“That arid wisdom that holds there is nothing new under the sun, because all the pieces in the meaningless game have been played, and all the great thoughts have already been thought. That is the verdict which critically determines the limits of possible experience.”
Besieged by information coming at us from all angles, incessantly, we supposedly have virtual access to everything everywhere and fewer and fewer chances to experience anything in person, libidinally. Once described as windows to the outside world, screens are becoming shields behind which we hide, putting everything but the familiar and innocuous at a safe distance. When the world around us manifests itself primarily through images and the latter are used to confirm our petty theories, fears, and prejudices, how are we to break through and reclaim reality? How can we reach out to the world instead of letting it come to us mediated, redacted, and ultimately disembodied? The loss of a communal dimension and the rise of collective solitude are depriving us of the innate curiosity that is in the eyes of every newborn. More and more, people seem to want their solipsistic visions and obsessions to be pampered, their thematic tastes endlessly affirmed. What lies outside the frame is no longer a source of enchantment and discovery but an unwanted detour, away from our comfort zone. Any audacious (documentary) film festival—like Doclisboa—must invert this tendencies, disclose synergies where there was automated division, pave the way to discovery instead of curating its own artistic ego, stimulate rather than gratify. The unexpected is the antidote to the algorithm of recommendations.
The Sound Before the Fury
Be it the programming of a festival lineup, the making of a movie, or a revolt in a maximum security jail, any ambitious undertaking should always aim at what common sense would deem improbable, if not outright impossible. The Sound Before the Fury by Lola Frederich and Martin Sarrazac, a profound film that is only superficially simple, is precisely about this. In the aftermath of the Attica prison revolt, Archie Shepp was inspired to record the jazz album Attica Blues. Over four decades later, Frederich and Sarrazac filmed Shepp and his big band preparing for their anniversary performance of the album at a jazz festival in France. Archival footage of the Attica revolt and testimony from its surviving protagonists are edited into the rehearsals, and out of this dialectic parallel emerges the (political) essence of creativity: the orchestrated effort to change, to imagine and implement, if only for a fleeting while, a world of beauty without chains. What links the historical images of prisoners transcending the barriers of race to question their captivity and those of musicians fine-tuning their collective performance is not only the obvious thematic link, but the shared position of unity in which both groups found themselves. In each case, the insurgent prisoners and Shepp's big band have to abandon individuality and recombine as a polymorphous, collective being in order to achieve their goals. Neither the musical performance nor the revolt that inspired it would in fact be possible without this conscious process of selfless union and solidarity.
While The Sound Before the Fury recounts the story of a success (though, in the case of Attica, bloodily suppressed), Belluscone by Franco Maresco tells in sarcastic detail the story a failure—namely, that of the director to complete a documentary about Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his connection with Sicily and the unlawful powers that govern the Italian island (i.e., the legendary Mafia). But the film is also about a more important failure, that of describing and documenting a reality that has long outstripped fiction and its outdated means of expression. The nature of Maresco’s failure at tracing the economic and cultural links between Berlusconi and the Mafia is in fact aesthetic; not even his cynical and absurdist style is enough to represent the insanity of a country in grotesque decline. Unlike the many and useless documentaries that have been made throughout the years on the “colorful” Italian politician/TV mogul/institutional pimp/self-made man/et cetera, Belluscone finally exposed Berlusconi for what he really is: the result and not the cause of his country's problems. The comical and criminal connections between him and the Mafia are nothing but the demented outcome of a situation that can no longer be documented in journalistic fashion, but only with(in) the theater of the absurd. That it took a manic-depressive genius to make the first valuable film on the mastermind of Italy's political circus only adds further evidence to the fact that we need new linguistic ways to describe a world spinning out of control—where “normalcy” often amounts to sheer delirium.
The necessity of finding a new way to comprehend and narrate our predicament lies at the stylistic core of Snakeskin. Daniel Hui’s ambitious but unpretentious film accepts the complexity of Singapore’s past and its multiple strains of subjectivity. One of the many schizophrenic creations of imperialism, the Southeast Asian island is here rendered through a sort of science-fiction cartography that traces this history as reflected in the landscape. In a similar but less dogmatic vein as Masao Adachi's “landscape theory,” with echoes of the Black Audio Film Collective, the film gives voice to the stories left unheard behind the walls that are built around history so that it can be learnt as a monolithic and unequivocal body of knowledge. The personal recollections of ethnic minorities, film impresarios, and the ghosts of the city coalesce into a polymorphic narrative intimately lensed but told in a choral voice.
Hit 2 Pass
A humanist road movie dressed in the pixelated grains of early archival digital images, Kurt Walker’s Hit 2 Pass is a pensive, circular journey into a remote corner of Canada and the iconography of videogames. A group of friends, all males, travels to take part in a “hit to pass” race—a kind of stock-car competition in which contestants must bump any car they pass—after fixing up an old automobile found in a godforsaken garage. The speed of the cars becomes irrelevant; it’s the humanity of the racetrack and its marginal world that counts, as we take the view of young souls faced with the ineluctability of adulthood. The space the film traverses is mostly interior, reconsidering and renegotiating the meaning of their trip and their life trajectories from different angles. Hit 2 Pass is an act of genuine and tender interrogation and self-discovery that explores the gap between the immaterial excitement of videogames and the complexity of life. Like the most humble and earnest first features, Walker's film is open about its own imperfections so as to carve out its own distinctive and tentative place in the saturated imaginary of contemporary cinema.
Besides the films, old and new but in all cases aimed at the present, what distinguishes Doclisboa from many other festivals is the capacity to create a space for encounters and exchange, for the celebration of bodies as well as minds. Even its schedule, which keeps mornings free of screenings, respects the much-suppressed need for human contact from which cinema has and will always originate. At a time when the economic blackmail of profit is shaping much of our cultural environment, the courage that Doclisboa displays in its choices is a beacon of determination (as opposed to vain hope) that is as inspiring as it is needed.