It was the wildest film festival I have ever attended: the Lisbon-Estoril Film Festival, now in its eighth year. First, the range of the program was staggering. It included not only retrospective tributes to the Russian filmmaker Marlen Khutsiev and Spanish filmmaker Gonzalo Garcia Pelayo, and, of course, the contemporary auteur films in Competition, but also the lithographs of David Lynch and Jean-Michel Alberola, a debate on mathematics and film, the photographs of Nan Goldin, a homage to John Malkovich, a play by Peter Handke, and three symposia on "surveillance," including the webcam presence of Julian Assange.
David Lynch, lithograph, from "Here and Now" exhibition
But most of all, this festival surprised me with its allegria: the spontaneous intimacy between all the international guests and Portuguese locals, and the constant feasts with vinho verde and impassioned conversations on art. When I first arrived, I was whizzed to a dinner of sopa de castanha and seabass ceviche to then zip into a van with filmmaker Philippe Garrel and wife to a Lisbon cafe. In the morning, I shared the ride with a French conductor here to speak about his friend John Berger -- the renowned British writer and theorist -- and chatted, while watching the Lisbon skyline appear in the horizon, with the conductor's daughter about the sublime helicopter scene in Khutziev's Epilogue. Later that afternoon, after a debate on surveillance with activist-hackers Jacob Appelbaum and Jérémie Zimmermann, I came upon Nan Goldin in the lobby, and she told me -- with a flurry of hands, her hair splendidly red in the dark Lisbon night -- about her new photobook on children, coming out on December lst.
Then there were (for me) the conversations about surfing (Portugal being a prime spot) -- with the muito adorável drivers Nuno and Nuno -- and the requisite run down to the ocean rocks to touch the crest.
Who was footing the bill? Most of the revenue--I learned--came indirectly from the Casino in Estoril, which by law has to give a percentage of its earnings to the Portuguese Tourist board.
We were the real winners in the gamble.
The festival has the air of a superb movable feast -- kind of how one imagines Paris to once have been.
Sumptuous dinners were offered in venues around the city, including one small intimate taverna called "Cave Real", where I came across the Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, the French mathematician Cédric Villani and the Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, lined at banquet tables, animatedly talking -- while festival director Paulo Branco reached on a shelf and selected a Portuguese wine.
I asked the world-renowned mathematician whether math leads to any higher truths.
"Yes," he quipped, in his vermilion red scarf tie, his large spider pin on his lapel, his long hair (shaking), his eerie black eyes. "But I do not want to state these truths. There are too many statements in the world! The world is too full of statements! The truths I arrive at are more nuanced. I believe in subtlety."
I have never -- not even at Cannes -- encountered such a range of unusual guests. Past guests at the festival have included luminaries such as Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, J.M. Coetzee, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Siri Hustvedt, Lou Reed, Stephen Frears, Francis Ford Coppola, David Byme, Cindy Sherman, Pedro Almodovar and David Cronenberg.
And what is most extraordinary, they all seemed to come for one reason: for Paulo Branco, the director.
"How did you happen to come?" I asked, for the umpteenth time, an unusual guest next to me in the car -- he an exuberantly talkative French bookstore owner in Saint Germain des Pres.
"Oh I?" he said animatedly. "Paulo invited me! He often comes to the book shop. He is a passionate reader."
"How did you happen to come here?" I asked a documentarist beside me watching a Syrian film.
"Oh, I am friends with Paulo from horse-riding in the south of France. He is a passionate horse-rider."
"How did you happen to get here?" I asked director Elia Suleiman, at a closing banquet--after a concert given by guitarist Arto Lindsay, as we stood with Jennifer Robinson (Assange's lawyer) and Israeli director Nadav Lapid (director of The Kindergarten Teacher) and the Safdie brothers (directors of Heaven Knows What), one of whom, at the moment, was sparring -- very vociferously -- with Jake Appelbaum.
"Oh I have been coming here for years!" Suleiman quipped. "Paulo and I are friends."
"How," I burst out. "Does Paulo have so many friends?"
Elia laughed. "Have you met Paulo?"
The next day I did.
"How do you have so many friends?" I asked.
He smiled. "It has been thirty years that I have been producing films. 300 films. I started when so many of these other people started. Jim Jarmusch, David Cronenberg, Wim Wenders, Andrzej Zulawski, Olivier Assayas, Paul Auster...." He lifted his hand casually, with a smile. "Over the years, you get to know each other."
"Can you explain the originality of this festival? Why the eclectic range of subjects?"
"I hope this festival is original. What would it add, if not? As for my choices, I discover new work all the time, and each leads to a new direction, and then I think, let's have this person at the festival! I invite the people I want to rediscover, to see again, to deepen my knowledge of. I want to learn myself at my festival. John Berger, for example, I wanted to meet -- so I dined with him this year..."
I already knew about his dinner with Berger as the French conductor--another friend of Paulo's -- had told me he had arranged this dinner for John and Paulo at his home in Paris. "Paulo wanted to meet him,' he had said. "So I arranged it!"
"And Peter Handke?
"Peter, I know for many years. I thought, why not invite him and produce a play of his while he is here? So I had his play translated into Portuguese."
"Just for the one performance?!"
Paulo lifted his hand. "Yes, just for one performance. It was translated and Tiago Guedes, a filmmaker, directed it...and voila! You know, Wim Wenders is thinking of making this play into a film."
As for the "surveillance" symposia with Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum and Jérémie Zimmermann: these were arranged by his son Juan, a 24 year old whiz-kid doctoral student in philosophy and law, recently returned from Yale.
Paulo seemed very relaxed, as he sat back in the chair--only occasionally waving to members of his staff to take care of something: the brochures, the prizes, the rides, the guests. It is a prodigious amount of work to organize a festival of over 100 films, 100 invited guests, in-between two cities--Lisbon and Estoril--with thirty cars running people from film to banquet to hotel.
"How do you manage to organize this festival at the same time as producing films?"
"And running 8 movie theaters in Lisbon," he added with a twinkle. "How? I like to get things done."
On the weekends he, a former champion equestrian, does long-distance horse-race training. In his spare time, he distributes films.
With all the art works, political discussions, films, concerts and theatrical venues, I had to ask for a special request--why not?
"Couldn't you please ask Yasmine to sing for us?"
Yasmine Hamdan -- the exquisite chanteuse in Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive--was yet another of the invited "guests."
Paulo's eyes twinkled once more. "But she did sing," he said. "She gave a whole concert. At last year's festival, however."