There's a sense in which found footage films become a sort of playgrounds for fertile imaginations, a virtuoso toy box for skewed sensibilities that seem to enjoy recycling materials to bring out the hidden possibilities in them. My experiences at DocLisboa 2015 seem to have been working from an unwritten law that every film, regardless of its style or origin, contains in itself (as David Sylvian would put it) an "index of possibilities", some of which missed or waylaid.
There are no misses in the double feature of Dutch director Peter Delpeut's work carefully curated by programmer Augusto M. Seabra: Lyrical Nitrate, a 50-minute themed assemblage of early silent footage, and his later, tantalizingly evocative fantasy feature The Forbidden Quest. In both films, the possibilities are endless and limited only by the viewer's scope, as Mr. Delpeut and his editor Menno Boerema manipulate bits and pieces of silent-era film.
In Lyrical Nitrate, they shape them into mini-narratives that suggest an early double or triple bill, like an old-fashioned variety show that ends in a disturbingly dazzling exploration of nitrate decay, appropriately taken from a much damaged print of an Adam and Eve pageant and reminiscent of Bill Morrison's (later) work. The title is perfectly attuned to the film's carousel of moods, recapturing (with an irresistible metafictional wink, since it knows it's doing so) some of the wide-eyed magic of the early film spectators.
In The Forbidden Quest, footage of polar expeditions is intercut with the narrative of ship's carpenter J. C. Sullivan (Joseph O'Conor), the only survivor of a doomed South Pole exploration aboard a Dutch vessel; it's a tale inspired, per the end credits, by Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne but in truth carries more of a Lovecraftian vibe of unspeakable, indescribable horror. The most interesting thing about The Forbidden Quest, though, is how surprisingly open it remains. Mr. Delpeut's device has the found footage salvaged and brought back to civilization by Sullivan, as an alleged record of the late crew's nightmarish voyage into a netherworld of archaic, pre-religion forces; but the limitations of the found footage material, stubbornly incapable of representing the outlandish supernatural experience of the crew of the Hollandia, end up activating the viewer's imagination in a bewitchingly old-fashioned way, by suggesting rather than describing. The seemingly abrupt ending, leaving the viewer asking what on Earth did he just see, turns out to be the perfect way to keep the work reverberating beyond its screening - just as the writers that inspired it managed to create a sense of the haunting that remained outside the printed page. This particular index of possibilities has no limits.
Netherlands, 1990, 51 minutes
Directed and written by Peter Delpeut; edited by Menno Boerema; produced by Suzanne van Voorst for Yuca Film, in association with the Dutch Film Museum and in co-production with NOS-TV
THE FORBIDDEN QUEST
Netherlands, 1993, 76 minutes
Starring Joseph O'Conor and Roy Ward
Directed and written by Mr. Delpeut; English-language script by Jim Boekbinder; cinematographer Stef Tijdink; music by Loek Dikker; art directors Herman Coenen and Vincent de Pater; costume designer José Teunissen; film editor Mr. Boerema; produced by Ms. van Voorst for Ariel Film, in co-production with KRO TV
Both films screened October 24th 2015 at Culturgest, Lisbon, DocLisboa 2015 Riscos/New Visions sidebar screening