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Is Portuguese Cinema in Danger, or Does It Just Reflect a Country in Turmoil?

October 22, 2013 1:34 PM
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Miguel Gomes' 'Redemption'

"Portuguese cinema is in danger" reads a recent op-ed that appeared in the Portuguese daily newspaper Publico by filmmaker Miguel Gomes and his producer Luis Urbano. It's a strange assertion for Gomes, who simultaneous with the publication of his opinion piece premiered his found-footage short film Redemption at this year's Venice Film Festival. Just last year his feature-length Tabu opened at the Berlin Film Festival, winning the FIPRESCI award.

On the festival circuit of late, Portuguese cinema has been a prominent player evidenced in the slate of films showing at this year's New York Film Festival. Along with Gomes' Redemption, highlights include Joaquim Pinto's deeply personal documentary What Now? Remind Me (E Agora? Lembra-me), Joao Pedro Rodrigues' historically-themed short The King's Body (O Corpo de Afonso) and an entire program devoted to the avant-garde films of Sandro Aguilar. Many are filmmakers at NYFF for the second or third time. So why is Gomes ringing alarm bells? It's the economy, stupid. 

The major source of funding for Portuguese auteurs is the Portuguese Film Institute (ICA). A government body funded by taxes levied on pay TV operators it offers financing to filmmakers without the pressure of profits. Since it's not a private investment directors are left to focus on the art of filmmaking and not worry about box office returns.

Amidst a crippling financial crisis the Parliament ratified a law slightly raising the tax that directly funds the institute hoping to augment its budget. Turns out the big media companies were not onboard. So, they decided not to comply. Since last year they've refused to pay the tax and the ICA is penniless. For the second year in a row there has been a complete shutdown of funding for new films by the institute. It is not hyperbole when Gomes asserts, "a paralysis of the film sector is a very real threat." [translation mine]

The dried up well of funds in Portugal has already affected its film output. Since 2010 national productions have steeply declined. Still, a few high-profile films are making the rounds at the year's biggest festivals -- including the 51st New York Film Festival.

Most of the Portuguese films at NYFF were shot in the midst of the financial crisis. Ranging from the historical to the political and the personal they wrangle with despair and uncertainty in turbulent times albeit often with humor. The personal becomes political and the political, personal. 

'The King's Body'

Joao Pedro Rodrigues constructed a biographical reimagining of a historical figure that takes place completely in the present. The King's Body (O Corpo de Afonso), produced for the celebration of Guimaraes being chosen as the European Union's Capital of Culture in 2012, takes on the often mythologized Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. Galician men in various states of undress answer questions about Portuguese history standing in front of a green screen with muscles and tattoos blazing. None of them, including the guy awkwardly standing there in his pink Calvin Klein underwear, can name Portugal's first king. Then, a simple question about their profession offers some insight into the hardships that currently plague the country. Most of them are unemployed and looking for work. Others are hobbling together an income through various odd jobs: electricians, personal trainers, and teachers all moonlight as go-go dancers, strippers, or work bar jobs. Suddenly, a Portuguese saying that flashed on the screen early on comes to mind, "From a whore and a Galician the first Portuguese was born." By engaging these men in a conversation about Portugal's royal history the director provided an opportunity to testify to their present-day struggles.

In Redemption, Gomes focuses on four characters: a young boy in Portugal, an older man in Italy, a father in France, and a young bride in Germany all reveal intimate thoughts. Through melancholic and pensive voiceovers, the former film critic transports us across the globe and weaves back in forth in time. A tapestry of found footage, archival materials, and Super-8 home movies recounts their struggles with guilt, poverty, national politics, or a fear of betraying the socialist revolution. In their collective search for redemption once again politics becomes personal.

'What Now? Remind Me'

What Now? Remind Me (E Agora? Lembra-me) is Joaquim Pinto's video scrapbook of a trying year in which the longtime filmmaker turns the camera on himself. After exhausting the treatments available for HIV and Hepatitis C he enrolls in a grueling clinical trial in Madrid. The investigational drug has toxic side effects that at times leave him bedridden and forgetful. Lying down with the camera not far from his face he confesses that he's in a complete state of inertia; it's as if he's become disconnected from his body. He always finds a way to relate his pain poetically, "It's hard to breathe, lights and sounds hurt me." With old pictures, album covers, newspaper clippings, and book excerpts together with candid footage of the life he shares with his long-time partner and three dogs -- including their sex life -- we are drawn deep into his psyche. Close to three hours long it is a visual treatise of human existence, his development as a filmmaker, living with AIDS, politics, mortality, and his fading memories of, "moments written on the wind." Even in this intensely personal portrait a common theme returns. As Pinto watches the news Portugal's financial woes and steep unemployment rates are often the topic of discussion. At one point his medical treatment is in jeopardy. The Spanish government, in hopes of reeling in years of a recession, has made cuts to its social healthcare system and excluded foreigners from receiving medical benefits. The repercussions of a bureaucrat's political decision compound his already excruciating recovery. 

With the global economy in decline and Portugal being especially hard hit it's no surprise that government film funds are in jeopardy. But a more intriguing effect is how the economy has become a narrative thread woven into vastly different stories. The arts are a reflection of the culture they exist in, and contemporary Portuguese cinema is no exception.

This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year's New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.

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More: New York Film Festival, Critics Academy


  • Jonathan Holland | October 23, 2013 6:57 AMReply

    Good films turn "audiences" into "friends".

  • Name Removed | October 22, 2013 3:32 PMReply

    Editor's Note: At the commenter's request, we have removed the name from this comment.

    What is happening in Portugal is very simple. The directors where most of the funding from ICA goes are simply not interested in making films for the audience but for themselves and their friends. That means ICA is like a piggy bank from where everyone takes money but nobody puts it, and now that the piggy bank is empty they are complaining. Portuguese Cinema is not a charity and ICA needs to realize that.
    The ones who say that they are interested in making films for the audience are doing it just for the wrong reasons, that means their films are cinematographic garbage. And then they go to the TV and newspapers blaming their failure on the portuguese audience for not going to the movies. The portuguese audience goes to the movies, it is actually one of our favorite things to do, but with the garbage that is presented to us do they really expect us to come back?

  • Rafael Lino | October 23, 2013 3:40 PM

    To "P" (glad you identified yourself there, buddy) those films are not made for general audiences. No film made that way will have a chance with general audiences.

    If you say, well "audiences aren't smart enough" that's just fascist thinking and nothing else.

  • Rafael | October 23, 2013 3:35 PM

    [Name removed] is absolutely right, and you are all profoundly, deeply wrong. Portuguese cinema isn't even Portuguese - it's been dominated by Lisbon elites and the same group of people since state funding started 30 years ago. There has been no effort to find new voices or new thinking, and the same 10-30 people work over and over again.

    There is no domestic distribution of Portuguese film, outside of Lisbon. There is no desire for domestic distribution outside of Lisbon. Because ICA pays only for you to make the film, and doesn't finance distribution, every one of these "Portuguese" films have 2000-15 000 people watching them and then they vanish into oblivion. Mainstream distributors don't touch them. They shouldn't because no one wants to see them (that's normal, many of them are unwatchable unless in an arthouse setting).

    ICA isn't even anonymous, and everyone knows who the jury is, so pressure is applied every year for the right people to get the right amount of money. ICA assured Oliveira he would get his annual film even when he had to bend the rules to do it. It's institutionalized corruption and anyone with one eye and half a brain can see it. Let's not pretend otherwise.

    The fact that Miguel Gomes and his liking can't find any funding from private sources will show just how interested he is in not leaving his sweet spot of state funding. You can't compete with State funding either, by building a private film market because state funded films pay top dollar for their crew. So if you try to make a private film, you can't do it unless you have bundles of money or a great, large, specialized group of friends willing to work for fun or later compensation (Balas & Bolinhos did this and they made, dear lord, made money out of their films - something every Lisbon elitist says is absolutely impossible, "the market is too small and the people are too dumb" I've heard this from João Canijo\Botelho\Lopes everybody).

    On the sources of this money. This is a state levy that does no good to anyone but the Lisbon group, and I find incredible that Gomes actually lists one of the people who he says should "really" pay - Isabel dos Santos, a major shareholder in ZON and daughter of President Dos Santos from Angola. This is a woman who has stolen from her people under a dictatorial, repressive, murderous regime. And he says - that's fine, just pay me my money.
    Would he take Assad's money? Or Qaddafi's ? Would he take anyone's money so he could make his movies? This is blood money he takes so he can make his wonderful "freethinking" films. If Assad were to make "Tabu", should we applaud? How he can not see the hypocrisy in portraying colonial history while taking money from an African dictatorship?

    Look into his production company's films, editors of indiewire, and you'll find tons of films made solely for the purpose of absorbing state funding and nothing else. They are cynical looters. Yes they made "Tabu", and 10 other films that nobody ever saw. The fact that they occasionally make good films, well, if they didn't they would have to screw up real bad or really hate the profession (ICA funds something like 30 films a year, including shorts, and most of the people, well they screw up real bad and nobody ever sees their work).

    Without a distribution quota, such as the one that exists in France (and has actually encouraged a fine, healthy production industry!), the entire Portuguese system is nothing but bullcrap that deserves to be anihilated. The people who run it are cynical, and the people who benefit from it to make supposedly "free films" using a fascist-thinking funding are hypocrites.

  • Tiago | October 23, 2013 8:07 AM

    Maria. Because those festivals are a audience, not the audience. And you say they are being seen more abroad rather than in Portugal because of the funding? That makes no sense. And what you mean by "abroad"? Festivals? Please get informed.

  • maria | October 23, 2013 5:24 AM

    If Portuguese directors don't want to make films for the audience, then what the hell are those films doing in Venice, Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, etc, etc?
    Portuguese filmmakers are doing great films and they are being seen more abroad rather than in Portugal, and that's exactly because of this reason that Portuguese Cinema is not getting funded. ICA doens't have means because there is no political will from Portuguese government to force Portuguese cable tv providers to pay their taxes (if they would pay the 2,5EUR per costumer/year Portuguese Cinema would get the funding that so desperately needs), and also because of people who prefer to repeat (to the exhaustion) this brainless neo-liberal speech, instead of thinking about the theme or getting informed.

  • P | October 22, 2013 7:35 PM

    Dear [name removed], I'm curious to know if by chance you saw "Tabu", "The King Body" or "What Now? Remind Me"?

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