I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“What I believe is that you just keep filming.”
Inspired by the original tales—mainly to borrow the help of Scheherazade’s beauty and storytelling abilities—Arabian Nights, the new work by Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes, is a body of three films that combine different cinematic styles and moods to address the state of things in present-day Portugal. The country has suffered great socio-economic hardships due to a financial crisis that began in 2008. Setting out to give a voice to his countrymen, Gomes embarked on a year of filming a series of both fictional and real stories—the latter scouted by journalists, as they were happening across the country. With tales of the absurd and fantastical mixed with the harsh realities of unemployment, suicide, police incompetence, and even an exploding whale, Arabian Nights is about narratives and the many ways of expressing them.
Thirty minutes is certainly not enough time to speak about six-plus hours of film, and definitely not for Arabian Nights. But here we’ve started to chip away at it.
Tânia Cypriano First, I just want to say that I love the film. But it’s very interesting because sometimes we as filmmakers impose rules on ourselves, or on our work, to produce something—almost a necessity of rules for creation. With Arabian Nights, it feels like you had a lot of freedom, and a lot of pleasure in the actual making of these films… and the opportunity to do everything you wanted… without rules.
Miguel Gomes I do everything I want but, of course, there is something I can’t control—which is the credit card of my producer, and I don’t want to control that card anyway. I think it’s dangerous and I would end up in prison, so I don’t want to do that. But it’s true that I don’t have any limits. I’ve never had my producer come to me and say, “I don’t like this part,” or “I want you to work with professional actors,” or “I want you to cast my mother.” Well, sometimes I do get people saying, “I want you to cast my mother,” but I’m free to accept this—sometimes its good to cast the mother. It’s okay. But I don’t have any limits. That’s essential. I cannot work otherwise.
So, pleasure—yeah, I try to be the first viewer of my films, and this means when I am saying “action,” being the director, but then also afterward, when I start to look at what is happening as if I was a viewer. That gives me pleasure. It moves me, thinking there is something beautiful attached to this shot or not. This is how I decide when to say “cut.” It’s very important to have pleasure, and the people all around me have to have pleasure too, because sometimes making cinema is very boring. The technicians get really bored. And sometimes this is in my films too because I cannot avoid everything that is boring, but I do try to have something like these crazy rules sometimes. There is a rule of having an official drink for every film. For instance in Tabu (2012), which dealt with colonialism, we came up with a gin and tonic, which is a classic colonialist cocktail. So, at the end of every day the production crew would prepare lots of gin and tonics for everyone. I get to create this mood on the set, and I think half of my work is creating this mood. But people were exhausted sometimes, or angry. It was not a big party every day.
TC I was thinking more of how you’re really able to exercise all these different dreams and fantasies on the screen. That’s part of what I was referring to as pleasure. Even the idea of being able to say, “I would like to make this six-hour film, this really long film with all these different stories.” That’s a very big deal these days, especially with all the pressure we have with distribution. And you’re doing it in a different language, one that hardly anybody hears. It takes a lot of courage to do that, but at the same time, it feels full of enjoyment.
MG To take the pressure off of doing a film—every film, a six-hour or a normal-length film—you’re almost obliged not to think about this kind of thing. It’s natural that we would joke about how much we were filming. We had bets going about what the length of this film would be in the end—ten hours, twelve hours? But in reality it was a very segmented kind of work. We were trying to give birth to a new story, doing it in little units. It was a bit difficult because we could never predict what kind of new stories would appear. It was impossible to see the whole thing, but we had an editor working along with us, and little by little, month by month, we could see the connections—some rhymes.
Back then, we didn’t know if we would keep all the stories. We always had the option to put out half of them and just do a three-hour film. But it was this huge process, and the only possible way to show such a huge process was to show everything we shot. Every story is in the film. We thought this was important because in the recent years politicians and the government in Portugal were always saying the same stupid sentence: “There is only one way.” I’m only a film director and not a politician, but I know there’s lots of different ways to make something, lots of ways of telling stories and of looking at this country. Why the hell should there be only one way to have a policy? I cannot believe that. But we felt we had to put all these very different moods and ways of storytelling into the film. It’s an answer to this monolithic way of thinking.
TC Another thing I thought about during the screening in New York was the symbolism of some of the imagery. Maybe because I’m a Brazilian native with Portuguese heritage, but there are images that have a certain meaning for me. I wonder if Americans in the theater got it. And I wonder if that matters to you. Like there are overtly political images one can understand, but for me there were also so many loaded scenes. Like the rooster that is sentenced by the court for crowing at the wrong hours; the rooster is this kind of unofficial symbol of Portugal and the “Galo de Barcelos,” a symbol of integrity and honor.
MG I thought about some of these things, maybe. But you have to understand that almost everything in the film was born from real stories. For instance, the cockerel [the rooster] was a true story, and it was the first story we shot. This bird was really put on trial, and there were policeman coming to this lady, saying that she had three days to get rid of it. And, of course, I’m aware the cockerel is a symbol of Portugal, but it was not my desire to have a story with a cockerel because of that fact. What I believe is that you just keep filming and many motifs that come with the country will inevitably appear.
TC It’s an interesting coincidence. Also, Volume 1: The Restless One made me think about the Portuguese as explorers who went from the coast out to places like Brazil. But what you did in the film was start on the coast, with the shipyards, then slowly move inland to the countryside and the city, going deeper and deeper into what is going on in Portugal. Can you talk about how you used the landscape of Portugal in this manner, or if I came up with this movement in my head as I watched?
MG I was not planning to have so many scenes by the sea. It’s true that in the first volume you start with the boats in the north of Portugal, with these shipyard workers that were fired. But Portugal is in the far west of Europe and faces the ocean. And there’s the swim, the bath, the first of January, the “Swim of the Magnificent.” Actually, there was even a moment where I was a little bit worried, thinking we were filming at the seaside too much. But it shows that Portugal is not a big country and that the sea is all around us. We were drawn to it, since the journalists and stories there are interesting. Of course this resonates with the history of Portugal, but I think it’s a consequence of the country geographically.
This first volume ends with the flag, dancing with the flag, a flag of fortune, and people throwing themselves into the sea. So there is a connection with the setting, the sea without its ships. And that shipyard was the last place where they built ships in this country. So you can always see connections and consequences—but sometimes I am more aware it, sometimes less so.
TC Then at times the film felt like a travelogue, too—the way you move from one place to another and use the landscape as part of the story. In Volume 2: The Desolate One, we go to the mountains and see this man among the rocks, in the water of the lake, walking the roads.
MG In fact, we just shot two stories in the interior of Portugal and near of the border with Spain. It’s a very isolated area with this very rocky landscape—a hard place to get to, and cold in the winter, and very hot in the summer. I was interested in its diversity.
People ask me about style, but I don’t have a style. I don’t want to impose a style on the film, since it comes from the people and landscapes you shoot. They emanate something. I didn’t want to make a Western, but of course I recognized that in this landscape, and with this guy who plays the criminal, you get that feeling. There are various encounters, but it’s basically man and landscape, and this determined how I shot. I never use storyboards. I don’t know much beforehand, only on the day before, or even that morning when I’m having breakfast, drinking coffee. Then I’ll go to the set and change my mind, or not.
Cinema has a connection with presence, no? Screenplays, storyboards—they are the past, even if it was only one week before. So how do you keep things alive with the people within a landscape? Sometimes you scout a place and it’s very sunny, then later it’s overcast and very sad. Suddenly the angles you have seen are not so beautiful, and it’s much more interesting to change direction. I don’t fix anything, and I try to react to what I have before me.
TC But nothing felt improvised. It just felt like you were fully listening to what each story was about in each location.
I’ll tell you something that happened: when I went to see the first volume I took a little notebook to the theater with me, but after ten minutes I closed it. I think the scene where you play yourself as a director running away from making the film helped me do that too. So, I closed the notebook and decided to just sit and go along for the ride. It felt like every story was told by that same person, your character of Scheherazade, but that each of these stories was told in a different way. And it was this variation in the way they were told that also kept me going. But, it’s in Volume 3: The Enchanted One that things really culminate for me.
Some people who had already seen the whole film had told me beforehand, “I love parts one and two, and the first half of the third volume is incredible, but then I don’t know what happened.” I have to say that the last half of the last film was actually one of favorite parts. I absolutely adored this story of the bird catchers. You could have made it three hours long and I would have been just fine.
MG I put it at the end because it’s also maybe my favorite part. I understood that I had an opportunity to tell simple stories here. I had the impression that Scheherazade, after her long, long ride, understood that everyone, even the simplest character, has a story to tell—about themselves, in this case about birds, about the neighborhoods where they live. These tiny elements can get bigger and bigger.
For me, what they are doing is so unbelievable—this thing about trying to teach birds to sing the way they want them to. These people could easily appear in Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights, but, on the other hand, I do a very direct kind of cinema, where I’m just putting the camera on them. It was very rewarding to have met these people and had the opportunity to film this real thing—the competition of the bird songs, which was the most surreal thing I’ve ever shot in my life… though I was not putting much effort into it because I was just following them around. Incredible—this counting of the birds’ songs on scorecards, with linens wrapped around the cages? For me, it was like entering another world.
TC Visually, what was so amazing was the way it’s introduced. First you see these covered cages, then you see the places where these men live—these housing projects, these apartment buildings with these little cubicles. It was almost as if the bird was wrapped up by this man who is himself wrapped up in this other kind of cage. Then when they go to the birdsong competition, the wrappings come off, for the birds and also for bird catchers… They all kind of show off. I had the feeling—even in the way they relate to each other, and in the way that one picks up his bird and runs away—that I couldn’t tell anymore who was bird and who was man.
MG Precisely. I took lots of pleasure filming this, and I had that same sensation. It’s like a Russian doll—little tiny birds inside cages, cages inside houses, houses like cages, and then—
TC —the whole country.
MG Yeah, encapsulated. And their memories are also in cages. I’ve seen all the symmetries between these birds and men. It’s interesting: birds are very beautiful, very poetic, and at the same time they are caught and made prisoners. To have freedom and not to have freedom, at the same time, I thought both were the case. These guys were a little bit more free from the rules of the larger society because they built their own—a system with their own rules, apart from the mainstream society. So, in a way, it’s an alternative to society, and it frees me up a little bit. At the same time, they have so many rules and so many bounds, and they are dead to society in so many ways. They’re prisoners. I have this very ambiguous feeling, and I hope that’s in the film.
TC I thought it was a brilliant way to end it, the way in which volume three explores stories of captivity between the story of Scheherazade, the birds, and the bird catchers. And then in middle of them all, you have a music clip of Novos Baianos superimposed on this sort of free-hippie community on the coast of what’s supposed to be someplace in Arabia. Visually, that scene is actually one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on the screen. It’s really crazy, chaotic, and beautiful. Do people know where this music comes from, and what it means?
But for my last question, since our time is almost up, I want to ask how Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights came into play. Why did you choose Arabian Nights?
MG I have the sense that I’m always reacting to my preceding film, and in this case that was Tabu. And I have this sense, but it’s not a strategy—it’s a natural thing. I get so immersed, so into it, that sometimes I create an antivirus—something to make me think about the film very differently from how I would naturally. I do this to get away, to relax my mind, because I get so obsessed. So, I create an antivirus. And for me, Arabian Nights is one of the wildest books ever written. I present it along with rock’n’roll in the film because I think it’s a very rock’n’roll piece of fiction—sometimes very absurd, sometimes not adhering to rational rules, even those of fiction, you know? Characters disappear, or they appear to change completely in their personality. Very unpredictable. I thought I should talk about my country with the same type of mood and energy.
We were dealing with emotions. It was an emotional period in the history of Portugal. Most people were very angry because their lifestyle was changing, becoming much more poor. People from the middle class were impoverished in these wasted years. And so it was about emotions—it was a wild moment, chaotic. And what is better in fiction than the Arabian Nights, which has those same properties: the chaos, the telling of extreme stories, the surreal and absurd? I thought they would go well together, telling tales of Portugal in Scheherazade’s time.
All three parts of Arabian Nights are currently playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Filmmaker Tânia Cypriano has been working between the United States and her native Brazil for over 20 years. Her award-winning films and videos have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Jerusalem Film Festival; the Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival; and the Berlin International Film Festival. She has worked on documentaries for PBS, the History Channel, NHK in Japan, GNT in Brazil, and Channel 4 in England. Most recently, she has also directed and produced short-format episodes for documentary and travel series on the web.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee