Miguel Gomes Discusses Processing Reality and Adapting Sensations in ‘Arabian Nights’
Filmmaker Miguel Gomes‘ sprawling six-and-a-half-hour reaction to The Great Recession of Portugal insists its influenced by events that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 to July 2014. A helpful on-screen text reminds audiences of this near the beginning of each of Arabian Nights‘ three volumes: The Restless One, The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One. Despite that, through three volumes, Arabian Nights travels through time, across the country, and to Baghdad. Text is one of the many ways in which Gomes subverts expectations across his trilogy. “I see a connection between the voiceover in the second part of Tabu and the text [in Arabian Nights],” says the Lisbon-born filmmaker. “As you hear the voiceover, you have a completely different sensation. It’s inventing a wall you don’t see. The text here is the same.”
Gomes’ films connect disparate people and elements across Portugal to create a surreal, spellbinding experience. In an interview with Way Too Indie, the Portuguese filmmaker addresses the concept of adapting the “Arabian Nights” structure without adapting the book, creating the sensation of getting pulled in and out of a film, and why he didn’t want to “hit” his audience three times.
Did your interest in “Arabian Nights” predate your desire to talk about Portuguese austerity?
It came before. I started to read Arabian Nights—I never got to the end, though. Because it’s a huge book, but I’m still reading it [laughs]. I do it regularly since 12 years old I think.
My intention was not to adapt any story from the book but [instead] the sensation I had with the book, which is a different thing. It’s kind of a sensation that you’re almost vertical—living in a labyrinth of stories. This kind of baroque structure amazed me when I started to read the book. So for me, Arabian Nights, is like a bible of fiction. You have all the possibilities of fiction—shifting fiction, inventing fiction within fiction—in this book.
And it’s a way to cover a lot of territory. You address so many people from a variety of backgrounds and occupations.
That moment in Portuguese society was very intense and it continues to be—it’s not over yet. People are still suffering the consequences of this financial, economical crisis but I would say that [the film has] the sensation of being alive in that country, Portugal. My intention was also to gather a certain number of stories that were happening at that moment and try to build tales for Scheherazade to tell to the King. Stories about how it is to be in that country nowadays.
There’s also a lot of dealing with the thought process, coming to terms with where society is—from the filmmaker’s struggle to encompass all these stories to the judge who keeps discovering these new layers of malfeasance. They have to come to terms with these elements.
I think every one of them—they have their connection with Portuguese society. For instance, you were talking about the segment of the judge, it has this more global aspect of now having a copy of the Portuguese society in front of the judge. The judge, who’s job is to put order in the world, cannot. She doesn’t have the tools because the situation got out of order. She cannot tell who’s guilty, not guilty. She cannot do her job as a judge. This of course resonates with an issue that’s so important in Portugal: who’s at fault? Who’s guilty?
People try in a very quick way to put the guilt on someone just to protect themselves. It’s a human, natural tendency to defend yourself but I think things are more complex. This is why I had this impression that it would be important to have as many segments as possible because there is not only one way to watch Portugal today, as there is not only one way of making films. So I thought my Scheherazade would be able to tell very different films, to tell and show things in very different ways.
Volume One begins chaotically with all the different voiceovers and settings but as the film goes along it slows down. I wonder if that pace was built into your stories?
It was built in with the editing. When we were shooting the film, we didn’t even know if what we were shooting would appear [in the finished film]. We didn’t know that there would be three volumes when we were shooting. Only in editing we understood that we could control the mood of each volume. This kind of development [of the changing pace] from The Restless One to The Enchanted One was pretty much built in the editing.
Even though I have the sensation that sometimes you have two speeds at the same time. For instance, for me the judge moves absurdly quickly, if you try to really follow the events and the crimes.
It goes out of control fast.
And the same time you have the sensation that it’s not moving at all because it’s all moving in circles so it’s not going anywhere. It’s like not moving and moving very fast. For instance, in part three, in the Scheherazade section, I also have the feeling that sometimes the film goes very fast—she’s always drinking, or singing, going from one situation to the other.
It’s kind of entrancing the way it bounces from sections of extended dialog, or a speech, and then there’ll be silence or just the natural atmospheric noise. Did you try create that sensation of being pulled out and getting pulled back in?
Mostly I wanted have this kind of roller coaster entry in the film [in Volume One] with lots of more radical changes from moods and filmmaking from one to the other. The second one I wanted to be more horizontal. It had three stories and they are different from the first [volume’s stories] that are more up and down and this is like a line.
The final one, it’s the zen, atmospheric film, it has a different construction. You have lots of entries, like in an encyclopedia, and these entries invent for your two kind of communities: one completely fictional, with such absurd characters [in Baghdad] as Elvis the thief breakdancer, and also a community of the guys with the bird song contest that do as surreal things as the guys from Baghdad. Trying to teach your bird to sing by creating [a birdsong] in a computer—it seems quite Arabian Nights. Not quite delirious fictional. So there’s a clash of these two kind of communities with reality and fantasy working at the same level.
That’s the interesting thing when you blend elements of reality and surreality you can accentuate your message with those elements of absurdity.
This dimension is very important in the book. The realistic absurd kind of thing is very important and I really enjoy that. [The surreal] helps reality become more clear for me. It’s important not to try to mask fiction as if it was reality, which is sometimes a problem I have with some contemporary cinema. They make lots of effort to pretend to be reality. To be life.
The place of the viewer in these films is someone who is experiencing real life and I don’t like that kind of cinema. I like cinema where there’s lots of artificial elements and it’s up to the viewer to establish a pact with the film because in the artifice of fiction, there’s always certain truths about our real life. But I cannot also renounce the material world, I think it’s important to have this kind of [films].
I think this last volume. For me it’s like you start delirious like Scheherazade. And what happens to Scheherazade is completely mythological, like myths. It becomes much more down to earth because of the sun, because of the rocks in the landscape. We’re entering the world of Scheherazade and then it gets down to Earth.
I think that then the bird trappers, they do the inverse movement. It starts down to the earth and then they start to get this kind of mythological quality. So bringing the myth down to the earth and bringing [reality] to the dimension of the myth was the proposal of this volume. So for me, it’s always like this fantasy and reality and myth – like our practical, everyday lives – should have a place in the films. They are mixed.
Is that how you interpret the world, with that surreal element?
I think there’s always the world outside and the world that exists in our mind, no? I have to use both but I think we have to be aware of something which is if our mental world, or fantasy world, if we use it to hide reality I think it’s not good. We are trying to run away from things so I think for me it’s important to use both but being really careful with the fact that the fantasy cannot disguise reality.
Is there a version of this film that will exist at 6 hours?
Not really because when edited the film and we cut three volumes, we built every film like it’s a complete film. If you’re at the New York Film Festival, they show one every day. Like Scheherazade telling those stories to the kings, she finishes in the morning and then she continues the day after. This is my way to see the film, I think it’s a good one.
This idea of having the three in a row for me is a little like getting hit three times. I think it’s too violent. Every film has already the possibility of changing to defy the viewer. If you don’t have a little bit of a break and you start to see it continue, I don’t know if this can give you congestion or indigestion. It’s too much. If I would have had it one film of six hours I would not do it like this.
How did you arrive at what the ending would be of each volume? Was that also through the editing process?
It was in editing. Every time we shoot a story we didn’t know anything. Where to put it, if even we put it in the film or in the garbage. So it was in the editing that each end [was discovered]. I would say that for me that the most emotional thing is at the end of the finch volume. The Swim of the Magnificents, with all the unemployed people is emotional and thw ghost of Dixie [is emotional, too]. For me it’s very emotional material and so we thought during the editing of each volume that’s how to end it. It was not simple. Sometimes we changed the stories and it was not simple to get this point.