My latest film flânerie

CURTAS, Portugal, the”irresponsable” initiative that turned into the most charming film festival: Interview with Miguel Dias, director of Curtas

via Curtas Vila do Conde Facebook photo

Curtas Vila do Conde is an international film festival focused on short films but with a broader concept than most festivals of its kind, covering the different categories of fiction, documentary and animation, as well as experimental films and music videos, including short and medium-length films. It’s also a showcase for “New Voices” in contemporary cinema and exciting retrospectives. 

Located in Vila do Conde, a charming town 1 hour away from Porto and connected to its main subway line, the festival is pretty easy to get to. No excuse for not jumping on a flight or the train to discover a completely new world, where time flows differently and cinema is consumed more leisurely (it’s rare that a screening starts before 2.30pm but the festival does go on late into the night).

Curtas was born in 1993 and this year it celebrated its 30th edition. A great pretext to also showcase 30 different key spaces in this town that attracted a lot of artists and filmmakers back in the day and it stil maintains a powerful artsy vibe: 

Teatro Municipal, a charmingly retro building, where the international and national competition was screened as well as some contemporary feature films (Tout le monde aime Jeanne by French filmmaker Céline Devaux, part of the New Voices section that also included works by Spanish filmmaker Chema Garcia Ibarra)

Teatro Municipal, Curtas main hub (photo credit Dana Knight)

Solar – Galeria de Arte Cinematica, where we all went to hang out after the screenings to enjoy the Happy Hours and groovy sounds in the presence of a different DJ every day. Solar hosts many artist exhibitions throughout the year and during the festival it presented the work of French artist Marie Losier, internationally recognised for her 16mm poetic portraits of avant-garde musicians and filmmakers. It also hosts the cutest film bookshop in the world…

Auditorio Municipal, the main place for cine-concerts (when was the last time you attended one?:)

Casa do cinema Manoel de Oliveira, designed as a tribute to the work of the famous Portuguese director, a concrete construction on two levels, resembling a film camera with two large lenses

And 26 other spaces, a great temptation for a flâneuse to get lost in a new and fascinating landscape teeming with art and history. 

To find out more about the history of the place and of the festival itself, I spoke with Miguel Gomez, one of the founders of Curtas, who courteously walked me though the past iterations of the festival, telling exciting stories of how the festival was born, how it survived a financially disastrous first year, how it was saved by the press who loved its innovative and uncompromising artistic vision, how it went on to become a critical success both nationally and internationally. 

The following interview with Curtas director Miguel Dias was taken on the 16th of July 2022, at Teatro Municipal, Vila do Conde, Portugal.

Dana Knight: What can you tell me about the history of this charming film festival?

Miguel Dias: I like the fact that you consider it charming, I hope it’s also meaningful in terms of cinema and art…I am one of the four founders, all of us participated since the first edition and we are all still involved, now of course we have a bigger team. 

We started as an activity of the local Cine Club, then a few years later it evolved into another kind of organisation with the growth of the festival, the Cine Club juvenile association, and with the status that allowed the festival to grow in terms of financing. We decided to create a company for it. There are interesting things in the growth. These 30 years were very rich in terms of very fast changes in the cinematic landscape…If we think of 1993, the way films were consumed back then, the way they were made and shown to the audience are completely different. Of course the biggest revolution was the digital copies instead of film. But also the ways of showing the films. Nowadays cinema has a lot of competition from all the platforms, mobile phones, pay TV, everything. Many times the death of cinema was declared and the same number of times it survived. The first one was in the 50s with the advent of television, the film screens got bigger in theatres with very big projections in cinemascope, then 3D. There was always a reaction to the news of the death and decadence of cinema. 

Now we are facing again one of these periods that the pandemic made even more difficult since it accelerated this process. 

But does this translate into less film submissions to film festivals? 

No, I’m mainly talking about the traditional way of presenting films: lots of people sitting in a theatre with their heads pointing in the same direction, towards the screen with light. But in fact there are so many more ways to present films nowadays and so many more films. This year we had more than 5,000 submissions which is a lot, and I’m not counting the 1,000 films that we have seen in other festivals and invited to Curtas. So in total, more than 6,000 films that have been seen by the selection committees. Compare that with 30 years ago when we received 300! Which isn’t bad for a first year. Back then only copies on film were allowed, 35mm and 60mm. No video, no digital. It was more difficult to make a film, as difficult as it is now to make a good film. 

And to stand out…

Yes. Now it’s easier in financial and practical terms, anyone can grab a digital camera somewhere and with some friends make a film. But it would hardly be a good film. A good film is as difficult to make as it was 30, 50 or 70 years ago. 

Another thing about the festival is that, even with the financing we have now, a bigger team and better conditions, there are always things to improve and you need money for that. But the first year of the festival was put together with a fax machine, a typewriter and a telephone, nothing else. Let’s make a festival!

What an exciting initiative!

Exciting but also crazy!

It was an adventure…

Yes, an irresponsible one! Because it could have been the only year, things could have finished there. In fact we had a loss that year in financial terms so it was going to end. But in critical and artistic terms it was very good. At the time the Film Institute decided to cover the losses. But they did not support us before the festival and I understand why, a couple of kids with no experience showing up at their office and saying they were going to set up a film festival…and they want some money. Who are these guys?!

So the press helped…

Yes the press helped a lot. But today it would be impossible to create a film festival in this way because today everything is so bureaucratic, for financing from state departments you have to follow rigid criteria. Back then the response was, OK it was nice so you deserve that we pay the losses! Today that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a very different world, more bureaucratic but that’s understandable. 

What were some of your most exciting discoveries throughout the years, national and international? In terms of filmmakers you discovered while curating the festival and you showed them for the first time to your audience in Vila do Conde? If you could start with Portuguese filmmakers first… 

We made many discoveries in 30 years. I could point out those with more prolific national and international careers such as Miguel Gomes, Sandro Aguilar, João Nicolau, a few more in animation, such as  David Doutel and Vasco Sá. There are a lot because everyone made shorts before moving on to features.

Short film festivals are a great platform to discover new voices…

Sure. Regarding international discoveries, in the first years of the festival the discoveries were more effective, but those were usually retrospectives. Now it’s very difficult to propose things that are secret or very rare  because there are so many more festivals in the world. But the movement of film festivals was not so strong at the time. There weren’t so many film festivals back then. Also because you can find almost everything if you search, if you’re good at pirating on internet (laughing). Secrets don’t exist anymore. 

French filmmaker Céline Devaux (left) and team of Tout le monde aime Jeanne. Via Curtas Vila do Conde Facebook photo

In that first period we have always shown film programmes featuring great filmmakers who attended the festival such as Gus Van Sant, Peter Greenway, Roy Andersen, Kelly Reichardt

Already in the second year we showed a filmmaker from Armenia called Artavazd Peleshyan who is still not very well known but at the time was a very exciting discovery for Portuguese audiences, only a few illuminated people knew his work. But also the TV programmes and features films of Franco Marasco and  Daniele Ciprì from Sicily. 

Then very important artists and filmmakers but from other areas such as design and architecture such as the great Saul Bass. For me he is the greatest designer of film posters and opening credits design in the history of film. He died one year before we started the festival. He did everything with his wife Elaine and signed Elaine and Saul Bass. But Elaine attended the festival, that’s an interesting story, it was her first trip after Saul died and the person who convinced her to come was Martin Scorsese’s editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker. 

Saul Bass made a strange science fiction film called Phase IV that we presented at the festival, alongside an exhibition of his wonderful posters and a compilation of opening credits he made for Otto Preminger, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock.

I should also mention the designers Charles and Raz Eames, they made this famous lounge chair and lots of other chairs, many multi media works and many short films. The most amazing is Powers of Ten, a kind of scientific short film where you start with people at a picnic and then you go in powers of 10 until it becomes the cosmos and the galaxy. And they the come back, each time closer and closer, until the camera gets into the skin of one of the people at the picnic and in the end the infinitesimally small is identical with the infinitely big, a fascinating short film. 

Thank you for that, I’ll check it out, I can probably find it online. 

Probably, it’s very famous. 

Could you tell me some of your favorite films from this year’s programme?

I prefer not to declare anything about the competition. But outside the competition my favorite is Orson Welles’ film, F for Fake. It was one of the few films I saw at the festival as I don’t have much time to sit and watch films as you can imagine. It was part of François Reichenbach’s retrospective. He is considered one of the non-credited filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague.

And from the contemporary filmmakers…

I’ll have to choose our closing film, Fogo-Fátuo by João Pedro Rodrigues, it’s a national premiere and it’s one of the filmmakers that have been with us from the beginning. 

Miguel might have refused to disclose his favorite shorts, understandably so, but what is the jury for. The following are the winning films with a short statement from the jury:

BEST ANIMATION

Yun-Hua Chen: Unbridled and unfaltering, it delves into the darkest corner of the human mind with crafted imageries and psychedelic visions that allow for distortion, transformation and dissolution. The Best Animation Award goes to Scale by Joseph Pierce.

BEST DOCUMENTARY

Susana Rodrigues: For showing with temperance and epic all the violence and beauty of nature and creating a beautiful moment of cinematic ecstasy with the gesture of opening a door into an animal landscape. The documentary award goes to Haulout by Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaeva

BEST FICTION

John Cancianni: The award for best fiction goes to a film that is characterised by the acting of the protagonists and the location of the film, which is a central element of the narrative and at the same time symbolic of the exploitation of nature and humanity. With a lot of subtlety, the story builds up and leads us to the moment that left a strong impression. The film about civil courage, dignity and the homo economicus has impressed us. The Prize for Best Fiction goes to Cuerdas by Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren.

EUROPEAN FILM AWARDS CANDIDATE

Yun-Hua Chen : With a seemingly simple structure fitting for a short and a profound core that questions the authority of history and the right holders to its interpretation, it uses the mundane to approach uncomfortable topics in a politically charged, provocative and ironic manner – all embodied in a walk to a grandiose sculpture. The EFA Candidate is Potemkinistii by Radu Jude.

GRAND PRIX

Yun-Hua Chen: Static shots to their full potential, with a tinge of sophisticated humor, well-dosed suspense and a precise sense of timing, demonstrates the art of cinema as an exploration of time and space in its purest sense. The Grand Prix goes to Nest by Hlynur Pálmason.

BEST PORTUGUESE DIRECTOR

John Cancianni: For creating images in a precise and clear way, for directing the actors with sensitivity and humanity and for creating one of the best opening shots this jury has seen at the festival, the award for Best Portuguese director goes to Carlos Lobo for Aos Dezasseis

BEST PORTUGUESE FILM

Susana Rodrigues: An ingeniously original tale that plays out in the heights but resonates deeply within its affectionate humanity on family bonds and reveals an aesthetically vibrant storytelling craftsmanship.The Best Portuguese Film Award goes to Ice Merchants by João Gonzalez

These are all outstanding, not-to-be-missed short films.

I was at the festival only for a couple of days and only attended a few screenings but I could also mention:

Maria Schneider, 1983, by Elisabeth Subrin, France

Happy New Year, Jim, by Andrea Gatopoulos

Uma Rapariga Imaterial, by André Godinho

Congratulations to all the filmmakers who participated in Curtas 2022, now let’s get the party started with a DJ set by the festival director himself, truly the epitome of the perfect host…

via Curtas Vila do Conde Facebook photos