Looking at Colonial Africa in Black and White

Film still from Miguel Gomes's "Tabu"
Film still from Miguel Gomes’s “Tabu”

CINCINNATI — Meet Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes, who may be one of the last people to create a black-and-white movie. In order to make his art-house drama Tabu the way he wanted, Gomes searched and found one of the remaining labs in Europe capable of processing black-and-white 35mm film stock, right before it closed for good.

Borrowing a title from the 1931 silent movie co-directed by F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty, Tabu is rich with memory and a sense of deep loss, felt by the film’s female leads as well as audiences nostalgic for golden-age cinema.

Filmmaker Miguel Gomes (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the movie, produced by Adopt Films and slowly expanding to select art houses nationwide, Pilar (Teresa Madruga) learns about Aurora (old: Laura Soveral; young: Ana Moreira), the elderly neighbor in her Lisbon apartment building. Aurora has a long-ago, dramatic past in early 1960s colonial Africa, and as her story unfolds in the film’s second half, the old woman ceases to be an annoying neighbor constantly losing her money at the nearby casino and transforms instead into a beautiful but tragic heroine.

Aurora appears at first as mentally unstable, but there is more to her than meets the eye. The same is true of the film itself, which begins with subtle scenes of everyday life — steam rising from an iron, for instance — and then makes an exotic pivot with a portrayal of colonial life in ’60s Africa.

Tabu is beautiful to the eye, but Gomes, who also directed the festival favorites The Face You Deserve (’04) and Our Beloved Month of August (’08) makes the images powerful with a thoughtful story about shared memories and common struggles to reach back to one’s past.

Speaking with Hyperallergic after Tabu’s North American premiere, the Lisbon-based filmmaker explains the connection between Tabu’s characters’ longing for their past lives and his own desire to make a classic, black-and-white movie that becomes dialogue free except for a narrative voice-over in its second half.

“I guess if these characters from the first part are missing their youth, I think that in a way, after 100 years of cinema, that cinema is also missing its youth, and we have the memory of all these films,” Gomes says, speaking in a top-floor condo of a Toronto high-rise. “The film is also dealing with mythology and the way cinema looks at Africa. I thought about doing this movie like Tarzan even though my crew was saying to me, ‘Africa is so beautiful and green, why shoot it in black and white?’ And I would say, because Tarzan was black and white. I have a strong connection to classic American cinema — movies like Hatari and Mogambo and directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray.”

Another film still from "Tabu"
Film still from “Tabu”

Although audiences are responding enthusiastically to Tabu’s masterwork elements — its striking black-and-white photography and its near silent storytelling during the Africa-set scenes, Gomes admits that his artistic vision came at a steep price, perhaps too high for a Portuguese filmmaker dealing with limited resources and the need to gather financing from foreign markets like France, Germany, and Brazil.

Committed to shooting on black-and-white film stock but without a film-processing lab in Lisbon, Gomes took his work to Hamburg, to one of the last labs capable of developing black-and-white film — only for the facility to shut down while he was finishing the movie.

“We had the sensation that we were dealing with things again that are getting lost and disappearing,” Gomes adds. “For me, Tabu is like a ghost film. For instant, in the second part, in a sequence where the lovers exchange letters, it’s not the voice of the young actress playing Aurora but the old one who dies. Her voice gives this kind of ghost sensation. It was important to me to film with material that has been crucial to all these hundred years of cinema history. It’s a cinema history that’s also disappearing, so I make everything connected in a very evident way.”

Our conversation shifts to the changing models of moviemaking and distribution as traffic buzzes beneath our high-rise balcony. Gomes understands the appeal of new digital release platforms and techniques to his fellow filmmakers. In our multimedia age, it’s becoming less and less expensive to make and release a movie. And yet, despite the financial challenges he continues to face, Gomes remains a classicist convinced that even the best digital cameras can’t capture the dreamlike visuals of film stock .

“The cinema I like and I know is much more organic, and this is due to the film stock, which does not see things the way a digital camera captures things,” he says. “I thought about Tabu as one of the last opportunities to do it because the price of film stock will rise. It’s the most expensive thing to use nowadays, but this film is like a sensation of something in the end and it comes at the end of a process. I could only use film stock. I could not pretend and shoot on digital.

”But who knows?” he adds. “Maybe my next project will be digital.”

Tabu is currently playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) in New York and at other theaters around the country.

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