When Manohla Dargis, writing in the New York Times, disparaged Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights as “a six-hour-plus, three-part indulgence,” it was hard not to perceive a little irony. “Indulgence” has not exactly been the prevalent condition of a country that has struggled with unemployment, tax increases, and cuts to wages and social services in the wake of the European debt crisis. Portugal’s cinema, too, has suffered: since 2012, the moment in which state support for film production was temporarily suspended, independent filmmakers have had to seek funding elsewhere. Sheer indulgence.
And yet, despite these conditions, the two best films in New York theaters this year—Pedro Costa’s Horse Money and now Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights—have both emerged from Portugal. And while both find oblique strategies to address the country’s lingering social and economic divisions, they are stylistically very different: the former is a crawl through the subterranean nightworld of Portugal’s post-colonial imaginary; the latter a teeming, multifaceted portrait of the country’s many realities and dreamscapes. Even more than Gomes’s previous films (The Face You Deserve, Our Beloved Month of August, and Tabu), Arabian Nights blends documentary and fiction elements without warning, constructing a multicolored mosaic of styles and stories and cinematic modes, from allegory to bawdy farce, kitchen-sink drama to orientalist fantasy, observational documentary to acid western. With its wildly associative structure, leapfrogging genres and modes of narration, the film functions, as Gomes says, as a kind of encyclopedia, a seemingly inexhaustible portrait of a world in which surrealist fantasy and nuts-and-bolts neorealism are inextricable fellow travelers, where wizards, phantom dogs, teleporting bandits, exploding whales, and subcultures of working-class bird-trappers coexist. In short, if indulgence this is, it’s of a kind that explicitly rejects austerity in all its stifling forms—as a set of measures intended to stem economic crisis at the expense of the poor, and as a set of protocols for narrative cinema.
Leo Goldsmith (Rail): This is a hard question to ask at the start, but I wanted to know a little more about what filmmaking in Portugal is like right now. Because it’s obviously complicated.
Miguel Gomes: It’s complicated every time because we don’t have a lot of production. If we have eight features in a year, that’s a normal year. It’s not just more difficult because of the crisis—it’s more difficult because everything is more difficult now in Portuguese society. But it’s very difficult because there are not many possibilities every year for people to make films. I’m quite lucky because, at that moment when I started to make short films, fifteen years ago or something, there was more money and now there’s less, so I think it’s very difficult—much more difficult than in my time—for people to get started. I had this possibility to shoot before and so now I have the luck to be supported by other countries and do co-productions.
Rail: But to make, in a sense, not just one film but three films, each with many, many stories—this seems like a statement, even a kind of rejection of this situation, wouldn’t you say?
Gomes: The only thing we had in the beginning was this team of journalists who would research what was happening and provide us with material for creating stories for Scheherazade. So in the beginning there was zero, there was just a modus operandi and that allowed lots of different possibilities of telling stories and very different approaches and subjects, so we had the world completely open. What I negotiated with the production was time—time and film: The possibility of having the crew available for this period, and the journalists. During production, it was chaos, because every day we were doing different things without knowing the final structure of the film. We were researching new possibilities of new stories for Scheherazade with the journalists. We were working on a new script for a story that we had already decided to shoot. We were editing something we had already shot. And this went on for months and months without knowing what the hell this film would be in the end. But I was convinced, by doing a film with this scale—I mean, by using the title Arabian Nights, which is not a book of twenty pages, and by trying to make a portrait of a country over such a long period (twelve months), I knew that the film would be long. And I thought that one thing that would be interesting for me, for the viewer of the film, was this kind of diversity that we could afford. Every story could change a little bit, the story we have seen before, and correct something, or provide a different image. For me the complexity of the film should come not from each story itself but from the accumulation of them.
Rail: How long did the shoot take?
Gomes: I negotiated with the producer that I could film for fourteen weeks. Then I did sixteen.
Rail: And these stories, which arose more or less as you were shooting—did you organize them into the larger structure as you went? Were you planning how one story would transition into the next? I’m imagining that you probably had a big chart or something.
Gomes: Yeah. It was difficult. In the beginning it was impossible because I didn’t have the necessary elements. It was only the last six months that we had sufficient material to understand what kind of rhymes and things we could do. But, for instance, with the last two stories I shot in Portugal—“The Tears of the Judge” and “Simão ‘Without Bowels’” in Volume 2—we knew already that we had only two shoots, two films to do, and we decided to go to two films that would be the opposite one of the other: one very sad, with only one character, removed from society, and the other with lots of dialogue and lots of characters, where the whole of society is there in front of the judge. So at that moment we said, “Okay, let’s do these two very different films that would clash.” It was easier to do this kind of thing, but in the beginning we couldn’t: we were advancing without knowing what the final thing would be.
Rail: It seems to me like you were thinking about these stories almost geometrically: the courtroom scene is this long chain of events, of cause and effect, very linear; but other stories overlap or have still more stories within them. And sometimes you have stories going in tandem, like in the beginning, with the stories of the wasp exterminator and the shipyard workers.
Gomes: Every time, every possibility of film was posing different questions, but there were similar questions in each segment: how can we connect very different things? How can we connect this desire to shoot an exploding whale to the present moment, which, at that moment, was when unemployment was at its highest. And so we wanted to create this traffic between these worlds of fiction, fantasy, and reality. How could we go from one to the other? And in every segment the question was different. I mean, it was the same question, but we worked on different ways of getting there.
Rail: It seems almost like these connections, these transitions, rather than the stories themselves, are actually what you’re most focused on, this sort of jumping from one reality to another. I think there’s at least two instances of teleportation in the film…
Gomes: Yeah, in that episode with “Simão ‘Without Bowels’.” In every film there is fantasy but, for instance, in that episode, we thought the fantasy should be as desolate as the character. So this strange meeting with some ladies, who are, how do you say it? Tapping?
Gomes: Slapping their asses, and the guy is eating at night and then teleporting in the daytime—it’s the fantasy of this guy who is running away from the police, and he’s very alone so he talks to himself even, and he’s inventing all these worlds. The idea was that the fantasy in each segment should have its own mood, so this is a desolate mood. And sometimes people ask me why, in the story of the cockerel and fire, the characters are played by kids, and I say what the hell? It’s the fantasy of a cockerel, so he should have some idiosyncratic way of looking at the world, no? I can’t put myself in the place of a cockerel, but I can imagine that maybe he sees the humans as kids.
Rail: One thing you’re playing with is not only different types of stories but also different ways of telling them through cinema: different genres and modes and formats. You’re shooting in Super 16, but also sometimes employing text or voiceover narration. I’m wondering, especially about the end of the film and the long story about the chaffinches, which you tell not with voiceover but with onscreen text. What is the relationship there between the images—which in this case are documentary images—and the text on screen? It’s almost as if the text is not able to capture it all.
Gomes: Well, we tried different things. We tried the voiceover, and we thought the voiceover was stealing space from what we were seeing. And this would be the final volume so I wanted a way to come to this form of literature, in a way. And I had the sensation that the text was like a mute voiceover, and that this would give more space to what we were seeing. And of course, there is voiceover in many different films, and text that’s written like this there is not so much. And in this last volume, there are two communities that you meet that are very different: the first one, a community of people that never existed, like Paddleman and Elvis the singer/dancer/thief, these very unreal characters in a fake Baghdad that doesn’t have a desert but an ocean. And then you have these very real people in Lisbon that make a second community that, for me, are doing the same kinds of surreal things, like trying to create on a computer a way for birds to learn to sing—it’s like something I made up, something that doesn’t come from reality but from a fictional work. For me, the third volume, is like an encyclopedia: it introduces characters and facts, facts from a world that never existed, facts from a world that does exist—in Lisbon—and you have the same process of telling it. So the text brings together these two different communities: the real one and the fictional one.
Rail: And both are utopian in a sense, right?
Gomes: Something that is very important for me in cinema—even if you’re shooting a film about pretty much fucked-up societies—is pleasure. Here, it’s the pleasure of these guys who live a little bit parallel to the society we know, who have this strange hobby of trying to train their birds to win singing contests. It’s kind of a parallel world like the fictional world of a Baghdad on the Mediterranean Sea; it’s a parallel even to fiction, to the fiction of Arabian Nights. And so these kinds of parallel societies that we put together in the film—they are parallel but I hope they help to tell something true about our real world, the world we are living in.
Rail: I was thinking about Tabu here as well, and the way you portray the colonial context as a similar kind of parallel world. In this film, there are many similar places including this Baghdad that doesn’t really exist, a fantasy of the Orient. Is this a continuation of the same idea, a way of exploring these romantic views of the foreign, the exotic?
Gomes: I think someone asked me why don’t I stay in Lisbon. Lisbon is beautiful, why don’t I make more films in Lisbon? Even if this part with the finches is really about Lisbon, but not the Lisbon we know. Of course there is Pedro Costa making films about other neighborhoods and Cape Verdean people who live just outside Lisbon, but this is a neighborhood no one has shown before. But I think when I make films I want to leave. I have this urge to depart and go into an adventurous world. Even if it’s in the neighborhood like five kilometers from my house, it’s a different one—it’s not the same world I’m living in, so I have this urge to go away, to find out, to explore. But the important thing is that if you go into another world, you don’t forget the one you leave. One doesn’t hide the other. The important thing is that both of them—the material world and the world of fantasy—can illuminate each other.
Arabian Nights opens in December at the Film Society of Lincoln Center: www.filmlinc.org.
LEO GOLDSMITH is a writer, curator, and teacher based between Brooklyn and Amsterdam. He is the former film editor of the Brooklyn Rail.