Horror, humour, music and more: Is Fantasporto the ultimate film festival?

Still from "Cold Meat" by Sébastien Drouin
Still from "Cold Meat" by Sébastien Drouin Copyright WTFilms
By Ricardo Figueira
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This article was originally published in Portuguese

The 44th edition of the Porto International Film Festival has a varied selection for all tastes, with around 100 films on show at the Batalha Cinema Centre.

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43 years is a long time. If, for a film festival, reaching the 44th edition is a remarkable achievement, doing all those editions with the same management team is even more extraordinary.

So began the reflections of Steven Gaydos, editor-in-chief of Variety magazine, who's also a film producer and screenwriter, at the latest edition of Fantasporto, now on at the Batalha Cinema Centre and continuing until Sunday 10th of March. 

By then, around 100 films will have been screened, including features and shorts from the various competitive sections, retrospectives and out-of-competition films.

Beatriz Pacheco Pereira and Mário Dorminsky, Fantasporto founders.
Beatriz Pacheco Pereira and Mário Dorminsky, Fantasporto founders.Ricardo Figueira / Euronews

Beatriz Pacheco Pereira and Mário Dorminsky have captained the Fantas ship since it was launched in 1981 as "Porto's fantastic cinema showcase". In recent years, they have affirmed the festival as a generalist event, open to all genres of cinema, moving away from the connotation with the fantastic and horror that marked the early years - even if that is still its strong suit.

As a festival that follows the world's thinking, it's not strange that the opening film was a delightful comedy that lays bare the woke ideology and makes us laugh at the state of things - at ourselves, after all. Testament is directed by Canadian Denys Arcand, whom the world first met with The Barbarian Invasions.

It's in Directors' Week, one of the two main competitive sections, that most of the films outside the fantastic genre are concentrated. Mário Dorminsky doesn't hesitate when he says: "We have perhaps the best Directors' Week ever". The organisers highlight the presence of Bucky F*cking Dent, David Duchovny's (The X-Files' Mulder) second feature as director, or A Normal Family, by South Korean Hur Jin-ho.

This year's Directors' Week also has a musical flavour, with the world premiere of Heart Strings, an American production by Dutchman Ate de Jong.

De Jong (best known for his 1991 film Drop Dead Fred) is far from a stranger to Fantasporto. A regular at the event, he has been president of the jury and winner of the Career Award in previous editions, so it's not surprising that he chose Fantas for the first international screening of his film.

Maggie Koerner, Ate de Jong and Sam Varga, director and protagonist of "Heart Strings"
Maggie Koerner, Ate de Jong and Sam Varga, director and protagonist of "Heart Strings"Ricardo Figueira /Euronews

It's a romantic musical set in the middle of country music - two young singers pretend to be a couple in order to take part in a reality show and end up - surprise of surprises - falling in love.

Being a musical, I'd rather have singers who can act than actors who can sing.
Ate de Jong
Director

"For the film, I wanted real singers, not professional actors," Ate de Jong tells Euronews Culture, explaining the choice of Maggie Koerner and Sam Varga for the lead roles. "Being a musical, I'd rather have singers who can act than actors who can sing. Singers don't have all the vanity that actors have," he adds. "The only takes we asked to be repeated were those where we felt we didn't do well musically," says Koerner.

To mark the film's premiere, the lead duo gave a free concert in a record shop in Porto and unveiled part of the soundtrack, along the lines of classic country. Some of the songs were written by Steven Gaydos, who also co-produced and co-wrote the script.

Fantastic for all tastes

Even though the festival has been moving away from the image of being centred on the fantastic (more particularly horror), there's no escaping it here and this is still the genre that attracts many spectators to Batalha's two cinemas. This year, the official fantastic cinema section has 30 feature films in competition.

Over the years, a subgenre has become typical of the festival - the low-budget, completely nonsensical horror film, in which the gushes of blood are directly proportional to the laughter in the audience.

This subgenre is well represented this year by All you need is blood, the first feature by Americans Cooper Roberts and Bucky Le Boeuf.

Scene from "All you need is blood"
Scene from "All you need is blood"Snakebyte productions and entertainment group / Yale productions

A young man with aspirations to become a director gains an unexpected asset when several people around him turn into zombies, thus gaining the perfect actors for his horror film. Can he tame them and complete the film? The result is more comical than terrifying.

On a more serious note, Cold Meat, the feature debut of Frenchman Sébastien Drouin, is a serious contender for the main prize. Let's not be fooled, though: if Drouin is making his feature film debut, he's far from a novice, with several short films under his belt and a career spanning more than 20 years as a special effects supervisor. 

This experience came in handy in the production of this film, as the weather took its toll on the director: "I wanted to shoot in an area north of Vancouver, Canada, because I needed a lot of snow in my film," Drouin tells Euronews Culture. "The problem was that, to our surprise, there was practically no snow and we had to recreate it with special effects. One in three shots in the film is truncated. Whenever you see snow falling, it was created in post-production," he adds.

It's difficult to describe the film without spoilers, since the whole plot is based on an important twist that happens in the first few minutes. Let's just say that two people are trapped inside a car in the middle of a snowstorm and desperately need to survive.

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My references are Alfred Hitchcock and Brian de Palma.
Sébastien Drouin
Director

"My references are Alfred Hitchcock and Brian de Palma," says Drouin. "So it's suspense that I'm comfortable with, more particularly the kind of suspense that is built with very few characters and whose plot is based on the development of those characters," he adds.

O ator Yan Tual e o realizador Sébastien Drouin (de "Cold Meat")
O ator Yan Tual e o realizador Sébastien Drouin (de "Cold Meat")Ricardo Figueira / Euronews

This is a tradition that Cold Meat lives up to in the best possible way, holding the viewer's breath from start to finish. The film features Allen Leech (from Downton Abbey), Nina Bergman (Hell Hath No Fury) and Yan Tual (Outlander) in the lead roles.

Tributes and retrospectives

This year, in addition to a cycle of films from Kazakhstan (a filmography that is practically unknown in Portugal), Fantas wanted to pay tribute to Hungarian cinema, which has won so many awards here. 

It's a rare year when there aren't one, if not several films from Hungary coming out of Fantas with awards. Liza, the Fox Fairy, by Károly Mészáros, first prize in the fantastic section in 2015; Post Mortem, by Péter Beregendy (special jury prize in 2021) or Preparations to be together for an unknown period of time, by Lili Horvát, first prize in the Directors' Week in the same year, are just some of the examples in this cycle dedicated to Hungary.

"We've always had very good films from Hungary," says Beatriz Pacheco Pereira. "There are two reasons for this: the first is that Hungarian cinema is very strong. The second is that we met the people in charge of Hungarofilm (Hungary's state film agency) in Cannes and, since then, we've created a close relationship, which means that they always send us the best of what's being made in the country," she adds.

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Karim Ouelhaj is the European David Cronenberg.
Mário Dorminsky
Founder and director of Fantasporto

As for this year's main honoree, Belgian director Karim Ouelhaj, Mário Dorminsky has no hesitation in calling him "the European David Cronenberg". "Like the Canadian, Ouelhaj makes visceral cinema in the literal sense of the word," concludes the festival director.

Ouelhaj won first prize at last year's edition with Megalomaniac and has a filmography that ranges from Parabola to Le Repas du Singe, always with social concerns: "I talk about violence in society, especially violence against women," the Belgian told Euronews Culture. "The most worrying thing about my films is that they are premonitory. I talk about things that will come true later," he adds.

Karim Ouelhaj
Karim OuelhajRicardo Figueira / Euronews

All these films are in the retrospective that Fantasporto is dedicating to Ouelhaj, before awarding him the 2024 Career Prize.

There will be a lot of cinema on the screens at Batalha until the awards are presented on Saturday evening, the 9th, and the closing screening of the Chinese super-production Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, by Wuershan. As is tradition, Sunday will be dedicated to the screening of the main award winners.

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