Since the release of his 2004 feature debut The Face You Deserve, Portugal’s Miguel Gomes has become arguably the most exhilaratingly perplexing figure in world cinema. His films embrace the supposed dichotomies of documentary and fiction, fantasy and realism, humor and melancholy — and, in his 2012 international breakthrough Tabu, silent as well as sound film. His work doesn’t so much break boundaries as perform a happy little jig upon them.
Now, he’s returning with his most ambitious work to date, Arabian Nights, a 6-hour-long dispatch from debt-crunched modern Portugal, inspired by the classic Eastern compendium of folktales. The film neatly divides into three feature-length pieces, which will be rolling out at the Film Society of Lincoln Center over successive weeks beginning on December 4th. Working with a team of journalists, Gomes filmed for over a year to tell the sprawling and intimate stories of his countrymen. His attentiveness to frustrations large and small, related through sketch-like stylistic experimentations and an enthusiastic use of pop and classical music, gives his epic a playful, cobbled-together feel, but it’s nonetheless a film of tremendous ambition, its cinematic storytelling effectively breaking out of the frame of the feature film. The resulting work, lacking a serviceable analogue, is one of the rare political films that seeks not to change its viewers’ minds, but their perceptions. I had the good fortune to suit down with Gomes during the New York Film Festival to discuss the film’s production, his unique approach to narrative, and aliens.
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Daniel Witkin: Your last film, Redemption, was a relatively scant 30 minutes long, but it tackled many of the same themes of contemporary European history and postwar trajectory as Arabian Nights. Do you approach a half-hour-long movie differently from a 6-hour one?
Miguel Gomes: You can do a lot of different things in cinema, including a 30-minute film consisting entirely of found footage. But this film, Redemption, deals with many of the things that interested me when making Arabian Nights, mainly the connection between very intimate – almost confessional – moments and the larger community and public images and figures, like Prime Ministers and Presidents. Arabian Nights deals with some very off-center characters, people who are very eccentric and very obsessed, but their stories are connected to the broader world.
DW: Arabian Nights applies a well-known narrative framework from the Middle East and applies it to the contemporary world. Did you think about bridging the two cultures while making the film?
MG: I don’t think that the origin of the Arabian Nights in the Middle East and India is particularly important to the project. What appeals to me in Arabian Nights is that even if it deals with the Arabian popular culture of some time ago, many of the stories were made up by the translators. For example, Aladdin was apparently made up by a translator. What interested me was the way that the book invented the imaginary from the conditions of everyday life, because the imaginary is not just a made-up world that comes from nothing. It comes from the experience of living in a certain time in a certain society. So that was what we tried to do, to show what was happening in Portugal in very material ways, to give voice to people who had difficulties. Like the woman whose rooster was sent to court – she acts in the film, but that was her real experience. I also wanted to show the multicultural society we’re living in. This is why you hear Chinese spoken in the film. You have people from all over the world living in Portugal. The world has become smaller.
DW: I know you worked with journalists in writing the film. Can you tell me about how that relationship worked?
MG: We gave them orders. Sometimes they wouldn’t follow our orders, but that’s not so bad. Of course, journalists are not used to working on film crews, so I think that they were suspicious at the beginning. I was worried because they are real journalists, who work in newspapers and on TV, and they were giving me material to make fiction, so I was worried that their work might be made invisible – even though its there. For this reason, we started a website where the journalists could publish their work as journalistic articles. If you go there, you can see these stories. Some of them are close to what we put in the film and some of them are quite different.
DW: So how did you turn this material into cinematic stories?
MG: There’s not just one method. Sometimes, as in the “Dixie” film, they did a lot of research, much more than what was published. There was a real middle-aged couple who committed suicide in the building where we shot, so the journalists researched their lives and found out quite a lot. There was some material that we didn’t put in the film because we didn’t think that it belonged to the film, but it’s there. Sometimes it’s invisible – the actor knows something that the viewer doesn’t; sometimes it gives a surreal touch. For instance, the journalists told me about how Simao, the criminal, paid for some bread with a 20 euro note, and you see him waiting for his change in the film. We could go scene by scene, and you would see that their work was important in many different ways.
DW: Your work makes extensive use of split narratives, where multiple plots are taken up and sometimes abandoned. What draws you to this kind of structure?
MG: I would make one part of the film with its own rules, and this part, which was like a film unto itself, needed another one. The first part goes to a certain point, after which it can no longer continue – it needs a second film to come in. The second part will transform the film you have seen, and the first will influence how you see what comes next. To give an example, with Tabu, the first part needed the second part about the past because the past is the first half’s taboo, the thing that no one will discuss. After you’ve seen the characters when they are old, it gives their younger versions a ghost-like aspect. So the first half also affects the second.
DW: Arabian Nights is a further evolution in this kind of storytelling. How do approach that narrative structure on such a large scale? How did you deal with the architecture, so to speak?
MG: To be honest, I let it flow because I could not control this structure. It was like being an architect and making the parts for a very large building without knowing the structure. This was difficult – and exciting – but very difficult because of how much time you have to spend blindfolded, without being able to see the whole. We were just filming the stories that interested us, not thinking about the structure because doing so was impossible. If you were thinking about the structure, you were just wasting your time. By the end of the process it was easier because you had a wider notion of what had been done, so you could see the rhymes. I think that a lot of the rhymes simply result from the fact that it was the same crew and director, with the same interests and obsessions. So everything starts to make sense together, because we were making a personal film.
DW: So at what point did you decide to do it as three feature-length films?
MG: During the editing. By the end of the process, I realized that we had material to create three very different cinematic experiences. If the main character of the film is Portugal or the Portuguese people, we could organize the characters on three levels. The first volume is The Restless One: all the characters are restless, and the film is the most like a roller coaster out of the three. Then there’s a level where everything is much more dark and desperate, the characters are miserable beyond any redemption. And finally, the third volume has a structure that is much more like that of my previous film. It’s an encyclopedia of two communities, one fictional and one real, even if both communities are doing something that seems quite unreal.
DW: A lot of the first part has to do with questions of labor, including a segment that revolves around the “work of the film director.” How would you define this work? Can it be compared to the work of the other laborers the film depicts?
MG: In the prologue, you have a world that is very unstable. On one hand, you have the dockworkers, who are soon going to be unemployed, you have the exterminator, who is killing the wasps who are attacking the bees, and you have the film director, who is unable to do his job so he runs away from his own film. Of course, these characters are not all on the same level – the dockworkers and the exterminator are real, whereas the director is just a character. We were making a film with multiple levels, showing people who are actually losing their jobs but also including some moments of farce, like the film director. The idea was to create space for all these different things, united by common themes, such as work, but with different methods of representation. In the prologue, the idea was to create a conflict in which the voice-overs are out of sync – so the voice of the film director is played over images of the dockworkers, whose voices in turn play over the exterminator. There’s an almost apocalyptic feeling that everything is out of place.
DW: I found the filmmaker’s escape in the first film to rhyme with Scheherazade’s crisis in the third. Overall, Arabian Nights is a celebration of storytelling but there are bleaker moments that center on failure and doubt. Were you thinking about a darker side to art and storytelling while making the film?
MG: We were filming a society that was breaking apart, so these moments of crisis were necessary. I didn’t want to only include economic crisis, but also social crisis and creative crisis. Even moral crisis.
DW: If you’re making a film about a crisis, how do you relate to the wider reality? Are you trying to represent it or trying to bring about some kind of change?
MG: Come on, let’s be serious. I am not capable of proposing anything. Even for myself it’s difficult, so I can’t propose anything for others. I can provide stories and characters, I can just show things because I’m a filmmaker. I don’t know the good road to progress. I’m not aware of that. But I don’t feel too bad about it, because even the people who have more responsibility than myself don’t know either, as you can see. In Europe today, it’s quite sad. I don’t have the will or capacity to show people what’s the good way to do things or to organize or to talk to each other. But I can make films that tell stories.
DW: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the piece of music that ends the film, which is a children’s choir’s rendition of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” How did you settle upon this piece of music?
MG: I am a fan of this album and I wanted to close the film with a choir, because I thought by that point the film had gained this public dimension. I liked the children’s choir because it wasn’t overly professional, not the kind that plays at a presidential inauguration or the Super Bowl. It’s a choir, it’s collective, but it’s just children singing. It’s poetic and fragile. It’s a song about communicating, and film is almost always about that: how we tell stories to each other, how difficult it is to talk. In this case, it’s about talking to aliens. I don’t know who precisely the aliens are, whether they’re the viewers or the characters in the film.
DW: Would you want aliens to see the film?
MG: Well, I believe that aliens are already on Earth.