Portuguese Cinema Sets Record Presence at 2017 Berlinale

The country’s new film law, including a tax rebate scheme and new rules for selecting juries, is generating major controversy

Altas Ciudades
Courtesy: João Salaviza

With nine Portuguese films – including five co-productions – selected for the Berlinale, the country will have a record presence at the Berlin Film Festival in 2017.

This comes at a pivotal time for the Portuguese film industry: A  new film law is about to be enacted which has provoked controversy and debate amongst Portuguese producers in relation to the main focus of Portuguese film production. Should it be films aimed at the international circuit? Or films targeted primarily at the domestic box office? Or a middle way between the two?

One of the main bones of contention is the process for selecting juries, which until now has been carried out by the Portuguese Film Institute (ICA). The new law proposes it should be made by the Specialized Section for Film and Audiovisual (SECA) of the National Council of Culture.

This issue has divided the country’s film associations.  In the lead-up to the 2017 Berlinale, Luis Urbano, president of the Portuguese Independent Film Producers Association (APCI), organized an event in Lisbon, attended by eleven film associations that contest the new system. They have presented a legal opinion which states that the proposed system for selecting juries runs the danger of “violating the principles of legality, fairness, transparency and impartiality.”

Other Portuguese film associations, including producers association, Apca, directors association Arca and screenwriters association Apai, defend the current proposals. This issue is likely to be the subject of fierce debate during Berlin and over coming weeks.

There is greater consensus in relation to another important aspect of the new film law – the introduction of a new tax rebate scheme.

On Feb. 11 in Berlin, the Portuguese Film Institute will unveil details of the new scheme, which aims to boost the number of international shoots in the country.

The scheme will be comparable to France’s TRIP scheme, and is expected to require a minimum spend of €1 million ($1.1 million) in eligible expenses.  There will be a points-based cultural test to determine whether projects are eligible. The applicable rate, which will vary between 20% and 25%, will depend on the characteristics of the project. A rate of 24% -25% will be guaranteed for Portuguese films and official co-productions.

Applications require that one of the project’s co-producers is based in Portugal or the E.U. and the line producer for the eligible spend in Portuguese must have its registered office in Portugal.

Over recent years Portuguese cinema has garnered significant critical presence and festival kudos. 2012 was a key turning point, with Portuguese filmmakers winning two major awards in Berlin – the Alfred Bauer prize for Miguel Gomes’ “Tabu,” and the Golden Bear for João Salaviza’s short “Rafa.”

At last year’s Berlinale, eight Portuguese films screened in official sections, and the Portuguese short “Batrachian’s Ballad,” by 23-year old helmer Leonor Teles, won the Golden Bear for best short, making Teles the youngest-ever director to win this prize.

44-year old Miguel Gomes has played a leading role in the development of a new generation of young Portuguese helmers.

Gomes first rose to international prominence in 2008 with “Our Beloved Month of August,” followed by pics such as “Tabu” and the “Arabian Nights” trilogy. His recent films have been co-produced with French producer, Shellac, run by Thomas Ordonneau, which will also back his next feature, “Sertao.”

Other younger Portuguese helmers on the festival radar include João Salaviza (whose short, “High Cities of Bone” is screening at Berlin), Ivo Ferreira, Salomé Lamas, Filipa Cesar, Susana Nobre and Leonor Noivo.

In addition to Salaviza, local helmers Salomé Lamas, Gabriel Abrantes and Diogo Costa have shorts screening this year in Berlin.

These young turks are complemented by acclaimed Portuguese directors with a longer festival track record, such as Pedro Costa, João Botelho and Teresa Villaverde. Villaverde’s “Colo” – her first feature since her 2011 “Swan” – is competing this year for the Golden Bear.

Portuguese cinema has also benefited from the recent resurgence of Brazilian cinema on the international festival circuit and two of the 9 films screening in Berlin are Portuguese-Brazilian coproductions involving Brazilian directors – Marcelo Gomes’ “Joaquim” (Ukbar Filmes and Rec Produtores Associados) and Daniela Thomas’ “Vazante” (Ukbar Filmes, Dezenove and Cisma Produções).

Why such a strong strong festival presence? A common consensus among producers and directors is that one of the main strengths of Portuguese cinema is the priority placed on auteur cinema and freedom of expression, which in part reflects the selection criteria used in its domestic support scheme that values films with potential for circulation in international festivals.

Portugal’s domestic support schemes have been sometimes erratic, however, with a lowering of the funding amounts over recent years, and hiatuses in funding support, related to the country’s economic crisis.

Many film professionals consider that the country’s growing festival presence results above all from the dynamism of Portuguese producers and directors in defending their own projects and forging international co-productions.

“We have to fight for our artistic independence and freedom,” says helmer Villaverde, “but we have always struggled, and we have managed to uphold these principles.”

Pandora Cunha Telles, CEO of Ukbar Filmes, and president of the producers association Apca believes that festival directors appreciate Portuguese films because “they focus on discomfort, characters that are caught in a state of crisis. She added that this is ”shown very honestly, thereby transmitting our human ability to adapt and resist, but conveyed in a highly frank cinematic language.”

Urbano, president of producers association Apci and CEO of O Som e a Furia – whose “Coup de Grâce”, by Salomé Lamas, is screening in Berlinale shorts – adds that as a small country, with no possibility of having a sustainable industry solely based on the market,” Portugal has benefited from film laws since 1973.

He added:”This has it made possible to maintain continuous film production, albeit with hiatuses along the way, that have created the conditions to develop an independent, creative and free cinema.”

João Matos, producer at Terratreme – which is screening Salaviza’s “High Cities of Bone” at Berlin – says that “Portuguese cinema makes no concessions and has no fear of exploring “boundaries and limits.” Matos nonetheless adds that he fears that the recent debate about the constitution of juries, in the context of the new film law, may place Portuguese cinema “in an impasse that it will be difficult to overcome.”

Luis da Matta Almeida, CEO of Sparkle Animation – whose animation short “Odd is an Egg”, by Kristin Ulseth, co-produced with Norway’s Qvisten Animation, is screening in Generation KPlus – says that the main strength of Portuguese cinema results from the efforts made by Portuguese producers to reach international markets, primary resulting from their own investments and the originality of the thematic approaches and cinematographic styles. The globalization of social, cultural and political problems enable an identification with issues tackled in Portuguese films by different audiences in different countries, he argued.

“The aesthetic and formal quality of our films coupled with their ability to excite and communicate with the viewer, is the primarily appeal for festival directors, followed by the innovation, the exoticism, the theme and the originality of our cinematographic proposals,”  said Fernando Vendrell, CEO of David e Golias and vice-president of the Portuguese Film and TV producers association, APCA

The main challenges facing Portuguese cinema – amplified by the recent debate around the new film law – is how to extend the international appeal of Portuguese films while also making further inroads into the domestic box office, where the closure of single-screen cinemas dedicated to more artistic films has hindered the dissemination of Portuguese films.

Urbano believes that Portugal should follow the French model and invest in film education in schools, diversify the film offer and “combat mass-market monoculture.” He also shares the opinion expressed by other producers that there needs to be stronger regulation of Portugal’s exhibition market, which is dominated by the NOS Lusomundo chain, to create space for alternative cinematic traditions.

“The simple fact of managing to release a Portuguese film in a single screen is an epic feat in its own right. The low number of spectators is a consequence of the continued imbalances in the market.”

Some films do attract audiences, however. Matos cites the example of Cláudia Varejão’s “Ama-San,” distributed by Terratreme. It has performed very well on its theatrical release in both Portugal and Switzerland, he said. It will be released shortly in other territories, including France, Belgium and Brazil.

Also on the upside, Portuguese cinema “now has a growing audience amongst young people, which is fantastic,” Villaverde said, attributing this to “an increasing number of young filmmakers.”

Beyond the film law itself, other key challenges cited by professionals include training a new generation of film technicians and creators, exploring the opportunities created by digital distribution and thereby reduce dependence on state funding, enhancing private financing, increasing the presence of Portuguese films in Portuguese screens, and developing a strategy for penetration of national and international markets, including emerging Portuguese-speaking markets, such as Angola and Mozambique.

Portugal’s film industry may have a record Berlin presence. That doesn’t mean it lacks for challenges, however.