What Urban Futures? (II) Films on The Transformation of Lisbon

Por Mariana Liz

Tourism expansion and the real estate bubble, excessive tuk-tuks, Airbnb flats and construction sites, traditional shops closing down and new service shops opening up: towards the end of Duarte Coimbra’s Amor, Avenidas Novas (2018), the main character Manel lists a number of problems he currently identifies in the city of Lisbon. Manel’s list could have easily been compiled by news agencies and the media, local authorities and citizens’ movements concerned with the future of the city. The key here is that this list, so softly spoken by Manel, lying in bed, on the phone to his mother, is also to blame for his heartache. Misery loves company: it is not just the city that is changing beyond recognition, it is also Manel who, having just met, and fallen in love with Rita, is suffering in despair, wondering what to do next.

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“Manel facing the city in Amor, Avenidas Novas”. Source: Image courtesy of Portugal Film.

Amor, Avenidas Novas is a cute and humorous tale that combines thoughts on the city with a reflection on lasting love. As a film about the good old days (of Lisbon and love) and about the uncertainty brought about by transformation, it is the perfect opening to a film programme where the topics of mobility, resistance and adaptability to change are crucial – and which will play in Caleidoscópio on 4 June, as part of ICS’s Annual Conference on ‘What Urban Futures? From Crisis to Hope’. Following the session scheduled for 3 June on the relationship between nature and technology in urban contexts, this programme is focused on the dichotomy between politics and rights. Introduced by João Seixas and followed by a Q&A and drinks reception, it screens and discusses four recent short films from Portugal, where different areas of the city are shown, and different visions of Lisbon emerge.

Like Amor, Avenidas Novas, Margarida Lucas’ Rampa/Slope (2015) begins with the film’s protagonist, teenager Matilde, in bed, being woken up by the doorbell. A travelling shot shows us Matilde washing her face and moving through the corridor and half-empty rooms of an old, spacious house, with wooden floors and high-ceilings. There are policemen in the living room, men removing boxes and heavy furniture, and a locksmith working on the front door. As Matilde gets ready to leave, it is easy to realize she will never be back.

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“Rampa (Margarida Lucas, 2015)”. Source: Image courtesy of Agência da Curta Metragem.

The next time we see our protagonist indoors, it is in her new bedroom, on a mattress with no bed frame. As she looks outside the window, rather than the hilly and cobbled streets of wealthy areas of Lisbon’s city centre, we see a series of compact high-rise buildings, and seemingly hostile neighbours. The majority of the film takes place in Chelas, in two main locations: Matilde’s private school and her new home. The film’s title hints not just at the physical slopes of Lisbon and the ups and downs of change, but also at the idea of the social ladder. In Rampa, class divisions are visually strengthened by the gates and high walls of the private school Matilde and her brothers attend, as well as the uniforms they wear, dictating also how residential areas are organized in the city.

Inner city divisions and class are also key themes in João Salaviza’s Rafa (2012). The film is set in Almada and then in Lisbon; immediately after the title we see the main character (Rafa) crossing the bridge, on the back of his friend’s motorbike. The bridge is an iconic image of Lisbon. Rafa, however, stresses its functionality as a means to get to the city. 13-year old Rafa comes from Almada to Lisbon to see his mother, who is in police custody. The police station is in the historical centre, and while waiting to find out more about her, he spends his day outside, in the streets and squares near Rossio and Baixa.

Lisbon’s downtown appears as a bustling urban area, with live music performers and hurried passers-by filling the streets. We see Rafa in Praça da Figueira and in Cais das Colunas. Rafa is shot in many of the same locations we find in other productions set in Lisbon, including foreign, big budget films such as Night Train to Lisbon (Bille August, 2013). Yet, in Salaviza’s film, the city is framed by a different outlook. While stressing exclusion, Rafa presents Lisbon as the city where individuals are invited to find new links to other people and places. The film is as much about being lost in the city, being an outsider and (not) belonging, as it is – and as is particularly well illustrated in the final sequence – about an urban space that is caring and even protecting, and that somehow allows for bonds between individuals and communities to flourish.

There are no mattresses, moving trucks or displaced characters (yet) in Basil da Cunha’s Nuvem Negra (2014). But moving, not belonging and displacement are equally at the core of the final film in this session. Originally produced by the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement, organised by the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva, Nuvem Negra accounts for the destruction of a number of self-built houses in Reboleira, Amadora. In comparison to the films discussed before, Nuvem Negra is centred on a much more marginal territory, and depicts a much more vulnerable population. Combining interviews with a number of people about to lose their houses with scripted scenes in which characters talk about their future and the future of the neighbourhood, Nuvem Negra openly denounces political strategies for housing and marginalization in Lisbon.

Put together, these four films offer a glimpse of recent changes taking place in Lisbon, and the city’s possible futures. In common, they have similar narratives about moving and mobility, camera work and mise-en-scène that highlight the impacts of movement and displacement, and a creative use of sound that offers surprising uses of music, effects and voice. These are unique audiovisual accounts of the physical conditions and states of mind of Lisbon’s inhabitants, as they are faced with, and asked to react to, the city’s ongoing transformation.


Mariana Liz is a Postdoctoral Fellow at ICS-ULisboa. mariana.liz@ics.ulisboa.pt

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