Cock and Bull Stories: Miguel Gomes on Arabian Nights
By Mark Peranson
Originally published in Cinema Scope 63 (Summer 2015).
Cinema Scope: Miguel Gomes, you need no introduction to the readers of this magazine. Here you are back in Cannes with a three-part, six-hour epic inspired by the Arabian Nights. There’s general consensus among critics that it’s one of the best things here, but some people seem concerned that in today’s distribution landscape, it will be difficult to get the film seen widely, certainly not as widely as Tabu (2012). Are you losing sleep over this?
Miguel Gomes: It’s Arabian Nights, it’s commercial!
Scope: After watching all three volumes over the past week, it works as one movie for me, albeit one I’m glad I didn’t watch over six hours straight.
Gomes: It’s one and it’s three. You know about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? This is one film and three films at the same time. The real film is the journey through the three, in that order. But it’s too violent to see them together.
Scope: After the first screening, I was relieved that I didn’t have to watch the next one immediately. The first volume is not only about work: it’s hard work. In a film of, say, Lav Diaz, there’s time to rest, scenes of landscape, nature, long shots…which you put at the very beginning of the second part, “Chronicle of the Escape of Simaõ ‘Without Bowels.’” Why don’t we start there, with this abstract western where not much is happening.
Gomes: It’s the western part of the film, sure, but nothing happens because this guy is alone. But he makes an effort, so he invents prostitutes, great dinners…
Scope: Does he give himself up because he misses other people?
Gomes: I don’t know, maybe he’s bored? This was based on the story of a guy who was really on the run for 40 days, and was received as a hero when he was caught, because he fooled the police. We didn’t have the money to put that in the film—we spent everything on the whale explosion—but there were really 160 guards with horses looking for this guy and he disappeared. I don’t know if he teleported like he does in the movie, and I don’t know why he let himself get caught at his home…it’s kind of an anti-climax for a criminal, no?
Scope: Maybe he missed his home, you know, like The Wizard of Oz (1939). As opposed to your other features, which each have two distinct parts, this time there’s three. Did you have the conception of the three volumes when you were shooting? When editing?
Gomes: When I was editing. After seeing the finches segment, we had three hours of these wonderful guys that looked very tough taking care of their little birds, and I even hesitated and said, “This isn’t part of Arabian Nights, it’s its own film.” We had filmed the story of Scheherazade in Baghdad—which was going to be the end—then we thought, let’s invert this and put the finches at the end. She’s in crisis, like I am at the beginning of the film. This story of me running away wasn’t supposed to be at the beginning…
Scope: Where was it supposed to be?
Gomes: We didn’t know what the film was supposed to be! We had this nine-hour version, where the section of the finches was 2h40…I thought that Scheherazade should have her own crisis, and the film should end with her in action for the first time. And then I thought, no, she had to continue, and “The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches” is the only story she can tell. In the third volume you have a crisis of telling stories. It starts like a musical comedy for one act, but without a narrative, and then Scheherazade starts telling the story about this group of bird-trappers, and associated with that, parts of my city, Lisbon. I thought this was the way to finish the film, with the something realistic, but also at the same time the most surreal.
Scope: In between those two chapters in volume three we get “Hot Forest,” which is something unique. When Scheherazade is telling the stories, you see the stories in action. But when this Chinese woman is narrating her own life, and onscreen there are images of the police, you can very vibrantly picture her story, the events, in your mind. It’s a different form of storytelling—and you can say the whole film is about different aesthetics of storytelling.
Gomes: In all the film we spend our time trying to organize this battle between the imaginary and reality—what belongs to Portugal, and what belongs to the tale of Scheherazade. And in each section this is organized in a different manner. For instance, that moment you have an extreme opposition because you’re seeing images of thousands of policeman protesting against their colleagues. There are even people who say this was all arranged—at the end they climb up the steps, which was completely forbidden, and caused the chief of police to be fired. There’s this huge protest, and at the same time a fragile voice of a Chinese woman you never see—in fact it’s the same actress who in “The Tears of the Judge” plays a lover of Mr. Wu. Maybe there’s also an opposition between men and women—after the tracking shots of the virgins on the island with Scheherazade in the first volume you get the story of the hard-on men, and there you have all these policemen, thousands of men yelling, and you have a very fragile Chinese woman telling about how she took a lover and got pregnant…
Scope: Is this a true story?
Gomes: No, I invented it. And there is another opposition, one of the strongest, between the public and the intimate—one voice of an invisible Chinese woman telling her story, and you see thousands and thousands of angry policemen.
Scope: Can you go back and talk about the scene in the first volume where you escape from the crew?
Gomes: Like always, there was one day where I didn’t have anything do to; in Our Beloved Month of August (2008), it was exactly the same. I was with the crew trying to film these shipyard workers, but I could only speak to them the next day, so I said let’s shoot this scene where I’ll run away because I don’t know what to do with this film, and maybe we’ll invent a voiceover explaining it. This is honest: making this film troubled me. The six first months were very tough—we had no idea what the structure would be. I’m a little bit used to that way of filmmaking, but in this case, every day I woke up and thought, “OK, I’ll continue, but I don’t have any idea what I’m doing.” The scene with the crew came from a bizarre situation, because you had these guys in the shipyards who wanted to work, but weren’t allowed to, because they were going to be fired. There was a guy doing his work, he’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the terminator of wasps. He invented a weapon of mass destruction to kill them—so he just does his job, like in an action film. Then there was me, who was making the film, and I was asking myself how the hell I could do my job. So I shot myself running away.
Scope: When you appear in volume three standing by the Ferris wheel in Arabian costume, are you playing yourself still, in hiding?
Gomes: This was for fun.
Scope: Well, you ran away, and we never see you coming back, so maybe you time-travelled and are living incognito in Baghdad.
Gomes: At that moment, I finished my job, because Scheherazade also had a crisis like me in the film: she ran away because she couldn’t keep telling the sad stories to the king. I only noticed I was writing the same story, filming the same situation, afterwards. I said, “Hell, this is like me running away!” And I appear because we had this wonderful wardrobe and I wanted to try it. I couldn’t resist.
Scope: The first part reminded me of Our Beloved Month of August because the documentary-fiction hybrid there is at its strongest, and also we return to the fires of the countryside. After Tabu people maybe expected something similar, but you went and did something that is much more free. If viewers go expecting a film about Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights, obviously they’ll be disappointed. You’re trying to invent a new way of telling stories, or of adapting a book, but at the same time, you can’t do it without going back to the past. The finches have to study the songs of the masters.
Gomes: The film is also about transmission. In the first volume you have many narrators, and all of these people, like Scheherazade, are telling stories—but she’s making films like Ventura does in the second part of Tabu. So what I wanted is to have different ways to make films. If it’s Arabian Nights, it has to be structured narratively in the way things appear in the book. But I’m Portuguese, I live at this moment and not two centuries ago, and I’m making a film. So I cannot pretend I’m illustrating the book with things from today. I intended to be in the same spirit as certain things in the tales of Scheherazade, which have an always-surreal feeling, because most of these stories—the cock put in court, a criminal that teleports himself, a judge that listens to a talking cow who has a flashback speaking to a tree—okay, it’s not in the book, it’s not the same, but, hell…There’s also a kind of violence in Arabian Nights, it’s completely scatological. I think I’m faithful to the spirit. But I was negotiating all the time with what was happening in reality, and the feeling that I got from the book, not the book itself.
Scope: So you had journalists who were seeking out stories at the same time as you were shooting, and they found stories that you incorporated? Like the cockerel who goes on trial for singing at dawn? You started the project with nothing, and said find me some stuff?
Gomes: Yeah. We read the news too, so if we were interested in a certain story, we asked them to do research. I don’t know what you think is the most delirious…“The Tears of the Judge” is a compendium of all the crimes that we were interested in that were committed in Portugal. For example, something so absurd as the hard-on men had a basis in reality. We started to write the script when one of the journalists told us, after talking to people involved in the meetings with the Troika, that there was one guy who during 12 meetings only opened his mouth once, which annoyed everyone. As for the cock, in fact it’s a double. We didn’t want to risk the real cock, as he’s too famous.
Scope: So you used a stunt cock. Did the cock actually get votes in the election?
Gomes: No. But some people actually voted for all the parties. Like the woman says in the film, she didn’t want to displease anyone. Resende is a very small town, with only 2,000 residents. It’s true that it’s the same place where the story took place of someone who was in love with a fireman and who abandoned his boyfriend and set off fires…though we inverted the genders, now it’s two women and a man.
Scope: Why did you shoot it with children and show their text messages on screen?
Gomes: Yeah, there’s a more visible connection with Our Beloved Month of August, as it’s the countryside, and the actors are mostly the real people that live there. This absurd story really happened that the guy who was left by his girlfriend started to set fires that went on for kilometres and kilometres before getting caught…we thought about the ethics of shooting this: now the guy’s in prison, everyone knows him, so let’s invent a filter. And for me it was to use children. The actual SMS exchanges between the people were also a little bit childish, I saw them, so that contributed to using children. But anyhow the cock is telling their story, so who knows what the cock thinks? The cock on trial was the first story that we filmed. The journalists started a month before—but on the second day of being in the office, the central committee already had “The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire,” so we said what the hell are we doing in Lisbon, let’s go to this place. And the production panicked.
Scope: Why do you think all of these crazy things happen in Portugal?
Gomes: I think they happen everywhere. Of course Portugal is pretty much in a mess because of the crisis, and for me there is a connection between this and the rock-and-roll side of Arabian Nights the book. I was with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the DOP, last week as we were doing the grading, and he told me about a guy in Thailand who has 20 or 30 fires in his place every day. And the Mayor came to his place with a television crew, and during this visit, there were two fires in the house! Shit happens everywhere.
Scope: What was it like working with Sayombhu?
Gomes: Someone told me that Apichatpong really missed him, but Sayombhu could be very temperamental. For me he was a very nice, calm guy, maybe a little bit crazy because he accepted to come live in Lisbon for a year without knowing what he was going to shoot. He’s very good at using natural light. I learned a lot from him.
Scope: The film is generally shot on Super 16, with some on 35mm. The first time we see Scheherazade, with the island of virgins, that’s clearly on 35mm. What else?
Gomes: All the sequences of Baghdad—which is Marseilles—were shot on 35mm, and we even thought of using 70mm. Scheherazade, she’s a rich girl. The stories that she tells are a little bit poorer in terms of image quality because it’s 16mm Scope, with even more grain, with this lo-fi analogue feeling for reality, plus we knew that we had to shoot much more footage.
Scope: There’s a wide range of pop music in the film, from “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” to “Say You, Say Me”—I guess the music is most memorable in “The Owners of Dixie,” where you have not only Lionel Richie, but also Rod Stewart. I get the sense that you choose the ’80s music because it means a lot to the suicidal couple, who even own Lionel Richie on vinyl.
Gomes: The film is so huge that we used two versions of The Carpenters song, and I don’t remember how many versions of “Perfidia,” from reggae to Nat King Cole to Mexicans to what else…Because we have lots of space for music! It’s a big film. You have Portuguese heavy metal, The Exploited, all the music in the beginning… the film has the space for all of this. It’s always a question of range. We used the ’80s music—Lionel Richie, Rod Stewart—because the couple that commits suicide are from the VH1 generation.
In that segment, we had to deal with something that was problematic, because that building is actually the building where that couple committed suicide. I thought the building was perfect, but I said I couldn’t do it for ethical reasons. One day I was in the car trying to find another building, and I saw one in the distance and I said, let’s try it, and we arrived and it was the same building. In that moment I understood we had to shoot there. So we started to know all the neighbours, asked them to tell stories about the building (and of course about the couple), and we put them in the film playing themselves in a little segment in the middle of “The Owners of Dixie.” It was the way to have this balance between things, to be there and not to be trespassing.
Scope: Dixie’s second owners are a couple, played by actors, one of whom (Gonçalo Waddington) is training a bird that we later find out is a competitive singing chaffinch—as we see him in the third part, surrounded by actual bird-trappers, in a segment that returns to something resembling documentary. How long did you spend with the birders? Were they fine with you shooting them?
Gomes: In that case we started to shoot in October and finished by May. The last thing we shot was the competition. So it was a long process. We had maybe three total weeks of shooting, and for the other sections we didn’t shoot more than ten days. The problem was what they are doing is illegal—they can’t keep birds like this in cages in their homes. If the police found out, the bird-trappers would pay fines and the police would take the birds away. In the beginning they were a bit suspicious, but then a little by little I had the feeling I was inside of a secret society, with its own language, its own rules. For me it was very surrealistic, these men born in the slums, some of them ex-convicts, caring for these birds. I was impressed with this opposition between the way they looked—their tattoos, clothing—and their delicacy and gentle, tender way of listening to birds. It’s incredible that they’re drinking beer next to the birds, and they don’t talk at all. When there are no birds around, they yell at each other.
Scope: The first section seems to me the most explicitly political, heavily so—especially the beginning and the ending. The second one is more hermetic. Is there a political agenda to the film?
Gomes: The film is not neutral, and I hate the guys in the government. But I don’t want to convince the viewer there’s another party that’s better. I’m not engaged politically at this level. I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness going door to door. In the structure of the three films, the first volume, The Restless One, deals with the question of work—not only, but crucially—and it’s the kickoff of the Arabian Nights, so it’s the moment where you do this kind of synthesis, the first bridge between the fictional mood of Scheherazade’s surreal tales and what was happening in Portugal at that moment, the material aspect of the film, to show people and things that have a direct connection with Portuguese society at the moment of the crisis.
The second volume, The Desolate One, which is more about the law, is more abstract. It’s also much darker: you go to the last ring of hell. There’s no hope, people are lonely in a different way. You have deep loneliness with Simaõ, and this society around the judge that she cannot judge—she’s completely alone before everyone, and she cries because she loses her ability to control things. It’s a very theatrical scene, with dramatic, surreal kind of light—in fact it’s like a Greek comedy that turns into a Greek tragedy. And then you have the only happy character, Dixie. Because he’s a dog, he doesn’t care, he’s not aware—the others are trying to survive, needing money for food.
Scope: Or killing themselves.
Gomes: And the third, The Enchanted One, I think is also pretty political. These guys from the slums aren’t doing the revolution, but they don’t have a good life. Now these guys are taking care of birds, they want to take them to a contest and to have their bird sing more than the other. They have incredible stories. And the text enters and tells stories about them. First, though, Scheherazade’s text is telling bullshit about Baghdad’s sea that drained and became a desert, but then we take the same approach for these guys’ stories—for example, the text says this guy took off a leg of the bird, then you see the bird, and you see it’s for real. Like in Tabu, it works in this opposition of reality and fiction, but I’m doing it here on a higher level…but we’re never completely sure if the stories we’re telling about them are true or not, as opposed to the stories about Baghdad, which are obviously fiction.
Scope: We didn’t talk about the whale, which reminded a friend of mine of The Seed of Man (1969) by Marco Ferreri, which is another version of hell.
Gomes: I didn’t see that film. Whales explode sometimes. I planned to shoot in the Azores, but I never found a story to shoot there. I was on vacation there two years ago and they do lots of whale-watching on boats, and I had this will to shoot some characters watching whales, then diving with them, and the whale would transport them to the bottom of the sea. This idea of filming a whale was to film something I never filmed before. People asked me if it’s a metaphor, as it’s a big thing that explodes, maybe it could be Portugal? The story begins with this guy, Luís, inside the whale, but at the same time he’s at the hospital because he has a heart problem. That’s how we swap narrators, as he has to give reports to the doctor, so he becomes the narrator of the last part of volume one. And he’s from the union and has to listen to the stories of unemployed people, the Three Magnificents, and this could give him a heart attack. Sometimes it’s like he’s going to die—but it’s not his heart that explodes, it’s the whale. I think that’s the most emotional part of the first volume. “The Men with Hard-Ons” is more about rage; it’s satire. But the whale section prepares you for the second volume, the feeling that something desperate will appear.
Scope: I know this is a stupid question, but if you had to choose, what’s your favourite chapter of the film? Is it the finches?
Gomes: It’s Cannes, I’m here to answer stupid questions! I like that everything keeps changing and transferring. Most of the films I see are boring because they don’t change. After five minutes you know that the rest of the film will stay the same; it bores me to death. What I liked most to shoot was the competition of the birds, and the guys chasing the birds in the woods. My favourite parts though are the transitions, like after seeing the Portuguese Prime Minister writing with a Swiss Army Knife on the wood, he rides away on his horse, and you cut to a cock…it’s how you transport things one to the other that interests me.
Scope: This kind of a UFO approach, not to mention the film’s hybrid nature, might create some problems getting the film out there, or even placing it somewhere like Cannes.
Gomes: I wanted this film to screen in Competition. At the beginning we didn’t send it to the Quinzaine, only at the end of the selection process, when the Official Selection made us an ultimatum: you have five days to accept Un Certain Regard. And we said, we are disappointed, we really wanted to go to the Competition, so we’ll give you an answer later, and we showed it to Quinzaine, they liked it, and that was that. If I put a film like Arabian Nights in Un Certain Regard, then what can I put in Competition? I’m quite happy with this film—it’s the result of a process I’ll never repeat in my life. It’s too tiring and too insane, making a film of this scale—it’s not just a question of length, but the range. And also because I think Un Certain Regard and Quinzaine are pretty much the same. Un Certain Regard was created to compete against the Quinzaine. And because we were always interested in showing the film like Scheherazade tells stories, with interruptions, not six hours in a row. From what I heard from the sales agent, they wanted to show it in one day. The Quinzaine is playing a different game, and they could afford the freedom to have this soap opera unfold throughout the festival. But there can’t be too much time between the volumes—one every day would be OK.
Scope: So instead of the Palme d’Or you won the Palm Dog. Tell me about working with Dixie, in this section that comes across as a strange mix of a Disney film, if not a Canadian TV show from the ’80s—I’m thinking about The Littlest Hobo, which I’m sure you’ve never seen—and a downbeat social-realist film.
Gomes: His name is Lucky; he’s a Spanish dog. He responded to three orders in a very incredible way: stay, go, and put it in your mouth. But with this you could do almost everything.
Scope: Do actors need more than “Stay, go, and put it in your mouth?”
Gomes: It depends on the genre of the film. And in the scene with the ghost dog you see he’s so good he can play two characters. We did the special effects with a double exposure—though not in camera. So we shot the sequence twice, trying to guess where Dixie was in the frame. We did this also in the third part, with another ghost with multiple exposures, and the mythical scenes of Simaõ we did in the same primitive way.
Scope: The effects also reminded me of Apichatpong, because of their primitive nature. You also use a superimposition in that scene of Novos Baianos, who just kind of appear over a scene set outside of Baghdad in the third chapter…What the hell is going on there?
Gomes: Those guys are geniuses. They formed a kind of hippie community in Bahia in the beginning of the ’70s and did this psychedelic music. The crew and I were listening to this song a lot. That’s one of the questions of the third volume—how to transmit things, to the birds, to the king—but it’s also about memory, things that could have happened, or only exist in your imagination. There’s also a quest for beauty in this volume. I have to have things that I love, beautiful things. Novos Baianos appear after Scheherazade leaves the palace and starts to be with the people, with bandits in this case. Then the band just appears in the film, like all of a sudden you’re watching television. I really, really enjoyed that—okay, that’s my favourite part. But I have to admit something: this film is too complicated for me. I think I’ll understand it better weeks from now.
Scope: Right after watching the first one I felt the need to rewatch it. I agree with you, it’s a very complicated thing. I think I need to watch it again to write about it.
Gomes: This is a very bad thing to say in your magazine—you should say it’s a simple film. Simple but complex: complex is a better word than complicated…So I’m thinking about your questions, and, for instance, there’s also a community that appears in the first section, the Portuguese fishing for octopus. And then there’s this Brazilian community superimposed on the image, and no one can play music like them any more because the drugs they took no longer exist. This idea of having a utopian community that no longer exists, and the urge of Scheherazade to leave the castle and see the people who are living, as she’s too far away from what she’s telling. I think there’s a big issue there but I can’t explain it at this point. I need more time.
Scope: You say you still don’t understand it fully, perhaps because the film is more intuitively constructed than Tabu. In this sprawling canvas there are connections, but even so it seems to proceed intuitively.
Gomes: Yes, it’s much bigger scale, with more things to deal with, and more difficult during the process to think about all the connections. But if you’re being faithful to something, you can’t even explain it in a rational way, you feel that this is right for the film and this is wrong. Even if this film has a range—for the first time I did a courtroom sequence, a musical sequence, a western—I think that there is a path through the three films, even if it’s a little bit labyrinthine. But this is Arabian Nights, it’s not a structured novel from the 19th century; it’s wilder, like Resnais. Tabu was much more elegant, more connected with Hollywood cinema of the golden age. I do think Arabian Nights has connections with lots of different kinds of films—for one, the social film is being restructured here. It’s not the realism bullshit of…I won’t say names.
Scope: Obviously there is the influence here of Manoel de Oliveira, as well as the historical films of Pasolini…
Gomes: Pasolini was interested in popular culture like me, and he was also interested in non-naturalistic process of actors and mise en scène…He made Arabian Nights! Which is best, Pasolini or Gomes?
Scope: You mentioned Bresson with regards to the third part.
Gomes: Sometimes what’s happening in the image is pretty minimalistic, but you have this world of stories that’s being born in the onscreen text, like I was saying. In a way these characters feel to me like Bresson’s models, with an additional invention, because you have a mute voiceover, like in that film I like by Eric Khoo, Be With Me (2005). Maybe I stole it from him. In the editing we tried the finches with voiceover, and tried rewriting it, but it was so silent that the voiceover took up too much space. So we tried with text, and it worked. There was a moment where it felt to me like the second part of Tabu, a silent voiceover that opens up the universe. Here I had the same sensation.
Scope: And then you just listen to the sounds of birds, it’s very beautiful.
Gomes: The first question I got at the Q and A for the last film was from a woman who was not very happy. She said she liked the second part but the third was not good for her because she had to read. And in cinema you shouldn’t have to read, you have to watch! First of all, I think that it’s useful for people to be able to read, and it’s good for humanity in general. But a film can also be like this…
Scope: A film can be anything, and that’s the point you’re trying to make.
Gomes: I hope to initiate a new genre, the film as graphic novel.