New Flicks: Arabian Nights

As his epic and extraordinary tale of modern Portugal gets its UK release, we talk to the ever experimental director Miguel Gomes.

If you ever despair that modern cinema is unambitiously commercial and prescriptively mundane, then Miguel Gomes’ new Arabian Nights trilogy might prove just the remedy to your woes. With a combined running time of around six hours, to watch all of these, one after the other, is an extreme but immensely fulfilling intellectual task: one that many critics undertook when the films made the festival rounds last year (to, nonetheless, near universal acclaim). However, to take even just a single episode on its own is to witness something rather special indeed.

An energetic bricolage of the old and the new, the mythical and the quotidian, Gomes uses the episodic framing narrative of The Arabian Nights to, most prominently but not exclusively, satirise Portugal’s recession-era government – as well as the actions of global bodies like the IMF – for their draconian austerity measures and the economic devastation the country has suffered as a result. Sending journalists out across Portugal to find the eccentric, hilarious, and tragic stories of ordinary people, Gomes (who appears as some semi-fictional version of himself at the beginning of Part 1 only to flee from his film crew like a departed Father figure) explores the oddities, joys and pains of his nation in a visually stunning style that relentlessly blends documentary and fiction: magical-realist gestures and symbolic occurrences that in some sense demand to be read critically pepper the movies, engaging the viewer in a way most cinema today doesn’t even attempt.

That said, all is not earnest and impenetrably Art House here. Amid crushingly sad moments of confessional drama, there’s plenty that’s genuinely funny (the IMF portrayed as suffering from chronic erectile dysfunction), and plenty more that’s wryly surreal – a noisy cockerel, for example, that precipitates an arson attack of burning teenage passion. Always though, there insists in Arabian Nights a fluid and thrillingly unpredictable tone that refuses to sit still or conform to any particular interpretation. It’s joyful, postmodern movie-making at its exciting and beguiling best, and may just leave you marveling at what film, when unfettered from its tired conventions of linear plots and standard characteristaion, can achieve.

In a conversation with Miguel Gomes, Wonderland talk humour, the limitations of cinema, and why breaking the rules is always essential to great art.

Gomes featuring in Episode 1

Gomes featuring in Episode 1

Wonderland: This started back in 2012, right?

Miguel Gomes: We shot my previous film in 2012. And then we went straight to starting the film, because there was almost no preparation. We were already shooting and trying to think about what the hell we should shoot – it was not like picking up what we should film and then film. It was both at the same time.

W: So where did the idea come from to begin with?

MG: I don’t know if it’s only one idea. I think it’s about lots of them that came together. First of all it was a reaction to the social and economic difficulties that were appearing in the Portugal’s society at that moment. So, I would have to react to them. And my reaction as a filmmaker was to make a film. So I wanted to have this film about the experience of living in my country, Portugal, at that moment. And at the same time I have always had the desire to make a film with tales, where fantastical creatures could appear, and things that we don’t see in normal life…For me, these things are attached to the universe of Arabian Nights, which is quite extreme. So this is quite an extreme kind of storytelling.

W: That’s why you chose the framing narrative of The Arabian Nights?

MG: Also because I had this idea to show things that are really happening, people that are living certain situations, certain difficulties. We should have a very direct connection with them, and just feel…like a collector that is grabbing things, and putting them in this ark…but at the same time, we should not renounce the possibility of telling stories. For me, they’re not about what happened, what took place, but what we can imagine from, I guess, the situations we are living. We are living certain things that will have certain desires and fears that will lead us to creating certain stories. So I have to do both.

W: Is that why we have this blend of fiction and reality?

MG: I think they are one already…The things we do are real life, they are a result of our own… And I think in fiction, on the other hand, cannot be detached of practical things. Everything is going normally, we have things that are apart, we deal with imaginary and reality like very opposite types of things, but they contaminate things. In a way, they are the result of each other for me.

W: Your flight at the beginning of the film, and even your being in the film, what do those kind of things mean to you?

MG: For me it was a something that I was not thinking about before…I was already in that small city…in the North of Portugal…I invented this situation of me running away from the shooting. It was a kind of crises I wanted to shoot in a film dealing with crises…The director runs away as he understands it’s a stupid idea.  But I think what I really wanted was to have, from the beginning of the film, this sensation for the viewer, that there would not be only a way to approach thing, only one crisis, but more than one crises. [There are] many different ways to make film, sometimes in a comedy tone, and sometimes much more dramatic, like in the case of the people going to lose their job. They would not have to choose one. The film would try to deal with all this diversity. Because this diversity itself is present in Portugal, of course, in society. It’s present in The Arabian Nights.

W: For you that kind of slightly postmodern tone throughout is much more about something as a whole rather than deliberate technique?

MG: I think it’s that I’m aware that the world, the real world and also the world of cinema, is an assembly of many, many different things, and not only one thing. If it’s only one thing, to be honest, I think I’d get a little bit bored. I don’t know if the viewer than can share with me this desire to shift from one thing to another many times…But for me, I cannot just keep playing the piano note all the time, I have to play all the notes, and I think also maybe this is a reaction to something we were, something we were listening all the time in television and radio. People from the government and strike group who were in Portugal, they were always saying you have to implement these austerity measures because there’s no other way. To them there was only one thing to do. So maybe this diversity came as a reaction to this idea that there was only this one thing to do. One approach to things. I think that’s bullshit, I think there’s always many ways.

Gomes featuring in Episode 1

W: And with these very confessional moments, were they actors or “real” people? Or doesn’t that distinction really matter?

MG: They are telling the story of their lives, what happened. We could not rehearse with them, they are not actors and the text did not come from me. They were telling me what happened. How they lost their jobs, how they were facing the fact they were unemployed for more than one year…in the end we would discuss how it looks to read that story. If it was the third time telling the story, if they would skip a moment I thought was quite moving, I would say before they told the story again, “this detail was great”…So I would try to control, without ever saying any sentence that they should say.

W: In light of that, what do you feel that a film like this can do? Do you think it can affect social change?

MG: I think there are people who shot the film, they were people who were reacting and moved by the film. And they thought they were engaged by the film.  Even for instance, people who are journalists in Portugal who are telling these kids of stories, were really moved by the film, and talk about their own work and their approach was journalistic. And they saw another perspective and it was moving for them…There are people who think I am a lunatic, but I’m not lunatic enough to think we will have an impact to change society. If we are lucky, this films can still be interesting after the premiere and the moment they are released. In time, maybe they will reach people at a different moment.

W: The films demand a critical unpacking that perhaps you don’t get in lots of other cinema. Do you feel that demand to be read and the audience’s need to “work” a little bit is something missing in general from cinema?

MG: This reading I don’t think it’s that important because lots of things in the film, sometimes people ask me what these mean, and I say I have no idea, because for me, cinema is much close to the world of dreams. Freud, the guys from psychoanalysis, they can say something about this symbolistic value of a certain thinking in dreams for instance. But I don’t think about this… my approach is much more … so when I have for instance, a whale exploding… I know it means something, it’s an explosion of something big, but I can’t say preciously what it represents. But the viewer need not be so passive; many times in cinema, as a viewer, I think my job is a little bit boring. I have the sensation that the film is imposing on me, how I should think, when I should cry, when I should laugh, everything is predicted from before, and I don’t have any space for that. For me, as a viewer, as someone that is making film for viewers, I think that one of our tasks is to invent a voice for the viewers. So I have to come up with things that can make the viewer have a role on the film, the sensation that for every viewer is different, as they are doing their own thing with the film…there isn’t a single film for everybody.

W: I agree, the way you’ve done it is very open and about individual readings rather than you prescribing meaning.

MG: I hope so.

W: What about the decision to have it in these three quite long parts? Was that something you always wanted from the beginning?

MG: In the beginning, I didn’t intend to. I was just filming, the producers were a little bit worried…But I accumulated the materials, and in the end, we were dealing with that during the edit, and I came to the conclusion that the film should be recognised in three different volumes. The book itself is so big and also has different volumes. We had the opportunity to have different kinds of mood and tone and personality in each volume.

W: But you’ll be back to more traditional scripting and pre-production to your next film?

MG: I’m already preparing another film. And every film is about inventing a new world, and you have to find the rules of the world, and to find the rules of the world you first have to find your own rules to create this world. And those come little by little. At the moment we are writing, but I don’t know if our rules of writing will change in two weeks from now. It’s a different film, a war film, and I’ve never done this. I never thought I would do a war film. Film about a real war. People as soldiers and people firing. I don’t have any clue how you do these kinds of films, so I have to come up with a way to do it and I’m working on that now.

Volume One of the trilogy is released in cinemas on 22nd April with Volume Two on 29th April and Volume Three on May 6th. The trilogy is then released on MUBI on the 27th, 28th and 29th May.

Benji Walters
New Flicks: Arabian Nights

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