Interview: Miguel Gomes, dir. Arabian Nights

Following the widespread acclaim of his monochrome 2012 feature Tabu, Miguel Gomes ups the stakes with six-hour three volume epic Arabian Nights. An extraordinarily ambitious and eclectic work, it combines the mythology of Scheherazade’s tales with a critique of the Portuguese government’s program of austerity during the financial crisis. Confused? You may will be. But there is something quite brilliant here. Between cigarettes and with glass of red wine in hand, he spoke to CineVue’s Matthew Anderson about his latest cinematic creation.

Matthew Anderson: Arabian Nights is dedicated to your daughter, who was eight during the shoot. When she watches it in 15-20 years time what is it that you hope she will take away from this snapshot of Portugal’s history?

Miguel Gomes: Whatever she wants to. It’s beyond my control and that is nice. I enjoy this idea of having a film that works to liberate us from the machine that is cinema which imposes a passive place for the viewer. I sometimes feel that I don’t have space to move inside a film because it’s telling me how to behave. Arabian Nights is beyond control – three volumes that can be seen or not seen and in any order, with times lapses between seeing one volume and another. This seems liberating to me.

MA: Do you think when she watches the film she will see elements of your character?

MG: I guess this is a very personal film. A luxury I had was doing whatever I wanted to, no-one told me to choose this actor or do this story. When you do this a certain part of your personality and the way you approach the world is there. Maybe she will connect with these things when she sees the film. For me it would also be touching if she can relate with her past, with a past that involved her – Portuguese society at a precise time where she was a little child but that she may not remember. In a way the film is a bit like Noah’s Ark – here it’s not animals, it’s stories and characters and things that happened. These elements are put inside this ark and exist in another time and make you look at things in another way. For me it’s an idea that I care about and that is this Noah’s Ark which is Cinema.

MA: So in your vision of cinema, it should it ask more questions than it answers?

MG: Sometimes when filmmakers try to answer, it’s not good. They should stick with questions. I try not to give many answers because I don’t know many things. But I am curious and what I can do is to show things and come up with stories, not to solve the problems of the universe but to show elements of the universe. It’s not up to me to answer them because I don’t have the skills to do that.

MA: Our Beloved Month of August is a film about filmmaking and Tabu was named after an F. W. Murnau film – which filmmakers inspired you in the early stages of your career?

MG: I think there was a moment where as a teenager that I understood I was very in to cinema. I remember once in a theatre I fought over Dumbo – some kids that were making fun of Dumbo and I defended him physically. So I think I was already engaged with cinema. The universe of cinema grew in all directions and I remember seeing Hiroshima Mon Amour and being completely struck by the film. In Portuguese cinema there was a huge filmmaker called João César Monteiro. I was 16 or 17 when I saw his Recollections of the Yellow House and I was completely overwhelmed by the experience of watching that film.

MA: Most directors would content themselves with making one film: how did you come to decide on making a six-hour film in three parts?

MG: There were some major contributions to that. One was the fact that the producers were a little bit naïve and they were not watching what was happening. I didn’t have a hidden scheme but neither me nor them were thinking too much about how in the end it would be shown. We were just doing this collection of stories, trying to film as much as possible. The film deals with the fact that there are many ways of telling these stories with a cinematic richness and diversity. Another major contribution was that Tabu went well in the market and we gathered much more money, the equivalent for three films.

MA: Critics and audiences attempt to pigeonhole all films into a certain genre but with your films it’s impossible. Do you think insisting on doing so can detract from a film?

MG: I think it doesn’t take anything from the film because the fact that people put labels on films doesn’t change one shot of the film or how it was designed. It’s done for commercial purposes because people connect with a certain genre. In the history of cinema there have always been some films that are not comfortable, they are like wild animals and don’t fit into established categories. Our idea was to collect all these stories and try to react to data provided by journalists via the stories of Scheherazade. Different ways of telling our experience of living in Portugal in those days. And then it is beyond our control, it’s up to the viewers.

MA: Is that one of the most daunting parts of being a filmmaker?

MG: Yes, but for me it comes with the job. I think it’s good to do what you want. Trying to completely control the film means there is no encounter between it and an anonymous viewer. When we are making a film we should be engaged with the people we are shooting with then we put it out and see what happens. It’s important to think about the structure of the film: you have to imagine corridors and rooms and then getting around this place can be done in the most free way.

MA: In the opening of the first film you describe yourself as “paralysed” – did you plan out the trilogy from start to finish or did you allow the process and structure to run its own course?

MG: I came to the conclusion that there would be three films a couple of months after I started editing the film, during the shoot I had no clue. Then there was a moment where I thought if we put certain stories together in a certain order maybe we can come up with three features that will make a big feature. Each has its own personality and are different cinematic experiences from each other. And we pursued this idea of having a different tonality to each volume.

MA: One thing common to each film is that fiction and reality blur together: do you consider there to be any real difference between them given how they co-exist?

MG: I think that fiction and reality are the consequence of each other. Things are already blended and you come up with is a consequence of the place you are in, where you live, what your personal and social lives are like, the culture you are living in. They give you conditions to create something that is the result of your life experience. And on the other hand I think that reality is contaminated by fictions that we invent. The collective imaginary that we share in western civilisation, or the Portuguese one in times of crisis, is all influenced by our culture. Our culture is invented by the music we make, the books we read, everything is mixed.

MA: What was the driving emotion behind both creating and shooting the film?

MG: Like what you see in the film I was shifting from one thing to another very quickly. There something very exciting about making this film and that was dealing with the unpredictable. The possibility of renewal every month in filming. Every episode we shot was different from the one before, reinventing the way we were making the film. At the same time we only found out the final structure in the editing room. It was a bit scary and very tiring because we were doing everything we should do in a film at the same moment – pre-production, production and post- production in the same week. We were shooting one episode, editing one preparing a new one to come. Sometimes we had the sensation of going insane – maybe we did.

Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights is available to own now on DVD courtesy of New Wave Films.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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