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Screening Before the Storm: Drowning in Anxiety at Fantaspoa

Lynchian vibes at the Master Express

The rain started just as our plane took off from Porto Alegre, sealing our narrow escape. Forty-eight hours later, the airport was underwater, as Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul faced its worst flooding in nearly a century. How could this happen? We had just premiered my new film there a few nights before. Was it a dream? A quick glance at my arm confirms otherwise.

Like many filmmakers who attend the so-called “coolest” of the Méliès Federation’s consortium of fantastic film festivals, I got inked by Laiss, a native tattoo artist who specializes in blackwork. Mine is a simple line drawing on my upper arm that recalls the festival’s iconic logo—an eyeball with wings doodled onto a napkin by Elizabeth Schuch, the festival’s talented art director and a filmmaker herself. Later, I flashed my new tattoo to the three heads of the fest: JP, JP2, and Nicolas. Their flying eyeball logos are traditionally drawn with more detail, the festival’s name scrawled below them. Unsure of my deviance, they rubbed their chins. To alleviate their concerns—and, who knows, maybe help my chances of coming back to this one-of-a-kind festival—I assured them that if I ever return to their exotic city I will add the name: Fantaspoa.

It was back in December when JP (João Pedro Fleck) offered me a world premiere slot at the 20th anniversary edition of his festival. I had just come off of my seventh pass from Sundance, and Fantastic Fest was still nearly a year away. Being a two-time FF alum, I shared it with them around the same time as Sundance out of loyalty to team Drafthouse. But their silence, even if expected given how early it was, made me uneasy. So when JP expressed interest in showing my new film, I jumped at the opportunity.

My film, Let the Moon Be My Moon, is a no-budget experimental documentary, a hybrid, or docufiction if you will. It combines iPhone and GoPro footage with 8mm archival clips of my childhood in Rio to help establish an affective memoir—an exploration of identity, displacement, and mortality done as a self-portrait. All that, coupled with the making of a surreal motovlog, means it’s not exactly a straightforward narrative like my prior features. So, I somewhat expected that this biographical essay film would make for an unpredictable festival trajectory, to say the least. The trip to Fantaspoa, with a two-day layover in Buenos Aires, echoed my family’s migration from Argentina to Brazil nearly 50 years earlier. My childhood years in Rio were not exactly idyllic, so I was riddled with a strange mix of nervousness and excitement, punctuated by a new phenomenon: heart palpitations for which I hadn’t yet sought medical advice. As I counted the seconds between skipped heartbeats, it felt apropos that I could possibly die in this familiar yet foreign land — a fated bookend, my life sealed in the cosmic scroll. To fight these worrisome thoughts, I reminded myself of my secret power, the only thing that lets me face demons: being a filmmaker. That’s not to say being a filmmaker hasn’t created its own set of monsters, but it has made me willing to venture forth into the heart of darkness, the places that scare me. I booked our flights, and away we went.

I felt uneasy during the long 10-hour flight to Buenos Aires. During the Falklands War I was labeled a military deserter, and warned that I could be arrested if I returned to Argentina. (I was only 16 and a U.S. citizen at the time, so my mom figured she didn’t need to register me for the mandatory draft.) Although I was later pardoned, this was my first trip back and, upon landing there, a fresh wave of anxiety hit me. The fact that the immigration system literally crashed when they scanned my ID definitely didn’t help. Deep down, I knew it was just coincidence, but when you’ve had a relative killed by the junta during the “dirty war” in the ’70s, followed by my draft-dodger incident, and now the rise of a strongman who styles his hair like Wolverine and clones his dogs, it was enough to make my heart race. But again, my secret power got me through. I inhaled the fresh air. Buenos Aires. And wept at our long-overdue reunion, a short visit that brought back many memories.

There’s a scene in my film where I reminisce with my 93-year-old mother about our move from Buenos Aires to Rio in 1971. I remember it vividly, Copacabana, tropical and exotic, a scary place for a four-year-old. I remind her about the time we got separated in an outdoor market. She recalls losing me there, but can’t remember for how long. To me it felt like an eternity, though it was probably more like 15 minutes. Those lost minutes would escalate my anxiety in foreign places for a lifetime.

While researching Porto Alegre I found out that the U.S. Department of State has most Brazilian cities, including Porto Alegre, flagged as “Level 2 – Exercise increased caution.” Although that’s the same level as some European cities where many roam the streets without worry, thoughts of being lost or kidnapped run wildly through my head. There’s even a warning about Dengue Fever which is transmitted by mosquitoes. Between 30 and 40 cases are reported in the city monthly. Breathe, I tell myself. It’ll be okay.

Upon arrival, Linda, my wife, and I were greeted at the Salgado Filho International Airport by a veteran festival coordinator named Darsie. He welcomed us with a shy, slightly nervous smile. As we drove away from the airport, I mentioned how the abandoned buildings surrounding the port would make good film locations. They’re so atmospheric. “Yes, Porto Alegre is indeed very Lynchian,” he replied. Having brought the conversation back to cinema, I suddenly felt at ease again.

Home for the next few days would be the Master Express, a modest hotel in the historic district. The receptionist copied our passports and handed us our room keys. Room 604. When I lived in Rio, it was not unusual for our elevator to get stuck, so when a tiny cramped elevator arrived on the first floor, I instinctively went for the stairs—a door that led to utter darkness. As I stepped in, a motion detector illuminated the dark stairwell, then quickly went out again. I decided to risk the elevator.

Our room was clean and simple. Gazing out of the sixth-floor window, I was struck by the building across the way. It too reminded me of our apartment in Rio, but this one had that Lynchian vibe Darsie had talked about with a lone window that glowed blue from a cheap chandelier. The surreal stillness was broken by a WhatsApp message, Darsie suggesting we meet in the lobby in 10 minutes.

On our way out, we passed the same street that our room looked down upon. I asked Darsie if it was okay to walk there. “Only during the day,” he said as we headed off in the opposite direction. Minutes later, we arrived at a small, dimly lit bar called the Dirty Old Man. A convivial group of fest staff and fellow filmmakers had already gathered there for the night. They greeted us warmly and Caipirinhas flowed freely. Pour me another please.

At the bar, we met the three ringleaders of the fest. Up until then, JP and I had only communicated via Instagram when he invited me to play in competition alongside a few much more notable docs, including fest darlings, Kim’s Video and The Clones of Bruce Lee, Albert Pyun – King of Cult Movies, and the highly anticipated, Children of the Wicker Man. The two adult sons of Robin Hardy—the director of the 1973 folk horror masterpiece—were also in attendance. For a moment, I forgot all about my palpitations. I was happy to be there, surrounded by genre lovers and fellow filmmakers. This is what I had come here for.

The next few days shared that same Fantaspoa rhythm—movies during the day, and a party each night. As the fest neared its final days, the parties got bigger and better. My film premiered on the penultimate night to a warm but small crowd that included the Hardy brothers. The party afterwards was the much-anticipated all-night-costume-gala-on-the-boat. I can still hear the ringing in my ears, the pulsing rhythms drowning out the unsteady beat of my heart, and my Dengue Fever fears, held at bay as we danced the night away. I can still see JP2 jumping up and down, chanting, “A.D.! A.D.! Fantaspoa family! Fantaspoa family!” We spent the night aboard the three-story ship, cruising up and down the Guaíba River, the same misty river that would soon breach its banks and inundate the port towns of Rio Grande do Sul including the historic city of Porto Alegre.

When we disembarked at 4 a.m., JP asked me, “How was your screening last night? I’m hearing good things.” Those four words buoyed me, but as I stepped off the boat I had a sinking feeling. A premonition of the devastation to come? Or the flood of rejections to follow? Fantaspoa might be both my first and last screening. Unlike other filmmakers there, I didn’t have another screening lined up, just a bunch of festival submissions that I was still waiting to hear back from.

Thirty-six hours later, we were back in the States, resting on the couch with my cat purring on my lap, and my wife making chamomile tea to help calm my nerves as news of the flooding flooded my Instagram feed. As I watched the devastation unfold, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fragility of our connections and the unpredictable nature of our journeys. The sense of community and validation I gained at Fantaspoa had restored me, but seeing the floodwaters threatening to wash away their city left me feeling uneasy and insecure once again. Disbelief at how narrowly we missed this, followed by a broken heart for our new friends in Brazil. Being a filmmaker constantly pushes me outside my comfort zone, forcing me to confront my fears and embrace new challenges. Fantaspoa felt like a dream, a surreal, intense experience that will leave a lasting impact on me. Despite my secret power, I’m now on heart medication. So I have to wonder, did I push myself too hard?

There’s a cemetery not far from my house where some scenes from Let’s Scare Jessica to Death were filmed. My film ends at that same cemetery, so I think I’ll end this article there as well, paraphrasing the closing lines of that film: “I can’t believe it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares? Madness or reality? Sometimes, I don’t know which is which.”

Click here to donate to the flood victims of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil

A.D. Calvo has written and directed several narrative features that focus on lost, lonely characters struggling to find their way. Let the Moon Be My Moon is his first feature-length documentary. In 2015, he premiered a dark comedy called The Missing Girl at TIFF.40. The following year he returned to his genre roots with Sweet, Sweet, Lonely Girl, a gothic throwback lauded for its subdued atmosphere and Bergmanesque tone. It was picked up by Shudder after premiering at Fantastic Fest and SITGES. Calvo has been a guest contributor to Hammer to Nail and Filmmaker Magazine.

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