Review: Dogs Barking at Birds (2019), by Leonor Teles

Leonor Teles’ Dogs Barking at Birds was selected as a candidate for a nomination in the category ‘European Short Film’ at the 32nd European Film Awards by the jury of the Orizzonti competition at the 2019 Venice International Film festival.

Previously dedicated to the documentary format, the plot of Leonor Teles forth film unfolds against the backdrop of gentrification. The Portuguese director is painting a wonderfully accomplished picture of Porto’s rapid urban change and its consequences through the eyes of the main protagonist Vicente Gil and his family. By opening the film with a lengthy quotation from Wikipedia about the gentrification with the camera showing the faces of five cheerful teenagers involved in conversation, Teles starts bridging facts and fiction right from the beginning.

When the summer comes and the school is finally over, Vicente Gil strolls around the city on his bike, swooshing past historic buildings in the town centre. His family is short of eviction, and the big pressing questions surrounding their future arise. The forced changes leave a deep mark on the youth’s soul, the only ‘confidantes’ being his two dogs he’s comforting in words he would probably aim at himself if he could only accept the reality. But as the truth sinks in, he slowly starts to understand the situation; his family is one of the many whose rents are not protected by official contracts, and the cash is being passed from hand to hand, making it impossible to prove if the tenants meet their obligations or not. At the same time the prices of necessities are rising, forcing Vicente to wave goodbyes to the impacted area he grew up in. While the family is waiting for the official court decision about their destiny, he follows his mother María in her attempts to find a new, affordable apartment. The young man has to come to terms with leaving his neighbourhood and friends behind, and the pictures of his town area being dramatically changed follow him everywhere, even when he is trying to help the small diner owners to serve tourists; right next to him, while he’s taking orders from customers, the TV news anchor is showing the pictures of houses being torn down.

Vincente Gil, the main protagonist of Dogs Barking at Birds

Although the piece was originally commissioned by the Porto City Hall where she was in residency in 2018, Leonor Teles was given a carte blanche regarding the topic, under the only condition that it should evolve in/ around Porto. For the filmmaker who came from a completely different background (Villa Franca de Xira) and who resides in Lisbon, this was a challenge of a sorts. One of the reasons why she opted for gentrification as the subject matter for Dogs Barking at Birds probably came as a natural choice as one of the global phenomena the cities around the world (and not just in Portugal) are facing. The inspiration came directly from the acquaintance with Vicente, whose family was experiencing the hardships of such changes at the time of her residency. Teles was given the opportunity to come close to them and build the narrative around the concrete problems they encountered, and she is showing the harsh reality of the fragile community heavily hit by country’s financial crisis.

The plot of Dogs Barking at  Birds could have been told in a conventional documentary format, and yet it is difficult to imagine the film being anything else that it is – a warm, close-to-the-bone story shot in 16mm, truthful to life and resonating with social commentaries.

Country: Portugal
Language: Portuguese
Duration: 20’
Film format: 16mm
Director/Cinematographer/ Editor: Leonor Teles
Script: Joana Galhardas & Leonor Teles
Production: Uma Pedra no Sapato
Produced by: Filipa Reis, Leonor Teles, João Miller Guerra
Cast: Vicente Gil, Salvador Gil, María Gil
Sound: Rafael Gonçalves Cardoso