Miguel Gomes doesn’t take his sunglasses off at any moment, and speaks an imperfect Spanish that is kind and unhurried. We’re at Seville’s European Film Festival, one of the many festivals included in the presentation tour of As Mil e Uma Noites, the film that has multiplied his ambition and which confirms the author of A cara que mereces, Aquele querido mes de agosto and Tabú as today’s most wanted Portuguese film director.
Exploding whales, judges crying their eyes out, ghost dogs, murderers able to teletransport themselves, Chinese immigrants having affairs with Portuguese cops, men teaching birds how to improve their singing… All these elements are part of As Mil e Uma Noites. Some make you fall in love with them; others leave you perplexed. And, without a doubt, there are two or three you could perfectly live without. But they are all part of the same game.
With its six hours, divided in three volumes that can be seen as almost independent films (O Inquieto, O Desolado and O Encantado), As Mil e Uma Noites belongs in a lineage of excessive works, characterised by their irregularity. Should they be further edited, they might be a little more harmonious, maybe even better. But they wouldn’t be like this. And the experience of watching them wouldn’t be the same at all.
Right at the beginning of the film, director Miguel Gomes appears on the screen to confess that this is an impossible project, based on a delirious and antithetical marriage, between fantasy (as a mirage of the compilation of stories that the title suggests) and the activist realism that today’s Portugal requires. A few minutes later, we see him running away as if he were afraid of what he has just started. The author flees and abandons the film to pursue its own luck, going through the maze of a Portugal hit by the economic crisis but which hasn’t lost any of its brilliance, crossing many voices and faces until finally finding Scheherazade, narrator of narrators, pillar of a compass-less film, but with a clear north, strangely rigorous in its whimsical nature.
An interview with Miguel Gomes
After watching the three volumes of As Mil e Uma Noites, one of the first things that came to mind was the song Sandinista! by The Clash. Does this connection make any sense to you?
Of course! It’s a flattering analogy but… I’m not sure they’d think the same! (He smiles). I’ve always liked punk, above all due to its attempt to raise an energy that allows acting in the present. In that sense, there’s a link, yes.
I think that, in my head, what relates both works is that with that triple album what The Clash were looking for was a thousand different ways of writing a protest song. And, somehow, your film deals with political questions in many different ways too.
It does. We’ve been hearing for years that everything is political, and that things should be approached in a given way. But, to me, that is also a very authoritarian attitude. And the best way to counteract this kind of discourse is by demonstrating that there are many ways of making films, of telling stories, and of looking at Portuguese society.
Was As Mil e Uma Noites more influenced by current conditions than your previous films?
Yes, because that’s exactly its starting point. We had a group of journalists researching the stories from where we started working our fiction. My idea was constantly linked to the present. We could have chosen a given event or fact, write the script and then shoot, but we thought it was fairer to mix the processes. It was almost a reaction to what happened, and it had to be immediate. We wanted to live and make a film at the same time, not live and then shoot afterwards.
This thing about collecting stories makes me think that, apart from punk, the film could also be considered folk…
It’s true. In fact, I think that taking things from society and popular culture is a constant in Portuguese films. And it’s also the basis of 1001 Nights. The book is a compilation of popular tales, after all. But since I’m not interested in talking about three hundred years ago Persian culture, but today’s Portugal, I wanted to start from things happening in this territory.
Although it had never been made as explicit as in As Mil e Uma Noites, all your films share an affiliation with the idea of the tale. In all of them, everything is set in order to tell something. We could almost say that they are hyper-narrative.
I’ve always loved people who tell stories. It’s the purest way of transmitting something, and since we were children we’ve grown used to it. That’s why in my films there’s always someone who tells a story and someone who listens.
In your films, you’re never directly the narrator, there’s a man narrating or, in the case of As Mil e Uma Noites, a woman. What attracts you from that figure?
I like the fact that reality is experienced from the perspective of a subjective figure. My favourite writer is Machado de Assis. In the 19th century, he wrote a wonderful book, Dom Casmurro, about a man who is very jealous, and who starts losing his head. Since the main character is also the narrator, he tells the story from his point of view, and there comes a moment when you start doubting the truth of what he tells. That uncertainty makes the book very modern and interesting.
In the end, what untrustworthy narrators manage is for the reader, or spectator, to end up building his/her own story.
Exactly. When Tabú was premiered, some people understood it as a love story, and others as an ironic vision of colonialism. I love both options, and I don’t think they’re incompatible or contradictory. To me it’s very important to think about the spectator inside the film. In many occasions, I get the feeling that he/she’s completely captivated by the power of the screen. It’s something so authoritarian… The audience is told what to think and feel every second. I think that the viewer is freer, and has a more active role, when you offer him/her more ambiguities to play around with. That creates a space in which he/she can exist and move. The problem of films today is that viewers don’t exist in them; they’re completely nullified by the film.
You talk about freedom, but some people see that as an obstacle. I remember after the projection of the third volume of As Mil e Uma Noites in Cannes a woman accused you of filling the screen with text and information. You answered that you couldn’t be made responsible if someone didn’t like reading. Do you think films should be demanding to the audience?
Let me invert those terms: what I consider important is for the audience to be demanding to the film. But, well, that’s only my conception of film, which comes from my positioning as spectator. Before being a director, I was part of the audience, and also a critic for four years. That experience forced me to reflect what kind of relationship I had with films: how it was like being the spectator of the film I had to write about. From then on, when I’m making a film, the first thing I think about is what might the audience ask from it.
In what kind of films do you feel comfortable as spectator?
Well, there are so many… It will be easier telling you the films that repel me: all those trying to convince you that you’re seeing reality, those that try to impose their truth. I’m interested in trips such as the one in The Wizard of Oz, which starts in a real world that doesn’t even exist, because what’s meant to be Kansas has been shot in an L.A. set, and then moves on to Oz, which is the world of film. It’s a territory in which trees talk, and things that here would be impossible (unless you’re out of your brains on something, of course) take place, but, despite all that, its images talk to us about life, about what being alive represents.
Let’s go back to As Mil e Uma Noites. In all that process of compiling and shooting stories, were there any you didn’t know how to turn into film?
At one point or another, it happened with nearly each of them, because we started working on them without having a clear idea in mind. There were ideas, wishes… like the will to shoot the owner of the cock in the first volume. We didn’t know what we were going to do with that, but there was something to be heard there, and it ended up imposing itself, because you feel it’s important. There are more solid and structured ways of making films, of course, and I’m not against them. It’s simply that I felt this project needed something more liquid, something freer. You start shooting and it isn’t until some days later that you tell yourself “OK, this is the direction we’re taking.”
I imagine that shooting without a previous planning requires a total compromise on behalf of the team, an absolute trust towards the director. Did you feel any kind of pressure because of that?
I wouldn’t say it was “absolute”, because my team is not made up of fanatics, and there will always be a point when they think I don’t have a clue. And they’re probably right! But yes, they trusted me a great deal, indeed; since day one everybody knew that the film was going to be complicated, that it would require a lot of effort. There were days in which we really didn’t know what the hell we were doing. It’s not easy shooting while you have that kind of doubts, but we knew things could be that way and we had to go on. It also helped the complicity of all the people who have been working with me for a long time and are used to my not too orthodox methods. Already in Aquele querido mes de agosto I decided that I don’t want to have total control of what would end up in the film. We somehow work in a way so as to lose the control that the cinema world tries to guarantee for producers and directors. It’s risky, but I think it’s more productive working with this chaos and being able to count on the unexpected. It’s important to open the film to the possibility of unexpected things.
What do you find the most surprising now about As Mil e Uma Noites?
Many things. For example, I didn’t know about the community that trained birds for singing competitions. It works as a parallel society, almost a secret society, with very precise rules. I would never have imagines that that would take up almost the whole end of the film!
There’s something that particularly surprises me about the film. Due to its complicated production process, so vague, in theory the most logical thing would have been shooting it in digital, but you decided to go for 16mm and 35mm, two formats with certain costs and limitations.
The problem I have with digital is that I get the feeling that everything is too visible, it has an almost chirurgical precision. To me, films are a battle between light and shadows. What you see on the screen us different from the world our eyes can see. There’s grain, a certain definition and particular colours… At least, in the kind of films I grew used to. Besides, working with celluloid makes you be very disciplined; you can’t shoot all the time, and I think that’s positive. You learn to know when it’s necessary to do another take, and when to say: “Well, it could be better, but let’s move on to something else.” That negotiation between the chaos of the shooting and the exigency of the material is precious to me.
Don’t you find frustrating the fact that, even if you shoot film, distribution and exhibition rules impose a digital standard, such as DCP, currently applied to almost all cinemas around the world?
Totally! In postproduction, one of the things that took us the longest time was colour correction to try and recover the images from the celluloid. It’s something schizoid, because you shoot in film, and then you have to undergo a whole digitalisation process to recover your film! You end up using a digital system to fight against the digital precisely. It’s madness! But, indeed, there are almost no options left to see 35mm films… It’s incredible. A few days ago, I was at a festival that programmed a cycle of my films, and after the presentation of Aquele querido mes de agosto I stayed to watch the beginning of the film to male sure it was the correct projection. And I was flabbergasted! The film dates from 2008, but I had the feeling I was watching something prehistoric. It’s as if in film there was a Before Christ and an Anno Domini, which would be DCP. The copy was a bit dirty, and old… It was like watching a film of the Old Testament, an incredible feeling.
Earlier on, when you were telling me about your way of working without a fixed plan, I thought that deep down all your movies are adventure films.
Once, in France, I was asked why I almost never shot in Lisbon, my city. The thing is when I make a film, I feel like going to the forest, or to Africa. What I want is leaving the place I spent most of my time in, and find out how to make my film in places that are unknown to me.