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‘Arabian Nights’ Filmmaker Miguel Gomes Explains How He Wrote The Year’s Most Ambitious Film

'Arabian Nights' Filmmaker Miguel Gomes Explains How He Wrote The Year's Most Ambitious Film


READ MORE: The Most Ambitious Movie At This Year’s Cannes Film Festival is ‘Arabian Nights’

Arrogant politicians arguing economic policy are stricken
with a case of incurable erections. A rooster who crows at odd hours is taken
to court by the local authorities. An orphaned Maltese poodle shuttles between
owners in a haunted working-class housing estate. A Chinese teenage arrives in Lisbon, is
swindled by lover and swept up in political protests. These are just some of the stories in Miguel Gomes’ six-hour
three-part “Arabian Nights.” The Portuguese
auteur’s trilogy — one of 2015’s certifiable cinematic events — opens Friday at the
Film Society of Lincoln Center, with each 2-hour volume screening for a week. Sensuous,
melancholy, and anarchic, Gomes’ absurdist epic is a feast for the senses and
the intellect.

It’s also one of the most inspired political works of recent
memory. “Arabian Nights” is the
director’s wildly imaginative response to Portugal’s very real economic crisis
and crippling austerity policies. The explicit goal was to capture the social
impact of the ongoing plight during the course of one year (2013-14). Armed
with a team of journalists, Gomes and his crew travelled across the country for
nearly a year and half, gathering interviews, anecdotes and stories from local
news.

As anyone familiar with the director’s previous efforts like “Tabu” knows, Gomes possesses a
slyly reflexive approach to storytelling. Given such enormous canvas, the
director conceived an unclassifiable work of fiction that freely mixes
reportage with fantasy, realism and fable. Our guide throughout is the Arabian
princess Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate). Her fate — she must tell tales to the
King each night to stave off death — mirrors Gomes’ larger theme of storytelling
as life force, as survival. 

Indiewire sat down with the 43-year-old filmmaker, who was in good
spirits, following the trilogy’s U.S. premiere at the New York Film
Festival back in October. Between surreptitious cigarettes, Gomes revealed the ideas behind “Arabian Nights,” his secret to writing and the one story that got away.

Watching
all the films in one afternoon recalibrated my viewing experience. The next
day, I saw a three-hour Frederick Wiseman documentary and it flew by like 90
minutes.

You’re a brave man.

Let’s start by
talking about the origins of “Arabian Nights.”

I always had a
desire to make a “tales” film and to work in the universe of “Arabian Nights,” which is very excessive
and delirious. I have this tendency, once I finish a film, to want to make the
next one in a completely different way. It’s perhaps not very rational. “Tabu” was a very elegantly constructed
film, so with “Arabian Nights,” I
wanted to make a film that went in the opposite direction and would have an
explosion of stories. There probably wasn’t a precise moment when I decided to
make the film this way. It’s more like a process that starts without my being
aware. One difference is that with “Arabian Nights,” I was like a collector, gathering all these stories and characters and not at all certain how they would come together to make a film. Most
importantly, I had an urge to grab the present and to talk about what was
happening in my country and in Portuguese society. 

Where did you
first encounter the book 
“Arabian Nights”?

I was 12 and
found a copy of the book in my parents’ house. I read a tale here and there
over a period of time. Even then, I was completely fascinated by this sense of
vertigo produced by this labyrinth of stories. It was a pleasurable kind of
vertigo. There was a moment some years ago, when it occurred to me that it was
very important to make a film in Portugal. At that time, I had been planning to
make a film in Mexico. Suddenly, I thought, “If I have this opportunity, I
cannot turn my back on my country.”

I felt compelled to film what is happening
in Portugal because these are extraordinary times. I mean “extraordinary” in
the negative sense. And, of course, I saw a parallel between the absurd
situation of Portugal’s financial crisis and the absurd, delirious storytelling
of Scheherazade in the Tales. So I thought, “Okay, let’s have Scheherazade
telling stories about Portugal today.”

There have
filmic versions of “Arabian Nights,” notably Pasolini’s 1974 adaptation, but your trilogy does something different.
You are able to use the structure of the tales as a commentary on present-day
reality. What’s interesting is that “Arabian Nights” as literature, is a slippery text: It’s a work of multiple authors
and there’s no definitive version of the collected tales. In a way, your film
shows us how “reality” itself is a slippery text, made up of many authors and
many different versions.

It’s
precisely that. There is reality and then there is dealing with reality. You are inherently transforming reality, once
you are dealing with its representation. In “Arabian Nights,” I felt that private reality should be given the same consideration
as collective, or common, reality. The world of our imagination must have the
same space in the film as outside reality. I see continuity between them. Our
imaginary is derived from our daily experience in a certain time and society.
If I was living in the North Pole in the 15th century — I have no idea
who was living there then! — but I would not have the same imagination as I do
living in 21st century Portugal.

For me, it was very important to
make this portrait of Portugal that has both sides. There is this persistent
cliché that when you’re dealing with very serious issues as a filmmaker, you’re
not allowed to engage the imaginary, but I don’t agree.
In many ways,
the seeds of “
Arabian Nights” can be
found in “
Tabu.” That film also
contained stories within stories and unreliable narrators who into question the
underlying “truth” of the stories we’re watching.

Yes. In “Tabu,” this story of Africa being told by
the old guy is not very reliable. We are never entirely sure if he’s just
senile or something. I mean, telling love stories with crocodiles is not so
normal. There are some narrators in “Arabian Nights” who are perhaps a bit bizarre. But the difference is that it was
very important to me that “Arabian Nights” operates on two levels: Individuality and the community. The film is full of
eccentric and whimsical characters. A lot of them are people who are obsessed,
like the union guy from Volume I. Obsession,
of course, is an individual thing, but in the film, it’s also more general
theme. “Arabian Nights” is about
community and the collective. 

This is why I end the film with the story of the bird
trappers in Volume III. They are a
collection of guys from living in the housing projects in Lisbon, from all
these different backgrounds, who are united by their obsession. Even though
they are each very individual, together they create a community. In the film,
we are always faced with the question of how to represent the collective and,
at the same time, show these worlds that are often made of lonely and stubborn
characters. Normally, the obsessions we share in society — the ones considered “normal” and “acceptable” — are things like money. What these guys share is much
more rare — singing of birds! Sometimes by telling very simple stories, you
expose many more layers. By telling their story, I was also telling the story
of my city.

For nearly a year and a half, you traveled around
Portugal with a film crew, gathering, writing and shooting stories.

We shot for
about sixteen weeks over a period of fifteen months. When we were not shooting,
we were writing the script to the next Scheherazade story or editing something
we’d already shot. We were like a little factory. But perhaps it was a somewhat
dysfunctional factory. Normally in a factory, there’s a kind of linear process,
with a beginning and an end. With us, this was not the case at all. We had all
these different departments and I was going back and forth between them all
day, finishing one story and starting another. We had a big board to try to
keep track of everything, and it was a mess! I think no one understood the
board, not even me. It was chaos.

When you
started, did you have in mind a six-hour trilogy?

I had no
idea. What I was given was time. I had a crew, a certain time to film, and a
certain amount of film stock. Maybe the producers gave me too much time and too
much film, because in the end, I was incapable of delivering one film. To be
honest, no one knew how it would go. The producers thought I would throw away
some of the stories, but I didn’t. I couldn’t make a 90-minute film called “Arabian Nights.” It would not be honest.

When I started, I had announced that I was making a film about what was
happening in Portugal during the course of one year, and so it was clear that
the film had to be bigger than three stories. The decision to create three
volumes occurred during the edit. Originally, I had a nine-hour version of the
film. We ended up cutting out a lot of scenes for the final version, but every
single story is still there! 

Was there a
story you wanted to shoot for 
“Arabian Nights” but were unable to? 
There was one
story I started to shoot but couldn’t finish because we ran out of money. There
is a moment when this happens in filmmaking — running out of money. It’s a real
story that we were going to recreate for the film about this crazy guy working
on a church, the famous Sanctuary of Fatima, north of Lisbon. This guy had
accused priests of cheating him out of pay and was therefore very mad and
started to vandalize the church. He wrote Nazi symbols on the walls and
sabotaged the plumbing, causing a big flood in the church. On Christmas Day,
mass is shown on public television, and the guy somehow managed to cut the
cable so that it couldn’t be broadcast! He was eventually caught.

I was
fascinated by the idea of a story about a person who is so angry that he wages
a war against the sacred. I was going film in South, in a region that looks
like Andalusia in Spain. The story would have this Mexican or Texan touch,
perhaps. 

You
collaborated with several journalists to collect stories all over the country.
How did that come about?

I invited
Maria José Oliveira, a journalist I knew who worked for Público, one of Portugal’s national newspapers. I used to work as a
film critic, and that’s where we met. Like many journalists in Portugal, she
was unemployed, but her case, it was because of a famous story. She had been
investigating a possible corruption story involving the Portuguese Minister for
Parliamentary Affairs and the Secret Services Director. It may not have been
outright corruption, but their relationship was definitely a questionable.
Let’s say, it was at the limit of what is generally considered healthy and
transparent for government officials.

When the Minister found out about Maria’s
story, he threatened to expose details about her private life. The newspaper
denounced this, but because of the controversy, she decided to leave the job.
So, she was available and I asked her to work on the film. She agreed as long
as she could work with two other journalists, which is what happened.

In essence, they
were traveling all over the country, meeting people and gathering stories from
local news?

Yes. We set
up a website for the project (as1001noites.com) during the production. This was
where we would collect the stories, not as they appear in the film, but as
newspaper articles. In other words, they were reportage. We published about 50
articles in total, and some of them inspired the stories you see in the film.
The website makes the project a game for the audience. They can compare what
they see in the film and the original story that inspired it. For me, the
website was important because without it, the journalists’ work would remain
invisible, hidden by the fiction. They are independent journalists and I felt
it was important to make visible their contribution.

“Arabian Nights” was shot on 16MM and
35MM by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the D.P. on many Aptichatpong Weerasethakul
films. The images are widescreen and the storytelling is intricate, but the
overall visual style feels fairly understated, with a tendency to let scenes
play out in tableaux.

The project
is by nature very heterogeneous, and I was interested in different ways of
telling stories and presenting them visually. As a narrator, Scheherazade is
elastic and has this capacity to show things renewed at every moment. This
allowed us to work in very different ways. We have highly theatrical parts,
like the story of the judge in Volume II,
that appears very artificial, and more observational parts, like the story of
the bird trappers in Volume III, which
appears much more “realistic.” One of the things I think is very important in
cinema is “the good distance.” By this, I mean the proper distance to film
things in order to be able to see them. 

If you are too close, you cannot see well and loose perspective. The
viewer can feel like they’re being blackmailed emotionally. If you are too far
away, it can feel too cold and scientific. At every moment in this film, we are
trying to find “the good distance.” One of the great things is that Sayombhu
and I are very similar in our approach to filmmaking. He doesn’t talk about aesthetics or designing
the film’s “look.” Instead, we just do it. We work intuitively. It’s not very
rational. The distance changes, from scene to scene. As the director, I have to
feel that we are protecting the viewer and protecting the people we’re filming.

“Arabian Nights” is a film that’s obsessed
with language and storytelling. Can you
talk about the writing process? 

I am going to
reveal at this moment the secret of my method of writing. First, I lie down.
Then, my co-writers Mariana Ricardo and Telmo Churro, who is also my main
editor, sit across from me. As I am lying down, I start to narrate everything
from start to finish, including the dialogue. They don’t say anything; they
just write, because I don’t like to write. Then, at a certain point, they will
say, “It’s very bad.” And we start again. We discuss the scenes and they add
their own ideas. 

It sounds
like you may be channeling a spirit.

This is the
mystical way to see it. For me, it’s like I’m seeing the film for the first
time. It’s often true that when I am narrating, I don’t know how to end the
story. When we come to the end, we discuss whether it’s a good one or a bad
one. If we are lucky, it’s a good one with, perhaps, some bad parts that we can
fix. But it doesn’t take that long. It’s basically the opposite of how these
script doctors tell you to write films based on what people like. At least, my
process is more fun, which is an advantage.

READ MORE: Watch: Epic ‘Arabian Nights’ Trailer Introduces This Year’s Most Ambitious Cannes Premiere

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