Nearly three years ago, I was offered the opportunity to interview Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes about his new film, Tabu. As a Portuguese film buff and sometimes filmmaker, myself, I leaped at the chance. Now, Gomes has been making waves with his new three-part film, Arabian Nights, ever since its world premiere this past May at the Cannes Film Festival. The 381-minute epic will bow to US audiences beginning September 30 at the New York Film Festival. But before that happens, I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on my interview with him from December 2012.
(Re-posted from December 20, 2012)
I recently sat down with Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes in Manhattan’s Film Forum, where his new feature Tabu will be screening as of December 26th. The film’s story begins in Lisbon where we meet Aurora, an elderly woman with a seemingly uninteresting life. Following her death, Aurora’s neighbor and maid join to find an old man with a connection to Aurora’s past. As the man begins to tell his and Aurora’s story, we are transported to a former Portuguese colony in Africa, where we witness their youthful, eccentric lives play out.
Tabu is told in two distinct parts: the first half set in Lisbon in the present day and the second set in Africa decades earlier. Both benefit from the classic mode of filmmaking that Gomes employed. His use of black-and-white imagery and a 4:3 aspect ratio hearken back to a cinema of old, honoring a long-forgotten art while emphasizing the film’s theme of lost youth.
This year, the film has screened at the New York Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Las Palmas Film Festival (Spain), and won two awards at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival.
Why did you divide the film into two parts, and was that always your intention?
The process of making a film, for me, is very organic. It’s not like writing the script, choosing locations, shooting, and editing. That’s the normal way. But somehow, I keep making things not in this way. For instance, by the end of the process I was writing the voice-over at the same time I was editing, so I was restructuring the film. So by the end of the process, I was doing something that should come at the beginning.
What I intended was to start with a society that is Lisbon nowadays. Lisbon is considered a very bright city, a very warm city. In this case, I wanted to have an aged Lisbon, a dark Lisbon, a sad Lisbon. And to have a character, Aurora, that would look like a very senile, old woman—who seems to have a very unexciting life. When this woman dies in the middle of the film, we discover, after all, her life was very exciting. She was hunting in Africa, she had a lover, she had a pet crocodile [as depicted in the second half of the film]—so it’s almost the opposite of the first part of the film. In the second part of the film, you see young people doing sexy, maybe silly things, but you have the sensation of people who are about to die, which is going to contaminate the second part; so you see a scene of sex—young, beautiful people—but you hear the voice-[over] of the old guy [from the first part of the film]. He has a tired voice, he’s an old man. So you have the sensation of time that goes through the first part of the film and then goes into the second. I always imagined this film like—let’s compare it to drinking: I would start with the hangover and then go to the drinking part; when you get to the drinking part, you already have the sensation of the hangover.
The film is in black-and-white and uses the classic 4:3 aspect ratio, which seems to be making a bit of a comeback. Would you speak about your choices to use black-and-white and this aspect ratio?
It [the film] was shot in black-and-white film stock. The film is dealing with memory and the sensation of time, and so I wanted to properly make a film that is dealing with things that are on the verge of disappearing or things that are gone now, like people’s lives. Aurora is going to die, and death will give birth to a society that does not exist anymore. And the film is also dealing with forms of cinema that are also gone. I thought that the only proper way to do it was to use something that belongs to the history of cinema and do it the proper way—not just trying to simulate or to copy the aesthetics of cinema, but trying to get there by using the same materials, like black-and-white film stock, that were used before.
I think that what the characters are missing in the first part [of the film] is their youth. The Portuguese lost this Portuguese empire with the African countries—Angola, Mozambique—but I think what they are missing more is their youth. Aurora is missing her youth the moment she was in love in Africa and she had the “Crocodile Dundee” [boyfriend] and there were the young guys who sing Phil Spector songs in white suits. And I also think that cinema, in a way, is longing for its youth, too. And so I intended to make a film, filming in 2012 but having the memory—or trying to have something of the sensation—of the past; [I was] making cinema today that is not unaware of films from the past and tries to get there, not by recreating its forms, but by inventing a way to get to this lost world.
It makes a lot of sense, especially in terms of the aspect ratio, to make the film in this way. I think some directors make decisions that don’t correspond with the story or theme, so it’s nice to see this amount of thought placed in the way the film is physically displayed. I’ve been seeing that aspect ratio a lot more lately—The Artist (2011), Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2012), and nowTabu.
Tabu is your third feature, so you’re relatively new to filmmaking.
My first film was in 1990—a short film. But my first feature was in 2004.
So going as far back as your first short film, how would you define your filmmaking style and how has it evolved over time?
Well to be honest, I think I’ve made a pretty bad first short film, but people didn’t notice that, so I was lucky. I studied at a cinema school in Lisbon. I don’t think it’s a very good school, and I was not a very good student there, so it was difficult for me to be part of the crews, to work on cinema. I was a very bad student and the specialty [I was studying] was production, and I’m very bad at organizing things. So when I finished film school, it looked pretty bad, but I had a friend who was working at a newspaper and he asked me if maybe I could write something about films—if I could be a film critic. I said no but I’ll give it a try, and so I did that for some years, from ’96 to 2000. People considered me quite severe, saying most of the films were not good. I was applying to make a short film and the people at the Portuguese Institute of Cinema said, “Okay, let’s give him a shot so he can know that it [filmmaking] is difficult. He’s saying bad things about other films, so let’s [teach] him a lesson and let’s give him money to make a film.” And, in fact, they were right because I made a bad film, but no one noticed, so I think from that moment to nowadays I think I’ve improved a little bit.
So what do you think are the biggest gaps—things you have to learn from—based on your experiences? How would you like to improve as a director?
To be honest, even if when you’re doing a bad film, maybe you need some distance from what you have done to see if the film is good or not. But for me, it’s not a technical process; it’s what you were able to do at a certain moment of your life when you have certain interests. As I do very personal films, I try to put these interests of mine in the films I’m doing at that moment. So even [after I look back on one of my films after time has passed], I don’t think I would be able to make it otherwise, because [I made it based] on my capabilities and interests at that moment.
With my second short film, it’s technically very good. And with the film I made after that, I had the urge to do the opposite. It’s shot in digital with a very bad camera; it shakes all over. It’s like a reaction to the previous film. I have this kind of personality when trying to do each film in that I respond to the previous one, sometimes doing almost the opposite.
Going back to your film school, how did it prepare you? Though, it sounds like it didn’t prepare you very well.
Life was much more interesting outside the school than inside the school. I tried to spend the most possible time outside the school and not in. It was in a very nice neighborhood in Lisbon called Bairro Alto—real alive with lots of bars, so it was much better to be outside.
If you were to go back as an administrator at the school, how would you change it?
I don’t think this is a universal truth, but I think you can learn a lot outside school. You have lots of things happening and you can learn from these things—not just learn cinema theory inside the school. I mean, maybe if it were a better school I’d be more inside than outside, but I don’t know. (laughter)
I think that’s true of all arts. It’s all about your experiences—the people you meet, the places you go. And perhaps that applies to some of the actors in Tabu.
I noticed that there are at least a few cast members in Tabu who didn’t study to be actors, they’re not originally actors, they do other things, or they started off in other professions. Is that pretty normal in Portugal?
Personally, I think that most of the time technicians [crew members] in cinema make very good actors. You can’t ask me why. I’m not able to answer, but when I ask them, “Okay, can you do this,” they do pretty well. I cannot afford everyone. For instance, in the case ofTabu, in the second part [of the film, which was set] in Africa, I had chosen this place because I thought it was very, very good—incredible with these mountains and tea plantations—but there was a minor problem, which was there were like five white people there. So for making a period piece about a former Portuguese colony in Africa, it’s kind of limiting to have five people—you know, for extras, only five people (who came from Lisbon). There were no white people there. So I said to the technicians, “You have to play in the film,” and they said “okay.” So I used them because I didn’t have any choice. (laughter)
You know, I grew myself a mustache in the process of making this film, and I asked everyone in the crew to grow their own mustaches, because I thought we are so few that it would be more impressive to have people with mustaches than people without. So some of them grew colonial mustaches. If you have four or five people with mustaches, [it feels like a] whole colony there.
That’s the sort of thing you have to think about as a director.(laughter)
Shifting focus, I wanted to ask you about the state of Portuguese cinema, as a whole. Portugal is not one of those countries you think of when you think of great cinema. I’m Portuguese myself, but I’ve never seen a Portuguese movie before Tabu. So where do you think it currently is and where do you think the future is?
That’s your fault.
(laughter) I know, it is!
I think what happened is that from the ’60s we have this new cinema, because in Portugal we had a fascist regime—[lead by António de Oliveira] Salazar. But from the ’60s on there was a new wave of Portuguese cinema that started in ’62/’63. From then on, there were some very interesting film directors; they were not shown everywhere. In Portugal, you have normally like [eight to] 10 features [produced] every year, which is nothing. So with 10 features every year—almost every year from ’60s until now—Portuguese films play at Cannes, in Venice, in Berlin—the most important film festivals in the world. It’s incredible, so with eight films a year, you have like two in Berlin, one at Cannes.
I know New York Film Festival is pretty good with Portuguese films, as well. They usually have one or two on their main slate.
Yeah, and so, what happened is that this year this process was interrupted. After the [economic] crisis, the funding stopped. And so from eight features a year, we went to zero. This was the only area in society which had a cut of 100 percent. Of course, now there is a new law of cinema, so we hope that we can continue with this law being implemented by the end of this year or the beginning of next year. We hope it can continue, but I can tell you that Portuguese cinema is very personal. There are very personal films. It’s not mainstream cinema. There are some attempts at making mainstream cinema that are not successful. They cannot make money, but there are other kinds of cinema, directors like Manoel de Oliveira [at 104, the world’s oldest continuously working filmmaker], Pedro Costa, Paulo Rocha, Fernando Lopes—different generations that are able to make very personal films. Some of them, I think, are very good. They could only make these personal films because they could afford the freedom of doing them because we don’t have the pressure of the money. It’s the only advantage of being poor.
So what one or two Portuguese films should I watch next?
Watch a [João César] Monteiro film. Watch Recordações da Casa Amarela (Recollections of the Yellow House, 1989).