Still from “To Die Like a Man”, a film directed by João Pedro Rodrigues.

Portugal — action and... cuts!

The young guard of Portuguese filmmakers has been making impact at international festivals. However, in their home country the crisis has led to a drastic reduction in state investment in culture which has put many small producers in an extremely difficult position.

Published on 25 July 2012 at 14:16
Rosa Filmes  | Still from “To Die Like a Man”, a film directed by João Pedro Rodrigues.

“What will become of the world when there is no more Portuguese cinema?” Gathered at a roundtable meeting in the suburbs of Porto, Portugal’s filmmakers, producers and critics expressed divergent views as to the answer to this provocatively posed and anxiety-ridden question.

The idea of bringing them together to hold a debate emerged in early July at the Curtas Vila do Conde festival, which is one of the finest short-film showcases in Europe. Doubtless it had a lot to do with the atmosphere of strained euphoria at the 2012 event, the 20th in the festival’s history, which was marked by the paradox of a host of international successes at a time when national conditions for the filmmakers have never been more difficult.

The event’s dense programme was an apt reflection of the upsurge in creative energy in the country, which has been acknowledged by major festivals elsewhere — an energy that is palpable in the work of João Pedro Rodrigues (To Die Like a Man), who presented a sumptuous short in Cannes in May, and whose latest feature will be in competition in Locarno in August.

Rodrigues is just one rising star in a cinema which reaped a harvest of awards in Berlin last February: the Golden Bear for the best short film won by João Salaviza's Rafa — an award that comes hot on the heels of a Salavisa’s 2009 Palme d’Or for Arena — and the prize for Artistic Innovation won by Miguel Gomes for the magnificent Tabu, which has already sold in 46 countries.

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“It is a year zero for Portuguese film”

Notwithstanding this context, producer Luis Urbano is visibly unhappy. In recent months, his producer’s micro-galaxy has been destabilised by the country’s new right-wing government, which over the past year has demonstrated a populist hostility to any initiative in favour of the arts, to the point where it has removed the minister of culture and frozen funding for the country’s national film centre (ICA).

“Historically, the state was never a direct investor in films,” explains Urbano. “The old system, which has now been terminated, levied a tax on TV advertising to generate funding for the industry.” The tax revenue was divided in equal parts to finance creative development and Lisbon’s extraordinary cinema museum, but the downturn and subsequent collapse of the market for advertising in a climate of economic crisis put an end to all of that.

As a result the industry has been plunged into a double crisis. Grants won by projects over the last two years have not been paid, and the ICA, which has been put in the freezer by the government, has not opened any competitions for funding this year.

“It is a year zero for Portuguese film”, remarks Urbano, a major figure in the Lisbon art-house scene who currently produces the films of Manoel de Oliveira: the world’s oldest film director who is planning to shoot his next feature in Brazil at age 104. Urbano’s company, O Som e a Fúria, is solid enough to weather the crisis in the short term. But other producers on a less established footing are being forced to close up shop while actors, directors and technicians have been plunged into poverty.

In a scheduling coincidence, a new bill for a film industry support package with upgraded resources and close to twice the funding of its predecessor, which should relaunch production in the country, was granted preliminary approval by parliament on the eve of the festival.

Currently being negotiated, it should finally come into force in the autumn. But to date there is no guarantee that any funding will be made available before the end of the year.

“It was as though we were Olympic medalists”

Although they have been welcomed by virtually everyone in the industry, the new measures have done little to allay hostility to a government without a cultural policy. In particular many complain that the right-wing administration has taken opportunist advantage of a law devised and then mothballed by the left, which it retouched and and approved in a bid to save face without spending a penny from the public purse.

“At the beginning of the year, we were dead in the water,” remarks filmmaker João Nicolau. “The awards won by Salaviza and Gomes were an unexpected miracle. The government, which could no longer deny the industry’s contribution to Portugal’s international prestige, was obliged to react.”

As Miguel Gomes explains, “Suddenly, it was as though we were Olympic medalists.” In his acceptance speech for the Innovation Prize awarded to Tabu in Berlin, Gomes paid homage to 50 years of the Portuguese nouvelle vague: “Thanks to this tradition, [...] we have benefited from a freedom that is now under threat, which is only sustained by the international appeal of our films.”

And with this observation in mind, perhaps the answer to the provocative question that launched the round table in Porto should be yet another question: “What would become of Portuguese cinema without the rest of the world?”


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