In their festival catalogue, the two festival directors of Doclisboa, Ana Isabel Santos Strindberg and Sérgio Tréfaut, wrote the shortest foreword I have ever read:

“Rainer Werner Fassbinder used to say that instead of setting off bombs, he made films. It was his way of dynamiting and creating new energies. We are organising a film festival for the same reason.”

Obviously they felt no need to make a long-winded introduction of the programme, but were content to let the audience see for themselves and feel the energy. So I did- and I wasn’t disappointed. Although the international competition programme included a couple of issue films, the overall feel was a festival whose films were selected for their artistic value. Most of the films I saw were remarkable for their beautiful images, clever editing and carefully prepared soundscape. They were films that spoke to all our senses and not only to our emotions or our intellect. Some are presented below.

“Umbrella”.The Chinese film “Umbrella” by Du Haibin is a poetic journey through modern China, showing the movement of the population from rural to urban areas. It is a truly observational film in the best style of the genre. What we define as observational films today includes characters talking to the camera, yet this film does not (with one exception). It merely observes a sequence of scenes where action or minor dramas unfold within a specific setting. These scenes are cleverly juxtaposed through poetic cinematography. The recurring theme of the film is umbrellas. The first ten minutes are imaginatively filmed in an umbrella factory: we see each process involved in manufacturing umbrellas filmed from carefully chosen angles. By including posters hanging on the walls, Haibin provides some information on the working conditions, such as the wages (piecework payment) or a note saying that due to a large order they cannot go home for the Chinese New Year.

Following the factory scene, the director elegantly cuts to a shopping mall with an endless number of umbrella shops, starting with a long travelling shot of a women carrying noodle soup back to her shop. Other scenes include shoeblacks in action; a job-application course (where the participants have parked their colourful umbrellas outside); a company’s employment procedure, where applicants are invited to write down their expected salary (a sign of new times in China’s job market). We get to witness military recruits being trained. The overall impression of these scenes provides a glimpse into how people from the rural areas find jobs in big cities. The last part of the film takes us to the countryside. Here Haibin changes style as farmers talk to the camera. They explain the simple math of their farming economy which doesn’t give them enough to live on. We enter the poor farmer’s simple house where he tells us he wears the same clothes he bought ten years ago.

The film is a historical document, a stocktaking of China at the start of the 21st century. It is also masterfully conducted, capturing the innate drama in single scenes by employing skilful storytelling techniques. It is a relief to watch a film that is not character-driven, but which is just as engaging and far more cinematic than average.

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