Terra Franca is the first feature film from 26-year-old Portuguese director Leonor Teles. She made waves over the last couple of years not only in Portugal, but also internationally with her 2016 Golden Bear-winning short film Balada de um Batráquio (Batrachian’s Ballad). This short was a near-punk statement about the discrimination that the Romani community in Portugal usually suffer from. As sharp and sudden as it was, igniting an immediate reaction and discussion, it was also deeply rooted in personal archival truth, as Leonor is from Romani descent herself. Terra Franca maintains her desire to ground her films in her roots, taking place in her hometown of Vila Franca de Xira, a lived-in reality far from the currently tourist dominated, chaotic and gentrified city of Lisbon, where she studied. Instead of aggrandizing her previous incisive, rebellious yell with her feature debut, her voice here is more like an affectionate whisper as she documents the real daily life of a local family over the course of a year.
The film presents us with Albertino Lobo, a fisherman pushing his late-50s, living in a riverside community with his family. Albertino, with whom we spend more time alone, at work or in his boat, often with a look of wandering aloofness, is our gateway into the Lobo family’s particularities ashore. What ensues is a series of informal, welcoming vignettes from concerning such events as the much-anticipated marriage of Albertino’s daughter to brief observations on a changing world that feels disparate from the very contained, traditional way of life we see in this film.
The director’s presence, as a documentarian, in the capturing of these people’s lives, is barely felt. There are no voice-overs, direct interviews or even a rare appearance or intervention from the filmmaker. It is a documentary that never announces itself as such. The filmmaking is inconspicuous and discreet. There is nothing but their humble lives and conversations spontaneously unfolding and permeating our consciousness as spectators. There are a clear intimacy and sense of proximity to all of the film’s scenes. Teles’ gaze is never one of invasion or voyeurism, but of belonging, openness, and familiarity. She comes from this town and is a member of this community. Growing up in a smaller town in Portugal myself and hailing from a traditional family, seeing this homely reality and its charming everyday quirks on-screen was an absolute joy, especially when certain conversations and comments sounded like ones from my own family get-togethers.
Terra Franca (translated to Ashore in its English title, but meaning “frank land” when literally translated) certainly is not the huge splash that one would expect from a leading voice in a new generation of filmmakers—it is as simple, quiet and direct as it gets. But, much like many of her peers in the current Portuguese film scene (also due to the current lack of funds for film production in Portugal), it opts for a more contemplative, bare-bones approach, and it absolutely works because and in spite of it. The film is a short, breezy, wonderful watch in all its heartfelt simplicity. It is just some time spent with the Lobo family, but time well spent nonetheless.