Arabian Nights/Miguel Gomes

Miguel Gomes, one of the most brilliant and imaginative film directors working today, portrays modern Portugal through a series of tales styled after Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights.  Sectioned into three separate films, Arabian Nights is a wild brew of the real, the unreal, and the surreal, mixing documentary, folk tales, and fictionalized news items in a bittersweet homage to the Portuguese people. A highlight of the 2015 New York Film Festival. The three films comprising Arabian Nights are Volume 1, The Restless One; Volume 2, The Desolate One; Volume 3, The Enchanted One. Availability:  Volume 1, The Restless One, will open in New York on Friday, December 4 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, followed by Volume 2, The Desolate One, on Friday, December 11 and Volume 3, The Enchanted One on Friday, December 18.  Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget PR, for arranging this interview.


DT:  In the first volume of Arabian Nights, you said you wanted to make a movie full of beautiful tales and you also wanted to make a movie about the wretched economic situation in Portugal. Properly, those should have been two different movies, but you combined the two to make Arabian Nights. Which idea came first—a movie full of beautiful tales, a movie about Portugal, or Arabian Nights?


MG:  It’s hard to answer, because I have a very weak memory. I’m always interested in showing beauty, but beauty cannot hide things that are not beautiful. When you’re living through hard times, you should face it and show it without renouncing poetry and beauty. The question was how to put them together. This was my personal quest: How can I be attached to the present? I cannot turn my back on Portugal at a moment when things are difficult for Portuguese society, but I also cannot renounce this quest for beauty and telling amazing tales and also show what’s happening in the present. It was like a negotiation. In every segment of the film, we were mating these two things.

So what came first?  I don’t know. I discovered Arabian Nights the book when I was about thirteen years old. I was fascinated by the power of this book, where everything is possible, everything is always changing, and you have this story within another story within another story. It’s like a labyrinth of fiction, which is quite thrilling and impressive to me…. There is this very absurd feeling attached to Arabian Nights the book, which is very surreal, very sensual, very excessive sometimes, and I thought that these kinds of stories also came up in Portuguese society. Of course they’re very different—there are no genies and no flying carpets in Portugal, to my knowledge—but there are very surreal, dramatic, comical, absurd kinds of stories, so I thought let’s combine them and let’s not renounce this pleasure of telling stories, but let’s tell stories without hiding what Portugal is nowadays.


DT:  When people are struggling simply to survive, as they were in some of your stories, life conjures up surrealistic images straight out of fiction. But your film sets up an opposition between reality and fiction. I don’t know if that feeds into what you were saying….


MG:  Of course. We divide things; we put fiction on one shelf and reality on another. Someone tells you that you’re not allowed to mix these things, but I don’t agree, because fantasy and imagination also come from the experience of living in a certain moment in a certain country. For instance, living in France in the 18th century could not create the same kind of imagination as living in Portugal nowadays. Art, cinema, music, literature resonate the experience of living in a certain society. To make a portrait of a certain moment in a certain country, you have to show the things that happen but also the things you can imagine, because what you can imagine comes from the experience of living in that moment.


DT:  You mixed straight fiction and documentary with fictionalized stories based on news items. My favorite segment was the chaffinches, in Volume 3. [Gomes documents an improbable-but-true competition in a lower-class neighborhood in Portugal, where tough street guys train birds to sing new songs at matches judged by experts in birdsong.]


MG: That segment was the perfect balance between [reality and fiction] that I was looking for. You have these proletarian guys, some of them unemployed, living in very problematic neighborhoods that normally you only get to see on Portuguese television because of social problems and drug dealing. These guys look like extras in a Scorsese film from the ’70s, but they’re doing this very touching thing of trying to teach small birds how to sing the way they want them to sing. I had two very different levels at the same time; I could set up the camera and film a portrait of a troubled Portuguese class that’s not living well, but at the same time they’re doing a very unrealistic thing. It’s completely real, but normally you don’t associate reality with these guys that look like tough guys, listening in silence to birdsong.

I wanted to end the film with this segment because it was precisely the right balance between their daily life and this kind of surreal world that you associate with fiction and Arabian Nights, amazing things, things you don’t normally associate with daily life. For me it was magical. There was this moment where they’re doing the contest right next to the Lisbon airport, so you have these guys listening to the birds and you have these huge planes landing. I was really moved when I was filming that, and I said, if this is not Arabian Nights, I don’t understand anything about Arabian Nights. For me, this was shooting our material world in a very direct way, and at the same time filming another world, like a parallel world, a world that could be in Arabian Nights the book.


DT:  Our Beloved Month of August, Tabu, and Arabian Nights [Gomes’s three most recent feature films] are all divided into sections. What do you get from structuring your films this way?


MG:  There’s a moment where the films suffer something like a mutation.  Before doing Arabian Nights, I thought it was the need to make one film, establishing a set of rules, and then experiencing a moment where the film needs new rules to continue, as if there’s a second film coming to rescue the first. In the case of Tabu, you have this world of a building and two apartments. It’s a story about neighbors, an elderly woman, and you never pronounce the word Africa. You never tell anything about the past. Then suddenly it comes—you need another film because this one cannot continue. The character dies, so there’s a second film that looks very different from the film we have been seeing. There is a kind of play, a game between the two parts, because when you see the African part [i.e., the second section of Tabu], you have already seen the characters, who are old or have died, so this affects in a very profound manner the way in which you see the colonial world of the second part.

In Arabian Nights it’s more complex, because it’s a film with three volumes [each a separate film], not like before, where one feature had two parts. Now it’s a film with three features. Each of the features talks to each other in different ways without doing the same film every time, so it’s a very different experience. The first volume [The Restless One] is like a roller coaster, changing all the time, shifting between reality and farce. The second volume [The Desolate One] is much more like a horizontal line because it’s much sadder. In the first one, there’s still hope. The characters are restless, like it says in the title, but by the end you have this gathering of unemployed people, and even if they are doing this silly ritual, they are together. For me, this is moving. In the second volume, you have very lonely characters, where the only character that’s happy is a dog, because he’s not aware. He should be playing in a Walt Disney film from the ’70s, but he was born in the wrong country, in the wrong moment, so he’s very happy, or he appears to be very happy, because that happiness is a projection of people who are trying to die. There’s a couple that’s trying to die, and another couple trying to survive, and I think they’re projecting on that dog a happiness they don’t have. Of course the third volume [The Enchanted One] is different because it’s like an encyclopedia about two communities, one that never existed—a fictional one in Baghdad, with very unbelievable characters—and then a very real community that’s doing stuff as unbelievable as the guys from Baghdad, as unbelievable as the guys who never existed. I found this interesting, so I decided to divide the three films like this, because I thought each one could have its own identity.


DT:  You also used a variety of shooting stock—35mm, 16mm, and documentary footage of a police demonstration and a Brazilian band.


MG:  We shot the police demonstration ourselves. We kept the crew available, as if they were firemen. We had a 16mm camera and film stock, so I just told them, “There’s a demonstration of policemen tomorrow, so we’re going to cover it.”


DT:  The song “Perfidia” runs throughout the film in different versions. Did you have the song in mind before making the film?


MG:  When I told Crista Alfaiate that she was going to play Scheherazade, she asked what she was going to do in the film. I said, “I don’t have any idea, to be honest, but you’re going to sing, because you sing very, very well.” I proposed some songs, and when she listened to “Perfidia,” which she knew, because everyone knows it, she said, “I think I can do a good job with this one.”

As “Perfidia” is a standard, there are many different versions, and I thought, What the hell, if we’re going to have such a big film, there will be space to have many different variations. I thought that using many versions of this song had a connection with the film itself because it’s a film where you come back to certain elements but they’re transforming all the time; you can recognize the elements but also see the differences, so I thought it was good to have the same song in very different versions.


DT:  You cowrote the script with Mariana Ricardo and Telmo Churro.  Did each writer get a different volume?


MG:  I usually don’t tell my method to many people, but I’ll tell you. Mariana and Telmo and I have worked together for a long time, so we know each other very well.   Normally I lie down on a sofa, and I start to talk: “Scene one. Interior. Dialogue.” They don’t comment. They just type. I finish, and say, “What do you think?” They normally say, “It’s not good at all.” Then we start to discuss it, and they start to suggest their own ideas, and we start to change…it’s not like each one of us writes. It’s me in the beginning, it’s them saying what’s good, what’s bad. I have to answer to that, so it’s like a dialectical process, where I get the first shot, they react, and then it begins to be a very organic thing. By the end, the three of us are in the script.


DT: In a different interview, you said that you like moments of transition, or transporting from one thing to another more than actually watching a story play out. Why is that?


MG:  I don’t know. Sometimes people say, “I’m bored because the shots are too long.” I never get bored with a shot if there’s something in it that’s interesting for me—for instance, if something is changing so I’m living an experience watching that shot from the beginning to the end. I get bored not because of the length of a shot but if it’s always in the same mode, like if you have a piano and keep playing the same keys. There are some very good directors who work in a minimalist way, and that’s also interesting for me, but I have a more Baroque way of feeling things. What I really like is when something transforms, dissolves into another thing and we’re transported. For me, that’s speed. Just cutting the shots very quickly—OK, you’re changing the shot, but you’re going very quickly to nowhere. When you’re moving, what’s the range you’re moving the viewer? Even if the shots are long, if you have a very big range going from place A to place B and these places look like they’re from two different continents: this is my speed. The speed I need is traveling from distant territories, from one to the other, and to do this with the viewer. This is what interests me in cinema. I need to not stay in the same mood, in the same kind of cinematic experience. I need to change, and for me, this is beautiful.


DT:  In spite of all the humor, and political satire, and shifts between times and places and situations, I felt a tremendous sense of longing in Arabian Nights, of wanting something that exists only in memory or imagination, like a Portugal that you had in mind when you were a child.


MG:  Maybe this is a Portuguese fault. I don’t know. We have a cliché: We talk about Spanish guys having strong attitude and nerve, while the Portuguese are more melancholic. We talk a lot about a word that doesn’t exist in other languages—saudade—which is longing for something very abstract, being nostalgic without any object, just as a state of mind. It’s a cliché, but at the same time, clichés have something true attached to them.

Maybe it’s my Portuguese condition, but I think that when you grow up, there’s always something left behind that you feel you can never return to. You can only live it by memory. It’s impossible to return to the innocence we had when we were children, but I’m convinced that cinema can give you this opportunity in this fictional world, in this world apart, a parallel world from life; the opportunity to return to this condition we have lost, and believe, for instance, in unbelievable things. When we were children, we believed in unbelievable things. Now we know they weren’t true, but in cinema we regain this condition a little bit. Inside this world we can believe in unbelievable things. It’s quite moving for me that we cannot deny the fact that now we are aware that things are like this and not like what we thought they were in the past, but cinema allows you to return to this condition of being in a state of believing more. I think I’m attached to this idea.


DT:  You’ve said that during the first six months of shooting Arabian Nights you had no idea what the structure of the film would be. Many documentary filmmakers work this way. Fiction filmmakers don’t.  Did it work for you, and would you work this way again?


MG:  It’s not very good for your health, because there’s some anguish involved. We weren’t doing a documentary—we were doing this film that had a budget that was bigger than what we’d ever had before, and not having a clue about what the film would be by the end for such a long time was a little bit scary. At the same time it was very exciting, because we were discovering the film while we were making the film, like when you’re doing documentaries, I guess. For me this sensation of discovering every day the film we were going to do was  interesting.

There were bad things and good things. The bad thing of course was that you cannot control everything, so the producer is always worried because she never knows how much the film will cost.  That meant more tension between me and production and the crew and production, so it was more uncomfortable for us. It’s also more difficult because you’re trying to create pieces of an ensemble that you don’t get to see, and it’s impossible to see because you’re crafting, creating things without having a final idea of the structure. This is a little bit scary, but on the other hand I think it allows you to have more interesting things. If I’m only at my house in the office trying to imagine sequences in my head and typing them in the computer and then I’m going to the set just to do whatever I’ve typed, I risk not seeing amazing things that are happening on the set. For instance, if there’s a polar bear coming toward me and I’m just looking at the script and saying, “Let’s put the camera there,” I won’t see the polar bear. There are things happening around us and we don’t get to see them, so I try to have a much more fragile system, not to be so secure, not to have things so planned in advance. I want to allow myself and the people making the film with me to see polar bears coming into the set.


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