IndieLisboa: Time Warp
Lisbon is a city with a history of resilience. So, it was hardly a surprise when IndieLisboa announced it would be one of the first festivals to go ahead with live audiences following the coronavirus outbreak. When an earthquake devastated the Portuguese capital in 1755, Prime Minister Sebastião de Melo was quick to address the disaster. “What now?” he declared. “We bury the dead and feed the living!” His actions averted further deaths from famine and disease, and this decisiveness was evident when the Portuguese government declared a state of emergency within two days of their first Covid-19 death.
When faced with the reality of the pandemic, the IndieLisboa team moved quickly to reschedule this year’s event from its usual slot in May to late August. Being back in the cinema after months of lockdown felt, as the Germans say, unheimlich. Strangely familiar, yet unlike anything we’re used to. This sense of unease was articulated in Martin Reinhart and Virgil Widrich’s experimental film “TX-Reverse.” In the 1990s, Reinhart pioneered a new technique called “tx-transform,” in which the spatial and temporal axes of a film are reversed. Equipped with an OmniCam-360 camera, Reinhart and Widrich use the same technique to film the Babylon cinema in Berlin. The result is a hallucinatory panoramic of the theater, where a timeless vortex makes static items like chairs and walls miraculously disappear, and moving objects become distorted beyond recognition. To most of us, time feels real: we run out of time or we never have enough time. However, one of the consequences of the pandemic has been the feeling that time has been suspended — the standard markers of its passing erased by the repetition of lockdown. The feeling of being caught in an endless loop is recreated here, with time not just being paused but stretched beyond the limits of our imagination. Illustrating Albert Einstein’s theory that the distinction between past, present, and future is merely an illusion, TX-Reverse is a disorienting investigation into the possibilities of cinematic time.
Our relationship with time, and how we experience it, was a recurring theme at this year’s festival, something best observed in C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s eight-hour epic, The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin). Recorded over a period of fourteen months, in Japan’s Kyoto Prefecture, the film is a fictionalized biopic about Tayoko Shiojiri, an aging farmer struggling to care for her ailing husband. “We want you to feel free to live inside the film for the day,” Winter explained to the audience before the film began. “There will be times when you’re awake, and times when you’re tired. There might even be times when you want to take a nap, and that’s fine. The film will still be here when you wake up.” A verdant epic of agrarian labor and intimate moments, the film’s intimidating runtime is wholly justified, with the slow passage of time generating a form of detached immersion, allowing for a deeper connection with Tayoko and her surrounding environment.
A cinematic georgic, broken up into five parts, each of the film’s three intermissions is preceded by complete darkness, in which only the sound of indistinct conversations and the surrounding wilderness can be heard. These brief moments of inactivity provide the viewer with an opportunity to reacclimatize themselves to Tayoko’s world. This awareness of how cinematic time differs from reality is what separates the film from similar examples of slow cinema, where duration is often felt rather than experienced. The languid rhythms of Tayoko’s life are interrupted with snapshots of the surrounding landscape. Images of trees swaying gently to the dawn chorus of birdsong depicts the presence of nature as a kind of coalescing force. These bucolic scenes prove integral to understanding how these characters interact, existing as they do against a deterministic landscape bristling with somber emotions and unspoken fears about the future.
These scenes are bookended by bustling dinner sequences in which food and drink are consumed in vast quantities. Conversations range from discussions about how high heels were invented, and the literary works of Seichō Matsumoto, to how there aren’t enough young people left to run the neighborhood association. Villages like these in Japan have been shrinking for decades, due to the young migrating to the big cities for work. Although jovial in their nature, these scenes are tinged with sadness and a nagging sense that once this generation passes away, the village will too. Certain films, like certain landscapes, stay with you long after you leave them, and The Works and Days is one such film — a tender and unforgettable portrait of a community on the brink of extinction.
One of the defining images of the pandemic was the sight of Edward Colston’s statue being pulled down in Bristol. Since then, statues commemorating former slave traders have been toppled across the globe. This was the case in Lisbon too, where a statue of Padre António Vieira was recently vandalized. Once praised for protecting the rights of the indigenous tribes of Brazil, it was recently discovered that he was a supporter of the selective slavery of African people. “Decolonization” was spray painted on the base of his statue, and red hearts drawn on the indigenous children that surround him. This hunger to confront the nation’s colonial past was reflected in the inclusion of Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra’s All the Dead Ones in the festival’s competition.
Set in 1899, eleven years after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, All the Dead Ones is a film that luxuriates in period details. The story focuses on the women of the Soares family, heiresses of a coffee plantation who have fallen on hard times. The family’s matriarch, Isabel (Thaia Perez), is starting to show signs of aging, and the recent death of her maid, Josefina (Alaíde Costa), has left her feeling even more disconnected from the outside world. Her troubled daughter, Ana (Carolina Bianchi), takes it upon herself to solve the problem by inviting one of their former slaves, Iná (Mawusi Tulani), to the house to perform an ancient African ritual that she thinks will cure her mother, the same ritual that originally got her kicked out of the Soares’ plantation.
A period drama that constantly threatens to burst from the seams of its tightly wound bodice, All the Dead Ones is perhaps best viewed as a conceptual ghost story. However, it isn’t the past that haunts the house but the present. As the women fight to preserve their bourgeois sense of integrity, the film becomes a compelling study in foreground and background tensions, with elements of modern-day São Paulo slowly permeating the frame, first through incongruous noises, like the distant sound of a passing car or helicopter, and then through less subtle means, like glimpses of a graffiti-covered wall or a nearby tower block. Understanding how urban landmarks draw us towards the past, this intrusion of the present-day into a historical narrative forces the audience to ask, “Is this happening now?” The dual meaning of this question suggests that the legacy of slavery will never be eradicated as long as those who traded in human flesh are venerated in bronze and marble.
Some believe the pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a better future. Others fear it will make existing injustices worse. We still don’t know how long the outbreak will last, but there was a sense of optimism at this year’s IndieLisboa. Change takes time, but if this year’s program taught us anything, it’s that Einstein was right. “Time is relative, and it’s only worth depends upon what we do as it is passing.”
Top image: Martin Reinhart and Virgil Widrich’s “TX-Reverse”
The 2020 IndieLisboa took place between August 25 and September 5.