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DocLisboa. Disparate films span time and space, form and style, but ultimately tell the same story.

Near and far at the Lisbon Film Festival

“In these last few days,” said the Russian director Olga Privolnova, “I have been wandering around the streets of Lisbon, and I couldn’t help but noticing that everything is extremely different from Russia: our streets, the weather, even the coffee.”

For Privolnova, it is very important to state this in front of the audience gathered to see her film, Malenkiy Prints (“Little Prince”), at DocLisboa 2015 — where the time-honored tradition of the Q&A session with the artists still stands.

“That is why I ask you to keep some distance while watching my film,” she said. A detachment — between the spectator and the film object — which is at the heart of the cinematic experience, and even more so at an international film festival that takes viewers from Italy to the Urals and to Bangladesh during the 1970s military coup (Naeem Mohaiemen’s Last Man in Dhaka Central, in competition), or sinks us for five hours into Iraq before and after the 2003 war, with Abbas Fahdel’s Homeland (Iraq Year Zero).

And it does so through languages that are just as disparate: from the deep-rooted tradition of the North American Direct Cinema to the “total” experimentation of the young Canadian Isiah Medina and his 88:88 — a flow of consciousness entirely filmed with an iPhone and centered on the pain of being, socially and psychologically, an outsider.

“There is no thought without madness,” says the director, while on screen we see a patchwork of barely sketched situations: a dialogue between two lovers, the sky, family, WhatsApp messages exchanged with friends, the story of an evening just like all the others.

However, what stands out among DocLisboa’s selection is yet another theme, that of urgency: a whole section — Cinema of Urgency — tackles the most compelling issues of today’s world. For example, the exodus of people fleeing the Middle East to seek shelter in Europe is dealt with by Growing Home, a collective documentary made out of eight different short films reflecting as many perspectives on the borders that are daily crossed by thousands of Afghans, Palestinians and especially Syrians. Urgency is an issue that also informs choices about retrospectives concerning terrorism – I Don’t Throw Bombs, I Make Films – or filmmaking in Greece.

Themes are linked among themselves and at the same time very different from each other, that are in need of some distance from the spectator. And yet cinema also allows us a certain kind of proximity, a brief moment of closeness with what is far away from us. It offers “wonderful accesses to other experiences” — as the French critic Serge Daney wrote — even if only for a few moments.

Emblematic of this brief proximity is In Transit, the last beautiful film made by the American director Albert Maysles, who died in March at 88 years old. The festival honors him with this screening out of competition. The oldest of the Maysles brothers, among the pillars of American Direct Cinema, embarks with In Transit on the Empire Builder, a train that covers the very long route (over 2000 miles) between Chicago and Seattle or Portland, from the East to the deepest West of the United States in 48 hours.

There is no better subject than a traveler to catch a glimpse of the human soul: Who are the people on board? What has brought them to undertake a trip that goes from one edge to the other of a gigantic nation, crossing the Mississippi River, the Rocky Mountains and the Great Northern Plains? Maysles’ film opens a window on their lives. A ray of light rests on the reasons they are on that train, on their stories and, through them, on America itself, backlit by their tales, their desires and the destiny they see awaiting them at their destination.

Listening to some of them, time seems to have stopped: They are traveling in search of fortune. “Go West” is the resolution for a new beginning, a clean slate to write one’s story all over again.

A 21-year-old boy is going to North Dakota to work for an oil plant: “Seven years and I’ll be settled,” he says. Another one only wishes to get to a place where he doesn’t know anyone: “It’s my chance to start over.” But there are also those coming back: A young pregnant woman is traveling, even though the birth of her child is overdue, to rejoin her family after having been abandoned by the baby’s father; an old lady paid a visit to her daughter, whom she hadn’t seen in 47 years, and now is on her way back home, also enriched by a new tattoo — “but it’s only temporary,” she says. The train conductor works the job he desired ever since he saw the “silver thing” speeding past his small village as a kid and dreamed of places he had never seen. On the other hand, some of them travel just for the sake of it: “On the train I’m only myself, while at home I am bound to be someone’s daughter, mother or wife.”

For one man the Great Plains have an ancestral appeal, to a pregnant lady they’re only a deadly bore. A guy is moving to Montana to be with his girlfriend, who has been living there for over 10 years, during which they have only encountered each other by phone and internet. He is but a few stops away from the meeting he’s been longing for.

Outside the window, America runs fast beneath their eyes and changes its appearance at each stop; on the other side of the glass, the travelers look at it, they can’t wait to reach their destination or maybe to leave again; for a middle-aged photographer, it is the last desire his ailing heart will allow: “Just one more ride.” The camera lingers on their faces, shortly removing them from the anonymity and mystery where they are bound to return soon after, and bids farewell to them on the train’s doorstep. For a brief moment, we had been close.