Directors: Céline Coste Carlisle, Judit Kalmár (Portugal, Hungary). Year of Release: 2020
Céline Coste Carlisle is stuck in a traffic jam. She’s on the phone to Ivone Dias, the woman she’s due to visit, assuring her that she’s on her way. Ivone was 70 when Céline first saw her singing. Now she’s 84, and still sprightly, particularly when she takes the stage. She once told Céline that she sings so that she can revisit her younger days of being in love, but there is such a youthful air to her performances that you are taken with her into less complicated times.
Fado literally means something like fate. After watching the film, I wouldn’t exactly be able to hear a song and tell you whether it is fado, but the people who play it know. The songs we see are accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a one stringed bass. It is a clear part of Portuguese culture. But there is a great risk that it is being transformed for the worse by gentrification. Maybe it is even being destroyed.
Tourism boomed in Lisbon when cheap flights became available to many more people than before. Most people in Lisbon at first welcomed the extra money, even though jobs remained at the minimum wage while rents and prices soared. Despite the extra work, people could no longer afford to live in their old homes. Instead of neighbourhoods where everyone knew each other, the city is filling up with faceless Airbnbs, where tourists can order the door key over the Internet.
There were also the cruise ships. In the high season, 3 or 4 ships each bring 4,000 people a day to Portugal’s capital. These tourists don’t necessarily stay overnight, but they have also transformed the city centre. Lisbon is not a large city like London or Berlin. You notice when so many people are bustling around the town centre. There’s the noise, the hubbub, the litter.
Many fado singers perform in the tourist areas but now live in Alfama, Lisbon’s old city. Alfama is a boat ride away from the main tourist centre, but none of them can afford to live in a place which has become overrun with tourist flats. Ivone takes us through the old neighbourhood where she was born and brought up, telling us who used to live there. “He moved out, she died, she had to leave”. Ivone was also forced out. She now lives out of town with her daughter.
We see Marta Miranda, a superb singer, performing for the attendees of her bar, the TascaBeat do Rosário. She mixes traditional aspects of fado with a more modern, international, flavour. Her guitar player is French – although he came to Portugal when he was 17 and speaks Portuguese fluently. At the show, Marta announces that this is one of the final performances in the bar, as they can no longer afford the rent. Not all change is progress.
It would have been easy for a film like Fado to get very parochial, very quickly – to be simply nostalgic for the old times and to blame tourists as individuals or even foreigners for Lisbon’s negative development. As it is, most of the singers and musicians have a dialectical understanding of what is happening. Many of them are foreign themselves – from the Italian musician who starts an online petition to support TascaBeat to Marta’s guitar player. They embody diversity.
The directors themselves are viewing slightly from the outside. Judit Kalmár is a Hungarian journalist, and although Céline is from a Portuguese family and has lived here for years, she is originally from Switzerland. They both understand that what they are witnessing is not peculiar to Lisbon – that gentrification is also rampaging elsewhere. The declining ability of people to play fado as they used to is symptomatic of a much wider problem.
Members of the fado society – based way out of town because of rental costs – discuss the changes they have experienced in recent decades. Some argue that it’s a great gain that UNESCO now recognises fado as a cultural heritage. Others ask what this has brought the singers and musicians who actually play the music. Yes, a few singers have broken through to a much larger audience. But for most performers, there are increasingly few venues where fado can be played.
What is touched on, but could be expanded, is the effect of gentrification on the music itself. The artists worry that Lisbon will turn into a Disneyland, a Fadoland, they call it. They don’t elaborate, but you get a sense of what they mean by listening to the songs. Those songs which are not celebrating fado are mainly about the lives of working class people, about the fisherman’s wife, or the woman who sold things from a market stall.
Fado was written and performed by workers, but it was also performed for workers. As increasing number of tourists come into the few remaining cafés, how will the relationship between singer and performer change? At one stage, we meet a singer who carries tourists around with a tuktuk bicycle in the daytime, and became self-employed so he would still have the time to sing. How will his songs change now that the audience consists largely of people who exploit his labour like this?
The answer is complicated and beyond the remit of the film, but we can see that something is getting worse. Alter the living conditions of an artist, change their relationship with their audience, and you’ll get a different form of art. Just like everything else, fado is being transformed by gentrification and capitalism. Although Fado is not an explicitly political film, it is anti-capitalist to its soul. It’s sees that the wrong people are taking control, and it doesn’t like it one bit.
Also, the music is superb. I get the feeling that this is a film on limited release, so try and see it while you can.