BY Nick Pinkerton in Profiles | 11 DEC 15
Featured in
Issue 176


Ancient storytelling meets modern politics in Miguel Gomes’s new trilogy, Arabian Nights

BY Nick Pinkerton in Profiles | 11 DEC 15

Miguel Gomes, Arabian Nights, 2015. Courtesy Agat Films

‘Scheherazade is our patron saint,’ said Jacques Rivette of himself and his fellow storytellers. Rivette is probably most famous for the lengthy duration of some of his films – such as the newly re-released, almost 13-hour Out 1 (1971) – whose breadth and preference for letting scenes play out in real time gives them the feeling of competing less with cinema than with life beyond it. To such an artist, the attraction of Scheherazade, the teller of the Arabian Nights, is obvious. Held in bondage by her husband, the despot Shahryār, Scheherazade is compelled nightly to come up with a new yarn to spin, on pain of death if she fails. For those driven to tell tales that never end, she is the guiding light.

Miguel Gomes is less dedicated than Rivette to testing audience fortitude. He has divided the material that comprises his Arabian Nights (2015) into three evenly-sized features, the whole shebang coming in at a little over six hours. However, the jarring shifts of pace and tone between the colourfully titled chapters (‘The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire’, for example), into which each of these three films are further subdivided, show that Gomes has some pretty radical notions of his own.

The material covered occurs both in Scheherazade’s Baghdad of antiquity and in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014, during a period of economic austerity imposed by European Union mandarins. Slated for us release shortly after a 2015 edict from Portuguese president Aníbal Cavaco Silva forbade eurosceptic left-wing politicians from forming a government, Gomes’s trilogy shoulders the burden of ‘relevancy’. A didactic text opens each of the films, announcing that events depicted occurred while Portugal was ‘held hostage by a government devoid of social justice’, but though conceived in the spirit of dissent, Arabian Nights is more poem than pamphlet, using wit and paradox rather than sloganeering. The centrepiece chapter of the trilogy, Volume 2’s ‘The Judge’s Tears’, illustrates the ultimate impossibility of assigning culpability or dispensing justice in an interdependent international economy, but makes its case with an absurdist, Monty Python-esque courtroom drama in which a routine hearing over stolen property leads to a chain of witnesses passing the buck further and further down the line, all the way to China. Amid such confusion, magical thinking of a type associated with pre-Enlightenment societies returns, leaving us at the mercy of the obscure priestly caste of our day: the economist. (See Volume 1’s ‘The Men with Hard-Ons’, the story of a witch doctor inflicting a conference of eu heavies with painful priapism.)

Gomes tries out a new narrative approach in every chapter, variously making use of voice-over, on-screen text (and text messages) and whimsical digressions. The films contain some episodes of Orientalist fantasy – like the sun-kissed opening passages of Volume 3, in which Scheherazade herself (Crista Alfaiate) stars – as well as others that adhere to a relatively straightforward documentary style, such as ‘The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches’, depicting a subculture of birdsong enthusiasts in the working-class precincts near Lisbon’s airport. But such surface distinctions of genre don’t hold up to scrutiny: Scheherazade attends a grubby seaside carnival in Marseilles, while the real-life material of ‘Chaffinches’ seems like the stuff of fairy tales. (Shooting on 16mm and widescreen 35mm, Gomes and director of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom have given the film a unifying visual texture that is dulcet yet tactile.) The chapters aren’t rigidly defined and open onto one another through hidden passages, sharing cast and characters. Chico Chapas, one of the chaffinches’ trainers, plays an ornery fugitive in Volume 2’s ‘The Chronicle of the Escape of Simao “Without Bowels”’, which has its basis in an item clipped from the Portuguese press, like a number of the film’s chapters, including some of the most far-fetched.

Miguel Gomes, Arabian Nights, 2015. Courtesy Agat Films 

The sequencing of the chapters is willfully challenging. Gomes knows how to seduce, enchant and sweep along an audience, and when he opts not to, changing speeds from the exultant to the meditative, you can believe the choice is exactly that. There’s a mix-tape quality to the movies, emphasized by their plentiful needle-drop cues. The soundtrack includes the uk street-punk anthem from The Exploited, ‘Chaos is My Life’ (2002), and a recording of ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’, a song popularized in 1977 by The Carpenters. Here, it’s sung by The Langley Schools Music Project, a Canadian elementary-school chorus whose ragged-yet heartfelt quality Gomes approaches in his own art.

Gomes’s sure instinct for pop accompaniment will be familiar to anyone who recalls the role of The Ramones’ booming ‘Baby, I Love You’ in his film Tabu (2012). A wistful tale of forbidden love in Portugal’s African colonies in the years before the Colonial Wars, Tabu was that rarest of rarities from the European festival circuit, an honest-to-goodness entertainment that you could show to people outside of slow cinema fetishizing cinephile culture with the expectation that they might dig it. Gomes hasn’t lost his talent to amuse in Arabian Nights, but he has complicated it. To call it ‘uneven’ would be like calling an Antoni Gaudí building gaudy: this quality is the design. There is something perverse and counterintuitive in what Gomes does here: it’s the case of the pop-music writer, with an ear for monstrous hooks, who has decided to pen a protest song.

Gomes’s paradoxical position is parodied in Volume 1’s opening, in which the director plays himself suffering a panic attack when faced with the insufficiency of his art in a national crisis – a sort-of mini Sullivan’s Travels (1941). This segues into socially responsible documentary material concerning redundancies at the Viana do Castelo shipyards and the struggles of Portugal’s beekeepers, who must protect their docile native strain from an aggressive, invasive one which has recently arrived from Asia. One recurring theme in Gomes’s trilogy is that of Portugal being ground between tectonic global forces – be they those of the EU or Asia. The director of Tabu is very aware of his seafaring nation’s colonial history, however, and hasn’t produced a protectionist allegory: Arabian Nights is filled with references to migratory motion throughout the millennia, fanciful and otherwise. We get an early glimpse of a Chinese emperor of the Tang Dynasty leaving Portugal, heartbroken, while Volume 3’s chapter, ‘Hot Forest’, overlays audio of a contemporary Chinese student’s recounting of an affair gone sour during a long layover in Lisbon onto footage from a demonstration. There is talk of mass migration from Portugal to Baghdad and of chaffinch training being brought to Portugal from Belgium, by soldiers returning from World War I.

In its sprawl and baggy excess, Gomes’s Arabian Nights is a reproach to the idea of tightening the belt. In an art house economy that rewards rigour and seriousness, it’s a spree. There is a sense that it might have gone on in perpetuity, like the tales of Scheherazade, or episodic television. When I met with the director, he told me that the final dimension of the project was imposed rather than planned: the money ran out. (In this sense, the circumstances of the production may be said to mirror its subject matter.) There was even a thought to allow directors in the other so-called ‘pigs’ nations – Ireland, Greece and Spain: the black sheep of the Eurozone – to carry on the telling of Arabian Nights. This compulsion towards comprehensiveness remains, nevertheless, in the truncated epic: the films are besotted with the enormous diversity of stories out there, be they those of the residents of Scheherazade’s Baghdad, the direct testimonials by unemployed Portuguese in Volume 1’s ‘The Swim of the Magnificents’, or the moment where Volume 2’s ‘The Owners of Dixie’ becomes a rhapsody to the multiform life that exists inside a single apartment complex. Behind every story there is a person, these moments tell us, and every one is important.

Nick Pinkerton lives in New York, USA. His writes regularly for Artforum, Film Comment, Sight & Sound and Little White Lies.