The odd-numbered streets of Espinho run down a gentle slope and to where the Atlantic laps Europe. When the sun sets on the town, rays of light burst horizontally through clouds and the sky turns the colour of dreams. It feels like it is the end of the world.
Looking at Espinho’s beach and at the ocean itself, one’s eye is cast in two directions: to the distant past and to the far future. The scene as a whole takes one back to an epoch when those too afeared to be explorers looked at the horizon and believed that there was nothing more – that this was verily the end of the Earth. Looking specifically at the waves of the Atlantic, however, one realises that this water has beaten this shore since before the explorers and during years that stretch back inconceivably further than the moment when footprints were invented. It will do so long after footprints have disappeared. What is more, the sand upon which this water beats also heralds another twin future, since it represents the coming desert as the water sings without rest about the coming flood. The face that Espinho presents to us, then, is once again the end of the world – or at least a world without men.
We can go further still. Espinho takes its name originally from the Latin word spina, meaning something like a spike, since it connotes thorns and fishbones alike. Given how the smell of grilled sardines floats through Espinho’s quiet streets, the fishbone connection is fitting. And yet spina/Espinho is also linked to the word spine – the long vertebral column that helps to keep us vertical. Espinho, then, asks us to think about backbone, standing up and desire.
This relates once again to the end of the world in an obtuse way, but one that I’d like to elaborate nonetheless. Ninety seven per cent of animal life does not have a spine; only three per cent of creatures on Earth are vertebrates. And beneath that ocean lurk creatures that have been there since long before the footprints and which have perfected their being in a way that is unfathomable to humans. That is, the invertebrates that have fathomed the ocean have had millennia more than us to achieve existential perfection, while we are mere children in relation to them.
And we are naughty, vicious children, too, having brought to our planet destruction and disequilibrium, all in the name of creating a perceived equilibrium that goes by the name of control (we want to control our planet, to enslave it rather than to exist with it), and which is recognised in concrete: the paving over of our outer and inner worlds such that they no longer grow or change or adapt, but so that they remain constant and unchanging. This is also an end of the world: the destruction of the future through bringing that future to its knees and letting it do nothing to surprise us.
And so when the planet comes back to destroy humans through the twin forces of the flood and the desert, this apocalypse is often pictured as being the return of tentacled, spineless monsters: the return from the depths of a species far more evolved than ours, and which will bring to us a kind of ecstasy as we free ourselves from our concrete prisons and begin to move again. Vampyroteuthis infernalis. Cthulhu. Arrival. Leviathan is capital, but Leviathan is capital as it logically crumbles into dust when the Earth rebels against the damage that capital causes to it. And so we may fear Cthulhu, but Cthulhu really is us.
And yet there is another force that can help us to break the concrete and to lose control, smashing through the walls that we have put up in order to control space and the rhythms of chronometry that we have used to control time. And this force is called art.
Sunlight with its attendant photogénie and the glamour associated with holidays as opposed to work are the perceived reasons for why numerous film festivals take place at beach resorts. And yet the fact that beaches are liminal spaces that take us away from the concrete and allow us to get wet – physically, emotionally and erotically – is perhaps also one of the major attractions: here where the water and the sand copulate, we have creation, creativity and the birth of new life, new lifeforms – evolution and change itself in progress, not brought under control.
In this way, art is what frees us from the concrete and without it Cthulhu would only return to destroy us, bringing to us a definitive end of our world via extinction. But one thing that art can also do for us is to remind us that there is no extinction if there is no control; there is only change and becoming, and thus everything is dying as much as it is living. And so we come to this truth: Cthulhu is not out there, rising slowly from the ocean to evacuate our souls; instead, we all carry Cthulhu within us, and art is what allows this destroyer to come forth, to function as an outlet to save us from the bloodbath that would take place were art never to have been invented, and which will take place if art is not allowed to continue.
In a patriarchal society, liking art is sometimes even directly considered to be ‘wet’ – as if that could be an insult. A world that values only dryness is a world that will bring forth the desert. We seem at times to be willing this dry world into existence – sobersides and rational, it leads only to the apocalypse of Cthulhu. Drunk with love, the sops and the soppy artist save the dryness and the concrete from itself.
It is useful, then, to be both wet and dry, to have backbone to stand up to the concrete, but a backbone that is always kept moist and limber, and not brittle and crumbling. The Atlantic is traditionally thought to mean The Bearer (of the Heavens), since as a word it has its roots in the copulative prefix a- and then the stem of tlenai, meaning to bear, from the ProtoIndoEuropean root tele-, meaning to lift, to support, to weigh.
As the Atlantic takes the weight of the heavens, then, so might the Fest Film Festival at Espinho carry the burden of a different heaven – the heaven that is our dreams, our ability to dream, with dream being the expression of Cthulhu in our sleep, as our wetware lets little Cthulhus out and every night we dream the end of the world.
Significantly, Fest is also a festival that is not really about watching films. For what makes it unique is the way in which it brings together hundreds of filmmakers – some with films showing and others with films in their heads but not yet on a screen – who together dream, and who together encourage each other – give each other the heart/cœur – to dream.
This is not the second hand dreaming of passive observation, though. This is the first hand dreaming of not consuming cinema/consuming someone else’s dream – but of creating and having one’s own dreams, one’s dream of reinventing dreams, thereby giving dreaming itself a future.
In a world of dry, corporate cinema, Fest becomes a beacon of independence. Like the huntress Atalanta, who in Greek mythology retained her independence resolutely by refusing to enter into the patriarchal business of marriage, Fest also embraces diversity and that which takes us away from patriarchy, away from business, away from cinema as busy-ness and towards a slower, wetter, dreamier form of cinema. Like Meleager with Atalanta, men and women here come together in their otherwise independent hunt for dreams.
The Portuguese setting of Espinho becomes a key ingredient, then, to this festival. For, there is in Espinho a lack of business and busy-ness and a whole-hearted emphasis on art that truly is the festival’s brilliance. It can be seen in the architecture: slightly crumbling, the weeds here are allowed grow back through the concrete as cats run wild through the streets.
Developed as a grid city in the style of New York, Espinho nonetheless resists the control of the metropolis in spite of its even- and odd-numbered streets. Emblematic of the country’s own tussle with dictatorship under António de Oliveira Salazar, Espinho is instead quietly shambolic and unfussed in its pacing. These are not flaws; what Fest Film Festival tells us is that these things enable a better life, a better way of living, a better way of dreaming. For it is not a festival defined by fear, but by a constant reminder that art itself is to run the risk of perceived failure, that it involves putting everything on the line, confronting and growing through fear, and working with poverty in order to get not to lies but to truth. Fest gives us courage and heart because the festival is itself courageous and hearty – especially in its welcome.
In this way, it is perhaps inevitable that Antonio Tabbucchi writes this about Espinho in his novel, Pereira Maintains:
and there was also Espinho, a classy beach with a swimming-pool and casino, I often used to have a swim there and then a game of billiards, there was a first-rate billiard room, and that’s where I and my fiancée whom I later married used to go… that was a wonderful time in my life, and maybe I dream about it because it gives me pleasure to dream about it.
For, Pereira is himself a slightly shambolic man who, like Meleager with Atalanta, falls in love from afar with the girlfriend of a young man whom he helps out with a job at the dawn of Salazar’s fascist regime – in the process coming to a political awakening that allows him to use art to oppose authoritarianism and control. He was happy in Espinho, and he associates it with dreams, even as the world comes to a fascist end.
Right next to the arc-like Centro Multimeios that is Fest’s hub there is a house that is falling apart – referred to by a Dutch couple at the event as a pigeon hotel and figured prominently in a film made and screened at the festival by Guy Farber – as a response to a challenge set by me to those assembled at my guerrilla filmmaking workshop at Fest to make a silent film that is about the relationship between Espinho and the festival.
Again, then, decay is never far from Fest; it carries the end of the world with it, an apocalyptic unveiling (apo-/un- + kaluptein/to cover) that allows us more clearly to see, as all art thus involves death and rebirth, the flood and the desert, the blurring of boundaries and the breaking of the concrete.
A festival that of course shows films, it is a festival that is not about business and busy-ness, but which is about heart, humans, relationships, sharing and encouraging. In some senses, the festival thus replaces cinema, providing to its participants the intensity of experience that cinema itself perhaps once gave to us, but which all too often these days it does not. The film festival is thus better than cinema, a realisation of something that cinema can but only seldom does achieve: a world of courage and the bid to participate in the creation of heaven, in heaven as creation. And so we must now as filmmakers go away from Fest and improve cinema, create a different and new cinema, to destroy and to recreate cinema, and thus to give to others this solidarity, this courage, this intensity.
Some think of the festival as being a structural support for business: in providing a welcome break from business, the festival means that we can return to business and accept it for another year.
And yet Fest teaches us that the festival can be more than this. Fest is not escape from an otherwise humdrum existence; Fest shows us a better world that we must now all work hard to realise. We all feel a sense of what the Portuguese might call saudade as we leave Fest – a melancholic longing for someone that one loves, perhaps like Meleager’s feelings for Atalanta when she refused his love, and certainly like Pereira’s thoughts about Espinho. Saudade is not negative, though. For it also is a marker of necessary change and difference and independence, and so we must keep this saudade with us at all times and not let it wear off; we must not leave Fest so much as at all times carry it in our hearts as it holds us in its; we must embrace and not fear death, we must love loss and difference and realise that we are dying a little all the time; for it is only through working with rather than against these things that we can create art.
And in this way art can and will save the world. And it might help to bring about a better world, a world of dream and art. Dreaming the end of the world in Espinho at the Fest Film Festival, then, encourages us for the burden of heaven, the weight on our backs that is the ceaseless struggle to explore beyond the horizon and to reach new worlds. It is to realise heaven on Earth.