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Lisbon Story: New Doc Fest Fosters Auteur Approach

By Carol Nahra

From Kim Longinotto's <em>Divorce Iranian Style</em>

It sounds pretty good to American ears. In Portugal, if a documentary is funded by the national film institute, television is required to broadcast it. Thus, filmmakers are guaranteed an audience but aren’t constrained by broadcasting dictates. Such a policy has made for an auteur approach to doc-making that was very much in evidence in the first annual DocLisbon, which ran for eight days in June. Both the national and international prize-winning docs were epic, authored documentaries—the former, Regina Guimãraes’ four-hour film Dentro, about a re-working of Aesychlus’ Oresteia by Portuguese prison inmates, and the latter, the five-hour Tiexi District by first-time Chinese director Wang Bing. The rest of the films proved equally eclectic and challenging, making for a stimulating program that demonstrated the breadth of the genre.

DocLisbon’s director Luis Correia says that the Portuguese doc industry’s biggest challenge is to achieve more European co-productions so that filmmakers aren’t overly dependent on the film institute for funding. Hence the ongoing cooperation with the European Documentary Network, which has run a pitching workshop in Lisbon for the past four years, and ran this year’s session concurrently with the film festival. Both events took place in the lavish white-stoned Centro Cultural de Belem, with wonderful views of the Lisbon harbor.

Like many festivals, the sessions with filmmakers offered memorable insights into the craft of documentary. EDN organized a day-long session featuring Britsh filmmaker Kim Longinotto talking about documentary ethics. Longinotto had just returned from eight weeks filming in Kenya for her new film The Day I'll Never Forget, about female genital mutilation. While there, she filmed the circumcisions of two young sisters, an event she says was the most distressing she’s witnessed. “We couldn’t have stopped it; it was going to be done. I knew that in my mind, but emotionally it felt like the most shattering, terrible thing. Mary, who did the sound, said her life has been divided between before she filmed that and after....And I’m sure lots of people are going to be very critical of us.”

This is not Longinotto's first foray into difficult arenas. In Divorce Iranian Style, she secured unprecedented access to a Tehran divorce courtroom, and observed wives passionately arguing to leave their husbands. In such difficult times, Longinotto says, the camera fades into insignificance. “If you’re in a life-and-death situation, you forget the camera is there. Every scene is different and every situation is different. If there’s a drama going on which is its own drama, then you don’t matter.”

At the same workshop, Danish filmmakers Sami Saif and Jonas Frederiksen spoke about their experience making the remarkable, feature-length doc Family, which won the Joris Ivens award at Amsterdam this year. The film chronicles Saif’s search for his father, following the suicide of his brother and death of his mother. It’s a story full of surprises, filmed in Copenhagen and Yemen. Saif directed the film with co-director and partner Phie Ambo-Nielson. Frederiksen, a fellow film school student, produced it, securing Danish Film Institute funds and leveraging the trio’s salaries in the process.

The young filmmakers eschewed the normal European reliance on television money. “What is important when you make documentaries is you get the freedom to make the story,” says Saif. “I said from the very beginning I don’t want TV in this film because I don’t want anyone messing around with this story about myself. It was very important to have the freedom to say ‘I don’t know where this is going; I cannot tell you anything; let’s just see what happens.’”

The filmmakers ultimately decided to make a heartstring-tugging film that would earn a theatrical release. Says Saif, “We wanted to go into theatres, saying, ‘Okay, this is documentary material. We want people to understand this pain about losing everything and suddenly gaining everything.’ So it runs in a storytelling way, with a very simple classical struggle.”

In addition to using Cinemascope and an original score by a Prague symphony orchestra, the filmmakers hired an editor with fiction film experience to help shape the doc for theatrical screenings. They told him to create a storyline that would make people laugh and cry. “I was very happy after the first screening when I saw people with red eyes,” says Saif. “I also wanted a happy ending which said life is good; we just have to do some hard things.”

For a first-time festival, DocLisbon attracted an impressive crowd of young attendees. “I’m very happy with the results,” says Correia. “It was an adventure because we started with nothing.” In future years he hopes to develop collaborations with other festivals around the world and a range of doc-related activities to run alongside the films. “The idea of the festival is not only to show and discover films, but also to create a balance among scholarship, master classes, pitching sessions and workshops.”


Carol Nahra is a freelance journalist based in London. She can be reached at