Back in 2016, the Czech journalist Saša Uhlová rigged herself with a secret camera and ground through six inhumane months in the most precarious, low-paid, brutal jobs she could find. Before long, Uhlová’s footage was stitched into a documentary by Apolena Rychlíková, The Limits of Work (2017), one difficult moment amongst many at Doclisboa’18 Film Festival in Lisbon. While Rychlíková’s experiment in investigative journalism revealed many expected barbarities, its most surprising elucidation was that one of today’s most taxing jobs is also one of the most visible: that of the supermarket cashier, forever exchanging food for money beneath bright lights and constant pressure.
Renowned as a rigorous and explorative exhibit of how the real can be transmitted through the lens, Doclisboa’s 2018 programme ranged from the strange wistfulness of teenage romance – Miguel Gomes's Entretanto (1999), which softly traces a summer love affair between three Portuguese teens – to struggles against fascist ideology in Europe – Ruth Beckermann’s The Waldheim Waltz (2018), a collage of news footage recalling the effort of activists to expose the Nazi past of Austrian diplomat and former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. Europe’s problem of resurgent fascism is, of course, not unrelated to the labour circumstances depicted in The Limits of Work. The rise of right wing parties is deeply coupled to the ability of their cynical politicians to capitalize on the anger of the over-worked and underpaid. Thus, in its ability to gather such apparently divergent films within one ten-day programme, Doclisboa offered a broad but crystalline depiction of the world we live in.
Not everyone appreciated this effort. On 11 October, one week before the festival’s opening, the first counsellor at the Turkish Embassy in Lisbon, Zeynep Kaleli, met with Cíntia Gil, co-director of Doclisboa. His gripe was the festival’s use of phrases ‘Armenian genocide’ and ‘annihilation of Kurdish people’ in the written material accompanying Yilmaz Güney and Şerif Gören’s film, Yol: The Full Version (2017). Yol depicts the lives of several Kurdish prisoners and their loved ones during periods of temporary release. Produced by Güney, an exiled Kurdish actor and director, and Gören, his assistant, the film was for banned in Turkey for 35 years. On the same day that Kaleli and Gil met, the Ukrainian embassy in Lisbon requested that Doclisboa pull from its programme Aliona Polunina’s Their Own Republic (2018), which documents the lives and operations of a battalion in the Donetsk People’s Republic, a tiny proto-state that is aligned with Russia in the war against Ukraine. On 12 October, Doclisboa unequivocally rejected the attempted censures. In this, they were supported by both the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a number of other film festivals, which together comprise Doc Alliance, a pan European association of festivals.
Doclisboa’s programme itself operated as testimony to why we should be thankful for similar acts of solidarity in the face of censorship. The Silence of Others (2018), from Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, documents the struggle of victims of Francisco Franco’s brutal Spanish dictatorship to bring the despot’s surviving cronies to justice. It was precisely the attempt to speak freely that inspired Franco’s regime to torture and murder the subjects (and plaintiffs) of Carracedo and Bahar’s film. It is fated that societies that take freedom of expression for granted drift back into such totalitarian nightmares – a possibility invoked in the future version of the United States depicted in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018). The film depicts the erosion of democratic belief amongst poor and working Americans, which arguably culminated in the mass expression of political cynicism that was POTUS 45’s 2016 election. Moore’s film is over-packed with information. But in allowing a mainstream voice for the marginalized, it also represents something very hopeful, namely the presence of a different kind of populism, that which reflects the pain of poor and working people – especially people of colour – but marshals that pain into knowledge and political action instead of seething xenophobia.
These days, it is easy to grow weary of the kind of hot-button political positioning encouraged by social media. In this, Doclisboa is a kind of treasure, wherein large political concerns are afforded depth and texture by way of films of a more personal or intimate nature. As often as the latter embody a biting, close to the ground realism, they just as often trace the basic absurdities and novelties of life. Painful but touching was Jean-Charles Hue’s Topo y Wera (2018), which shows a down-and-out couple in Tijuana, who get by in the grip of drugs, gambling and gang violence. Though risking a kind of downward gazing ethnography, the film revivifies the flickers of humour and imagination that are so often absent within flat stereotypes of the socially oppressed. Meanwhile, Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2017) traced the movements of a more bizarre and deceptively harmful group: the self-appointed detectives who attempted to solve the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing on Reddit, thus drawing undeserved attention towards their innocent suspects.
The suspects who populated PC Saunders’s 1935 film Evidence are long gone, but they came to magical life in Lisbon’s vast theatres, which provide time-travelling reprieve from the YouTube culture, one that long ago made the strange and novel a fact of digitized life. A member of the Chesterfield Borough Police, Saunders used his film to surveil the illegal activities of bookies in a British market square. How uncanny, to enter this filmic portal into a time when the seeds of our modern surveillance society were taking root, through an antediluvian camera, quaintly positioned in an old shop window. And how nice of a festival like this one, to open it for us.
Doclisboa 2018, Lisbon, Portugal, ran from 18 to 28 October 2018.
Main image: Apolena Rychlíková, The Limits of Work, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Institute of Documentary Film (IDF)