Fantasporto 2020

Three lessons from Fantasporto 2020

Three lessons from Fantasporto 2020 first published by Sight & Sound

1) Longevity is its own reward

  Dreamt up in 1980 by a trio of film fanatics, two of whom – Beatriz Pereira and Mário Dorminsky – incredibly are still running it 40 years later, Fantasporto was Portugal’s only film festival back then, and remains (after Sitges, established in 1968) one of the world’s oldest festivals dedicated to genre cinema. Initially held in the Teatro Carlos Alberto, it would attract all Portugal’s cinephiles – otherwise starved of anything stimulating or provocative in the nation’s theatres – and so it inspired a whole generation of the country’s film makers and educators.

Fantasporto quickly acquired a reputation as an early adopter of then outré talent, programming – and awarding – formative works from the likes of David Cronenberg, Luc Besson, Neil Jordan, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Danny Boyle, David Fincher, the Wachowskis, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Vincenzo Natali. Its packed all-nighters were particularly legendary for their anarchic unruliness. In Isabel Pina’s documentary 40 anos de Fantasporto (2020), a rough cut of which had its world première at this year’s festival, one festival regular recounts how those sitting in the balcony would throw bones from the chicken they were eating onto the audience below. “That was normal,” he laughs, “That was Fantasporto.”

These days, the festival, like the city around it, has become somewhat gentrified. It has long since moved into the more respectable Teatro Rivoli, closing each night at a more civilised hour. Since 1991, it has also offered a Directors’ Week of non-genre titles, transforming itself into a genteel International Film Festival; and it was a pioneer in championing Asian films, with their own separate awards strand. Locals seeking a rawer, rougher ambience might now prefer Lisbon’s younger horror festival MotelX (established 2007), but Fantasporto’s USPs – its highly attractive Porto setting, plus its very longevity and the experience coming with that – cannot be replaced. Fantasporto may, like its environs, feel a little faded and oldworld, but that is part of the charm of both.

2) Sometimes local heroes are lionised only abroad

British genre writer/director – and long-time friend of Fantasporto – Julian Richards has been making independent genre films since his debut Darklands (1996). Perhaps his best known titles are the deliriously metacinematic slasher The Last Horror Movie (2003) and the dark coming-of-age story Summer Scars (2007). Richards is also founder of the film sales company Jinga, specialising in international horror and fantasy.

At last year’s Fantasporto, he won the Best Director award for his latest features Daddy’s Girl (2018) and Reborn (2018), which were both in competition. This year, as well as introducing his contribution Bad Santa to the two-part anthology Deathcember (2019), his career was celebrated in a retrospective side strand of his entire filmography to date. This was well deserved – but does make one wonder why he and his films do not receive similar recognition at home. At least Reborn is getting a UK release in May this year.

3) Life (and movies) are precarious

As the week of Fantaporto was underway, Portugal reported its first two cases of Covid-19 – in fact both in Porto. Many filmmakers, especially from Japan and South Korea, had at the last minute been prevented from attending by the virus, which hung over the festival like an ominous shadow. The programme featured many striking entries: in the Director’s Week, Milcho Manchevski’s triptych of cursed maternity Willow (Urba, 2019); and in the Fantasy competition, John Hsu’s White Terror-era school horror/Taiwanese national allegory Detention (Fanxiao, 2019) and Arttu Haglund’s domestic teleportation drama Gone (Poissa, 2019).

My personal favourite was another Fantasy selection, Wes Terray’s feature debut Precarious (2020). Working closely with his art designer Louise Franco over several years, the writer/director/editor/cinematographer built by hand the film’s many surreal sets in the living room of his own home, crafting a Sixties-style playbox of extremely claustrophobic straits from which its hemmed-in hero (Andrey Pfening) – first seen as a handcuffed patient in bed – keeps struggling to emerge. Involving a femme fatale or two, unconventional crystallography, addictive impulses, crippling disease and a labyrinth of irrational tight spots, this oneiric adventure is the kind of highly original, inventive curio that Fantasporto has, throughout its long history, proven so good at discovering. Terray also, although no one quite realised it at the time, perfectly captured that sense of constriction – and that frustrated desire to escape – which Coronavirus has now brought to us all.

Anton Bitel