Doc Holiday

João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, The Last Time I Saw Macao, 2012, color, 82 minutes.

AS GARY INDIANA once observed, the best novels are essentially plotless, completely resistant to any effort one might undertake to submit them to the painful castration of synopsis: Indeed, maybe Borges got it right by implying that the best way to summarize a novel like Don Quixote would be to recopy it word for word. A majority of the filmmakers whose work populates this year’s program at DocLisboa would likely concur with these ideas. If you’re looking for a forum that’s going to interrogate the hell out of the notion that arises in your mind whenever you hear the term “documentary film,” then there’s frankly no better place in the world to be than Lisbon in late October, where one of Europe’s most daring festivals shakes up all the categories.

The quintessential example here would have to be the opening film, The Last Time I Saw Macao, by João Rui Guerra da Matta and his partner, local auteur João Pedro Rodrigues (O Fantasma [2000], Odete [2005], To Die like a Man [2009]). The film follows Guerra da Matta’s return after thirty years to the former Portuguese colony where he grew up. Guerra da Matta is responding to calls for help from his friend Candy, a trans performer and sex worker who has fallen out of favor with the local mob. As the film proceeds, we begin to suspect that we are no longer watching a documentary, but a noir thriller: What is real and what is fabricated begin to bend and merge, until we are forced to confront the film—and the version of reality it presents—as a unique entity on its own terms. The Last Time I Saw Macao is indicative of a whole new trajectory for filmmaking to follow, where the supposed factuality offered by the documentary is stretched via fictional exposition—an antiformula that brings us far closer to the ever elusive nature of truth than the genre traditionally enables. 

An even more abstract—read: non-narrative—approach is proposed in The Morning of St. Anthony’s Day, a second, shorter film that Rodrigues is also debuting in the festival. This invocation of Lisbon’s patron saint consists of young people wandering around the city in a zombielike stupor, puking, kicking cans, walking into traffic, seemingly oblivious to all signs of life around them. It begins with a simple textual introduction—“Tradition says that on June 13th, Saint Anthony’s Day […], lovers must offer small vases of basil with paper carnations and flags with popular quatrains as a token of their love”—and seems to evoke the saint’s veneration as the patron of loss. (One might surmise that love is defined by loss, and vice versa.) The young seekers in The Morning of St. Anthony’s Day are completely detached from one another; there is no collective agency enunciated here. No stars emerge, no love stories are told. This is a vision of love as an entity that dwells within; it is individual—just as the life of the city can be located not in its buildings or infrastructural networks, but in those who move through it each day in varied states of vitality and collapse.

A counterpoint to this motion can be found in the relative stasis of Mekong Hotel. Here, Apichatpong Weerasethakul employs an elemental collage technique to stage several stories in a hotel on the Mekong River that separates his native Thailand from Laos. There is his friend’s guitar practice, which we see in the beginning and which goes on to form the sound track of the film’s entire sixty-one minutes. There is the script of a movie Apichatpong wrote years ago and never filmed, but which a group of actors staying at the hotel quietly rehearse. There is the actors’ idle chitchat and disquisition on recent historical upheavals; every once in a while, one of them becomes possessed by the spirit of a cannibalistic demon and can be found eating human flesh—though one is not sure whether this is meant to be a part of the “fictional” film that is being rehearsed, or if it is meant to comprise the fiction of the film we are now watching.

What Apichatpong, Guerra da Mata, and Rodrigues all seem to intuit is that there is no greater aesthetic delight than that wrought by confusion. As the establishing shots of this year’s DocLisboa make clear, the “true story” of our time is necessarily multilinear. The art lies not in how it is told, but in the where and the way in which it is located.

The 10th DocLisboa festival runs through Sunday, October 28.