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Films with a political or socially conscious pulse at DOCLISBOA

“The Whole World Fits in Lisbon” is the rallying cry of Doclisboa’s sixth annual blitz of international documentaries that rains down on the Portuguese capital October 16-26. Rousing words indeed for Lisbon audiences who, still hungover from Portugal’s Age of Discovery, crave global stories that the inward-looking media tends to eschew.

And that’s the big seduction of the country’s sole festival dedicated to nonfiction films. In its short trackrecord, Doclisboa has cultivated a public of moviegoers that flocks to its issue-heavy themes for entertainment and a way out of the sense of isolation that still pervades the nation nearly 35 years after the fall of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. In 2007, 33,000 people came out for their documentary fix—up 20,000 from a scant three years before—including many who took their annual vacation to do so.

Showcasing films with a political or socially conscious pulse is not only an audience builder, it’s a Doclisboa strategy for enlightening decisionmakers and even for affecting change—and not just locally. Last year head of direction and programming Sérgio Tréfaut seized on the EU Summit in Lisbon to alert European premiers to US torture practices in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, as exposed in Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side.

Though no such forum graces Lisbon this time around, Doclisboa 2008 continues its romance with newsworthy themes among its 150 titles and peppy program of panels, industry breakfasts and parties. Highlights include a retrospective of 11 Frederick Wiseman classics, with the eminence on hand to parry questions and teach a masterclass. Also on offer is “Made in China,” a section tracking the individual in Chinese society since 1994 as lensed by Zhang Yuang, Jia Zhang-Ke and Huang Wenhai, among other directors made in China. And a sidebar spotlights former Portuguese colony Mozambique, whose national film archives are currently being restored with the aid of Doclisboa parent Apordoc (The Portuguese Documentary Association).

As in previous editions, this year’s festival hosts “Filmed Diaries and Portraits,” “New Vision” and “International Competition” sections as well as a joust among Portuguese submissions. Three debut sections are “New Families/ New Identities,” “Docs 4 Kids” and music-themed “Heart Beat,” spanning Daniel Schmid’s Il Baccio di Tosca and Scott Hicks’s Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts.

Films that come with special buzz are Maradona by Kusturica, by Emir Kusturica; Standard Operating Procedure, by Errol Morris; Z32, by Avi Mograbi’ Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson; and Jogo de Cena, by Eduardo Coutinho, who also holds down a masterclass.
International contenders vie for three prizes: the City of Lisbon award for best feature documentary, a 15, 000 € bounty; the Odisseia award for first documentary, at 3,500 €; and the Johnnie Walker award for short documentary, which decants 3,000 €. Journalist Jonathan Rosenbaum, producer Joana Vicente and photographer Nan Golden are among the jurors deciding these fates. Of the four prizes in the Portuguese competition, Sony metes out 3,000 € plus an HD Camera to the winning first documentary.

With its deinsulating mission and thoughtfully curated slate—this year pared down from 1,300 submissions --Doclisboa enjoys bragging rights as a purveyor of media that matters. As Tréfaut explained, this extends beyond immediate festivalgoers to include distributors seeking theatrical and TV product and news outlets considering grabby angles for what they deem tough-sell global stories. “Portugal is a country that is narcotized,” said Tréfaut. Whetting public and media appetites for the world beyond its borders is the festival’s niche and passion.

Its fervor to move past what Tréfaut calls a “provincial mentality” also applies to the film industry. The 11-day revelries in Culturgest, Londres Cinema and São Jorge Cinema include a seminar reassessing the Portuguese documentary tradition of profiling artists, which Tréfaut describes as an “Estates-General” to counsel on “the artist film plague…or how to finish for once and for all with biographies about non-fascinating topics.”

As opposed to many other European countries, like France and Germany, where TV is the main documentary funder, Portugal defrays some 80 percent of a film’s budget through the Portuguese Film Institute. However enviable, this cushy scene has its downside. Said Tréfaut, “Nobody who makes a film is pressured by a producer, which is not necessarily a good thing--there’s a lack of dialogue and a lack of producers, including line producers.” He added, “I’m not complaining about not having a dictatorship from TV, but often the films are not as good as they could be.” While Doclisboa celebrates those that are, champions of the artform like Tréfaut see the festival as a goad to a brighter and less isolated future of nonfiction filmmaking and watching in Portugal.
by Laura Blum

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