A first for Portugal

MEDITERRANEAN FILM festivals have been held in Montpellier, France, for the last 25 years and in Valencia, Spain, for the last 20 years. Haifa in Israel hosts one such festival as does Tetchouan in Morocco. This year, however, a festival celebrating the diversity of life in countries around the Mediterranean will be held in Portugal for the first time.

Faro, nominated as the National Capital of Culture in 2005, is the chosen venue. Initiated by the Algarve Film Commission, headed by José Manuel Lopes and Carlos Fraga, plans for the festival entitled ‘Vem Mediterrar’ have been long in the making.

I spoke to José to find out about the story behind this ambitious project. Three years ago, José told me: “I was in the final stages of plans for a presentation of films from Algeria. The groundwork had been done, the letters of invitation sent out and the films selected. Then, on March 11, 2002, bombs exploded in Madrid and the plans had to be shelved. Such a festival at such a time was judged to be politically insensitive.

“None of us who had been involved wanted to give up the idea. In fact, we started to plan for an even bigger festival, which would bring together countries from around the Mediterranean, creating cultural links between north and south.

“What matters to me is life in the streets, jobs that are no longer there, memories that have been swept away by tourism. Think about the fishing industry that used to be the main occupation of so many villages here in the Algarve until the shoals of tuna moved elsewhere and the rivers silted up. Some of those fishing villages are now hotel complexes.”

With this festival, José’s aim is to awaken memories of a shared culture of the Mediterranean. “Above all, I want young people to see these films,” he told me.

The Algarve is rooted both geographically and historically in the Mediterranean, having provided ports of strategic importance since the Phoenicians established outposts along its Atlantic coast around 900BC.

In her book The Portuguese: The Land and its People, Marion Kaplan describes Portugal as “more Mediterranean than Atlantic, as much African as European, its Islamic heritage visible in a Christian society”.

It is this cultural mix which attracts José for whom the Mediterranean is and always has been “a dialogue”: a vast market whose waters have been crisscrossed by traders and whose horizons have offered prospects to those seeking refuge, work or simply a place in the sun.

There was another false start in September. “September seemed to be an ideal month, after the tourists have gone and there is more hotel accommodation,” José continued. “But the complexity of bringing so many diverse voices together, of financing it, of finding affordable accommodation for all concerned, of co-ordinating the whole from this small office with a team of just five dedicated helpers, meant that September came and went without the festival.”

So, it will be in March that this dream will finally come true and with it a cross-cultural event of which the Algarve can be as justifiably proud as it is of its heritage and its natural beauty.

The film festival will take place from March 9 to 18 in Salas SBC of Fórum Algarve in Faro, Algarve. In total, 22 countries will participate. For further details, contact [email protected] or visit www.vemmediterrar.org

By Susanne Elliott, visitor to Tavira, Kings College, London