Two highlights of Doclisboa 2018 were documentaries from an often-overlooked category – the mid-length film.
Despite well-chronicled advances in the current century, documentary cinema unfortunately still continues to lag behind its fictional counterpart in terms of international exposure and renown. Latest evidence: an international poll of respected critics conducted by BBC Culture this October resulted in a list of the top 100 films made in languages other than English. Astonishingly, only two documentaries made the cut: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) at #73 and the late Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half hour Shoah (1985), which narrowly scraped in at #96. At the opposite end of the duration scale, shorts fared even worse: Chris Marker’s 28-minute La Jetée (1962) was the sole representative, a lowly #86.
These results bring up wider issues: shorts and documentaries seldom obtain the exposure they deserve and need, this neglect doubly compounded in the case of short documentaries. When it comes to non-fiction works of intermediate or medium length the situation is even more grim. Such productions, which don’t fit the narrow requirements of television channels or theatrical distribution networks, have minimal commercial potential, and they very often struggle to find suitable berths even on the film-festival circuit. Curators regularly bemoan that «mid-lengthers» – productions clocking in between, say, 30 and 60 minutes – are «difficult to programme.»
Where there’s a will, however, there is usually a way. Enterprising festivals such as FIDMarseille, IDFA in Amsterdam and CPH:DOX in Copenhagen not only find room for mid-lengthers, they regularly slot them into their highest-profile competitions. That mid-lengthers can frequently pull their weight and then some when given the chance was once again illustrated at the 16th Doclisboa film festival, which ran from the 18th to 28th of October in the increasingly hip Portuguese capital.
In an eclectic main competition, the 48-minute Topo y Wera by Jean-Charles Hue was a diamond-in-the-rough standout. At the age of 50, writer-director Hue is still comparatively little-known beyond his native France and a small coterie of switched-on cinephiles around the world. But at home his rising-star status was cemented in 2014 when his second fiction feature Mange tes morts (Eat Your Bones) won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo, bestowed annually to a French production by an emerging director.
Mange tes morts and its 2010 predecessor La BM du Seigneur (The Lord’s Ride) are both shot and set in the Yéniche community of Beauvais, 80km north of Paris, relating stories in which members of this Roma-like community – into which Hue himself was born – play fictionalised versions of themselves. His big find (who dominates both pictures) is Fred Dorkel, a non-pro actor of singular talent and presence.