The approach at the heart of Susana Nobre's feature documentary Vida Activa is, to say the least, unusual: the film feeds off her work in a job centre in Vila Franca de Xira, some 30km outside Lisbon, where she counseled and helped prepared older workers, laid-off or unemployed, for the "new world" of modern employment. Her subjects are the people whose case files she handled, filmed with their knowledge and consent and that of her superiors, and the final result was edited down from footage shot over four years, between 2007 and the centre's 2011 shutdown after the programme it belonged to was cancelled.

     Essential to Ms. Nobre's approach is making sure her subjects retain their personal dignity, letting them talk about their experience of (un)employment in long, unmediated takes. These can be as dry and dull (there are next to no visual flourishes and a total absence of soundtrack) as they are vital for the entire structure of the project: the trick is making both subject and viewer at ease with the presence of a camera recording the exposure of their past experiences to the world, intruding into their sense of self. And the viewer finds herself in the position of the worker who is taking in all these histories and experiences, feeling as helpless as all involved as to whether there can really be a fresh, new start.

     Ms. Nobre dovetails her study of how the unemployed feel with the specific issues of the Vila Franca/Alverca do Ribatejo South Central region, where the main employers eventually closed down and threw an entire population into unemployment. She contextualises it within a better time of guaranteed long-term work that no one ever thought could disappear, as a lost world of hope in the future; she also shows the current employers to have a purely utilitarian view of work as a means to an end, merely using skills for as long as they're needed before disposing of them as no longer necessary. Thus a greyish indefinition replaces the sense of purpose and worth people had before, throwing them into a limbo these people feel themselves trapped in and see little to no way out of, even though they stubbornly (or self-blindingly?) insist on trying to maintain some dignity.

     That limbo is poignantly made visible in the final scenes, as the centre where Ms. Nobre worked for four years is shut down, and its aid workers are themselves thrown into the same position of the people they were supposed to help. While there's much about Vida Activa that is specific to the way Portugal suffered with the 2008 recession, and there's a brittle bluntness to its form that doesn't make it particularly endearing, this is in fact a hauntingly universal tale of the effects of unemployment.

Director and camera: Susana Nobre (colour)
Editor: João Rosas
Producers: Ms. Nobre, João Matos (Terratreme Filmes)
Portugal, 2013, 91 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 21st 2013


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