John Berger, Piotr Anderszewski and Yasmine Hamdan at the Lisbon Estoril Festival: A Sublime Coincidence of Text and Music

John Berger, the famed British writer, offered a tremendous performance of poems and stories for the Lisbon Estoril Film Festival last night, interspersed with the music of Schumann and Szymanowski, played by acclaimed Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski.


"I can't believe John Berger is here with us!" exclaimed the new director of the National Theater of Lisbon (dMII), where the event was held, his eyes ecstatic. "I feel like a boy who has just received his driver's license, being given the keys to a Ferrari!"

I knew Berger's work from university: his Ways of Seeing had been a staple text in semiotics courses, exposing how "the male gaze" dominates in both classic nude paintings and contemporary advertisements. Decades later, I rediscovered Berger's work when I used his theory of "the space in-between" in my seminar on the Sublime.

The lights dimmed to gold on the stage.

"Coincidence!" the charismatic ninety-year old writer began, gesturing animatedly to his audience. "What is coincidence?"

He paused dramatically.

"Two things happen to come together at the same time. And together they make a third!"

Berger then delivered a poem--a meditation on longing for a woman--that finished with abrupt silence. The chords of Schumann struck.

The effect was exquisite. The audience--which included luminaries such as Wim Wenders, Jonathan Demme and Barbet Schroeder--listened in hushed silence.

My favorite reading: a simple story Berger told of coming to a square in Lisbon ("a square of prayers") to light three candles for three friends who needed these candles lit. Yet he had no match. A hand reached towards him with a candle in flame, and then a conversation--with this bearer of light--ensued. She, a former cleaning woman newly returned to Portugal from France, had also come to light a candle: for whom remained a mystery until the story's end.

The final line, as the contemplative man and the bereaved woman reach an understanding, was frighteningly sublime: "Whatever good these candles do, they do it....without us."

Cut to silence. Then piano chords.

Concluding the poetic-music ensemble was a passionate concert by acclaimed Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan. She, sensuous in black jeans and long tussled hair, performed with two grinning handsome guitarists at her side. The climax of her concert: a haunting rendition of the song she had sung in Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive. She put her hand to her mouth, pressing her lips to give a breathy rhythm, her feet, bare in sandals, tapping on the floor.


In the creative interdisciplinary style that distinguishes the Lisbon-Estoril film festival, the evening also featured an art exhibit entitled "Here is Where We Meet", set up in the lobby. John Berger and artist Yvonne Rosalin Barlow--once adolescent friends--had rejoined decades later to make paintings (independently) on the same theme, to then compare. The hall was lined with the paired paintings, coinciding.

My favorite pairing: two paintings expressing the theme of the concept "The Act of God". One painting was a man being struck by lightning; the other, a sorrowful man being comforted by an angel with great white wings.

I spotted actor Bruno Ganz, the lead angel in Wenders' Wings of Desire (the one who renounces his wings, for love of a woman), gazing at this pairing.


"Do you know which painting is Berger's and which is his friend's?" I asked the Swiss actor, in Italian.

"Non so niente!" the erstwhile angel responded with a lively grin. "La sola cosa che so, è che quello è un angelo!"

("I don't know anything! The only thing I know is that that is an angel!")

He laughed and pointed at the wings.



When two things meet.