is for this reason, that younger filmmakers, especially the post-modern ones, work in the intersection between national cinema and transnational cinema, resulting in a network of relatively de-rooted international empathies” (109). As noted above, this is clearly seen in the work of recent directors such as Gomes and Costa, amongst others. Nevertheless, these same filmmakers also clearly draw inspiration from their own national cinema with Gomes’s My Dear Month of August (2008) and 1001 Nights (2014) drawing from the docufiction genre pioneered in Portugal by Manoel de Oliveira with his film The Act of Spring (1963). Alvarez goes as far as to say that “the work of recognising such references becomes part of a game which postmodern filmmakers establish with their audience, though Miguel Gomes doesn’t simply use them but rather adapts them in order to integrate the whole in his own creative universe (110). This results in a more global reception internationally where national frontiers are broken down via the universality of the cinematic language.

Despite the success of these new filmmakers, some argue that films are part of a wider problem with the Portuguese film industry. Filmmaker José Farinha believes that cinema must be treated like a business for the first thing a film must do is to turn a profit and be seen by as many people as possible (qtd. in Athayde). Furthermore, director José Carlos de Oliveira is of the opinion that cinema is an industrial art and not made by individualist acts, having as their goal the maximum attraction of an audience (qtd. in Athayde). This seems to point to the problematic that film festival culture can sometimes reduce a national cinema to only one or two people, as happened with Manoel de Oliveira and seems to be happening now with Gomes and Costa in particular. Nevertheless, whilst de Oliveira was the only resonant Portuguese name in international waters for over half a century, today, every year a new talented filmmaker seems to emerge, as Leonor Teles and Diogo Amarante seem to be proving. A paradoxical situation has emerged, with some discouraging young filmmakers from pursuing an auteurist approach and imploring them to please the main national audience and with the fact that these filmmakers will only be acknowledged nationally if they are first recognised internationally. However, film writer Tiago Baptista believes that “the pre-dominant ideas about what ‘our’ country is (or isn’t), exclude very silently but also very efficiently many other people, memories and experiences about what is life, work and leisure is in Portugal” (322). The most popular film in Portugal in 2012, for example, was Morangos com Açucar  (2012) , a feature film spinoff of a teen-oriented telenovela, depicting the lives of good looking, popular teenagers and hence failing to acknowledge the country’s social and political diversity and difficulty. Hence, I must side with this new generation of filmmakers such as Gomes or even more recently Telles, who as author Mette Hjort claims “show a resistance to globalisation as cultural homogenisation and a commitment to ensuring that certain economic realities associated with filmmaking do not eclipse the pursuit of aesthetic, artistic, social, and political values”(15). They are filming the world through Portugal in order to place Portugal in it.

Alvaréz, Ivan Villarmea. “Mudar de Perspetiva: A Dimensão Transnacional do Cinema Português Contemporâneo”. Aniki: Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image, 3.1 (2016): 101-120. Print.

Athayde, Manaíra. “Cinema Português, um Cenário e Outros Filmes…”. FactMag. 21 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 Mar. 2017.

Baptista, Tiago. “Nacionalmente correcto: A inveção do cinema português”, Revista Estudos do Século XX, 9 (2009): 307-323. Print.

Ďurovičová, Natasa, and Kathleen E. Newman. World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

IndieWire Team. “Is Portuguese Cinema in Danger, Or Does it Just Reflect a Country in Turmoil”. IndieWire. 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 4 Mar. 2017.

Mendes, João Maria. Novas e Velhas Tendências no Cinema Português Contemporâneo. Lisboa: Gradiva, 2013. Print.

Vidal, Belén & Kourelou, Olga & Liz, Mariana. “Crisis and Creativity: The New Cinemas of Portugal, Greece and Spain”, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, 12.1.2 (2014): 133-151. Print.

Written by Jose Miguel Esteves Caldeira (2017); Queen Mary, University of London

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