An Interview With Miguel Gomes on Arabian Nights
It is becoming very common for contemporary filmmakers to try surprising their audiences with the narration of bizarre stories, the introduction of unthinkable characters, and the use of unpredictable and shockingly violent endings. The cinema of our time is the cinema of excess, or perhaps it might better be labeled as the cinema of absence since it is in fact the lack of innovation that is the main reason for the creation of such strategies of excess. In the absence of any clear idea for proposing new experiments in the production of cinema, filmmakers attempt to show their originality through these strategies of excess. In this process, rarely can we find an innovative filmmaker who works with the language and grammar of cinema. The originality of Miguel Gomes is that he is among these rare innovators in our time. His past works have shown us how he tried uncompromisingly to bring new elements into his films with a careful working of the grammatical elements of the film itself. Arabian Nights, featured at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is an excellent example in this regard. In this six-hour movie composed of three volumes, Gomes attempts to define what meaning the story of Arabian Nights has in contemporary Portuguese society. I had the opportunity to be a part of a small roundtable with Gomes but due to a shortage of time we were able to discuss only a part of the elements involved in this film. What follows is a report of this roundtable.
Offscreen: Why did you decide to make a six-hour movie? And how does the style of the movie justify this choice for you?
Miguel Gomes: Let’s start by demystifying this question since it is simultaneously true but not true. The film is more than six hours but it has the credits of three films. Each one is five minutes so it’s almost fifteen minutes of credits; let’s not overdo this. At the same time, it is three feature films and we tried to have in each volume of the film the most satisfying experience for a viewer. That means we tried to provide a feature film that would be an interesting cinematic experience by itself. So each volume should be judged on its own and stand on its own. In this process, the real experience of the movie will be shaped if you follow the order of the films from the first volume through to the third. And why is it so long? A simple answer is because Arabian Nights is a very big book and deserves a long feature film.
Offscreen: What was the impact of Arabian Nights on your work?
M.G.: The project had two goals. One of them was to have something that would not be an adaptation of the book because there is not one page of the book in the film; it’s not there. But we still wanted to be faithful to the spirit of Arabian Nights with its baroque system of tales; sometimes you have tales and inside those there is a very complex narrative structure that is sometimes very absurd. It has this kind of dreamy quality of unbelievable characters and unbelievable actions, the film shares these qualities and acknowledges that the impact of the stories would be greater if in the end of each story you find yourself saying, “this is awesome” or “it is unbelievable.” In fact, what the king likes in the Arabian Nights is the “amazing” quality of the stories; this amazing nature and the authentic adaptation of the Arabian Nights should have this quality, not to escape from reality but to complement reality.
Offscreen: With the strategy of using amazing images, did you plan to show the government how beautiful your country was and how it has been destroyed by the economy?
M.G.: I think that in moments of crisis the problem of the government is their own problem; of course, it is our problem too because we have to deal with what they decide but regardless of whether or not they listen to the people, they will be judged in the next election. However, as a filmmaker during moments of crisis you have to show the material aspects of the crisis and film real people while telling real stories but at the same time for me this is incomplete if you don’t have another theme which is the “imaginary” that comes from this situation. For me, for instance, when I see a film noir from the 1940s with Humphrey Bogart I know that it tells something. We know that even if the story is absurd, we have something on the mood of the film in the way the characters appear on the darkest side of the film. We have something about the spirit of American society at that moment after the Great Depression. Fiction always gives you aspects of reality. Of course, it is very important that the media such as television talks to people and covers how they live but I think in cinema with the means of fiction we can bring a little more complexity by highlighting something that is missed in media coverage.
Offscreen: But when you combine fiction and documentary in your work, people in your country might say that “it is not a good political movie because it has so many elements of fiction.” Don’t you feel that these fictional strategies might hinder your political cause?
M.G.: I think there is a cliché and a very dangerous idea nowadays which is that when you are dealing with tougher realities you have to be serious, and being serious means putting out fiction. I think that bad fiction is fiction that pretends to be reality. This is a lie and so what I try to do is to show these fictional qualities in my films, to really make it look like fiction. In Arabian Nights, a genie is a Genie but he tells you something of the genie, something about the way that Arabian society lived centuries ago. So I think that we have to fight this idea that when you are dealing with social issues you have to evacuate the fictional. I think you need to have fiction and you need to show that it is fiction and not pretend that it’s reality.
Offscreen: There are so many moments in your films that are not only beautifully structured but are also very funny. The best example is the court scene in the second volume, which appears to be the heart of your film. How did you create these moments?
M.G.: Every segment came from a different research project because we had journalists in the crew who were researching for us about whatever issues happening in Portugal that we thought would be good to follow. The courtroom section was the last segment that we shot in Portugal, so it was the last story of schehrzadeh during shooting and it came from a collection of crimes, some very well known and others less. We gathered a huge collection of crimes in Portugal at that moment. We had this idea of trying to talk about these crimes and one of the things we had was a story about a judge who was not able to say anything at the end of a court process. She declared the criminal guilty but then she started to cry because she was moved. A judge who cries and cannot do her job seemed like a great idea for fiction since she’s supposed to be an authority figure who should regulate all of the system, and she goes crazy or at least becomes emotional – she breaks down. This was a great opportunity for me.
As you said, this is the heart of the project; it is really the moment where society sinks. We have seen this before in the moments such as when that judge meets her daughter in an absurd situation after her daughter has lost her virginity. I think the first volume deals much more with the question of work and unemployed people. How can we work in a moment like this? Or how can we not work? Then, this second one deals much more with abstract issues like the law; it has an outlaw character. In that segment Portuguese society looks a little bit like Mad Max; you don’t know what the hell happened. I want this second film to be much darker, much more desperate. So the main character is a judge who breaks down because everyone is guilty and she realizes that there is no possibility for her to make things right because there is no justice.
Offscreen: And here we have a dog which apparently feels more secure than the other actors.
M.G.: In fact, the only character that looks quite well in the second film is a dog and that is because as a dog he isn’t aware of what is happening. I should say that I like filming animals; it is a great pleasure. This is because I don’t know what they are doing and it is always the genius involved in uncovering this. On the other hand, I think that only men and women were not enough for shifting the view on what Portuguese society is, or some other subject. For me, it is very important to have animal characters like the dog Dixy because he allows me to go from one character, a human, to the other and to see all of the problems that he does not share because he is a dog. He has a different logic, in fact.
Offscreen: Not only are there varieties of animals in your work but for this movie there is a richness involved in the acting method. You worked with actors and non-actors, with some of the actors playing multiple roles.
M.G.: I think that the richness of the film should come from diversity. There is not only one way to look at the crisis or Portuguese society or to make films or to tell stories. Given this, it is important to have different people. I tried to bring in different characters here. For example, it would be impossible to tell the judge’s story without this great actor who previously had only one or two small parts in cinema but was essential for this project. And you are right that some actors played a couple of roles. We had someone like the guy playing the outlaw, someone who plays himself in the third volume. In fact, it was after I filmed him playing himself that I understood that this guy can be great playing the outlaw character.
Offscreen: For this movie, you worked with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom as your Dop. Did he have any impact on your work?
M.G.: Of course, when you work on a film with people who are good like him they influence you a lot. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom normally works with Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Thailand but in this case he came to Portugal. I never thought he would come because it was a crazy proposition as we asked him to come to Portugal for one year and be available to shoot every day, whenever we are going to shoot. During his stay, we invented the shooting process, and he loved it. We were pretty surprised by his reaction because we thought there was only a small chance that this would go through and of course it worked. I was very surprised to see how he could sometimes work with less light. We had similar opinions on some issues, such as how it was very difficult for both of us to adapt to the idea of shooting in digital. We got along and it was great.