Survival Stories: Miguel Gomes' "Arabian Nights"

in 15th T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival, Wroclaw

by Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Across many existing versions of Arabian Nights, the framing device that bookends the collection of ancient folk tales remains constant. Scheherazade tells stories to stave off the brutal Sultan, a betrayed monarch who assuages his heartbreak by daily marrying and then murdering a new bride. Each of Scheherazade’s tales ends on a cliffhanger, making the Sultan prolong her life till the following night so that he may hear the conclusion. In Arabian Nights, storytelling is a matter of staying alive.

Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ new trilogy may not take much more from its namesake than its episodic structure and epic length (collectively clocking in at 381 minutes), but here too storytelling is intimately linked with survival. While Gomes sets out to chronicle his homeland in the wake of financial crisis, this is no grim documentary of austerity and hardship. Instead Gomes’ rambling saga is testament to the power of storytelling in difficult times. As Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) tells us, the purpose of stories is “to bridge the time of the dead with the time of those to come.”

This take on Arabian Nights elevates everyday lives to the level of myth, giving more weight to the tales of the unemployed and disenfranchised as to those of princesses and politicians. Shot by DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who normally works with Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, his sweeping cinematography shows their stories can be just as beautiful, too.

Gomes’ work often toys with the boundaries between fact and fiction, but here the fairytale structure means his audience is never fully allowed to relax into either mode. The appropriately titled first volume The Restless One begins with a meta-theatrical preamble about the director trying to make a more traditional adaptation of the classic epic, which he quickly realises is impossible when faced with his country’s present-day political situation. In a very funny moment he runs from his crew to avoid the predicament, who madly chase after him with cameras and booms in hand. By merging reality with myth, Gomes suggests what cinephiles know instinctively: that fiction can articulate political truths just as well as documentary can.

For this project, the director worked with a team of journalists for a year, who sent him stories from around the country. Their dispatches result in docufictions about 600 laid-off dockworkers in Viana do Casteloor the residents of a state housing block on Lisbon’s outskirts, which Gomes combines with fantastical folk tales (like that of Scheherazade and her beautiful but vacant lover [Carloto Cotta] on the shores of the Baghdad Archipelago) and bawdy satire (such as the story of politicians bestowed raging erections by a witchdoctor or a cock [of the avian variety] who becomes mayor). Gomes’ intellect is indeed restless, as well as waggish and ever imaginative.

In some ways Arabian Nights can be compared with the work of compatriot Pedro Costa, who has diligently shown the lives of Portugal’s disadvantaged, but Gomes’ approach is much more playful. His experimentation has airs of the French New Wave: Jean Rouch’s docufiction in the likes of Moi, un noir (1958), the non-professional villagers who form the backdrop to Agnes Varda’s feature debut La Pointe Courte (1955), and Godard’s ground breaking dramatised documentary Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967).

Arabian Nights is closest to Gomes’ 2008 film Our Beloved Month of August, a series of vignettes taking place amid the mountainous towns of Portugal’s Centro Region in the heady heights of summer. The bumbling filmmaker and his disgruntled crew appear sporadically to argue about the dwindling budget and lack of direction. Gomes’ is forever teetering on self-indulgence, but there’s also something joyous in his disregard for the rules. Arabian Nights shares this freewheeling and wild sensibility, along with some of the swooning romance of Tabu (2012) and the maddening digressions of The Face You Deserve (2004).

Arabian Nights’ structure is baroque and often unwieldy, with little regard for pacing. Chapters can stretch anywhere from a few minutes to 1.5 hours, actively toying with his audience’s patience. In the second volume The Desolate One Gomes’ includes a literal shaggy-dog story about a pooch named Dixie (who wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney film) that arrives to bring some joy to a depressed community. Yet even Dixie is incapable of saving the broken humans he shacks up with – the elderly couple eventually suicide.

The trilogy concludes with its longest section by far, which follows a group of bird trappers near Lisbon who capture wild finches and train them to sing for competition. The hobby is at once an escape from present-day reality (many of the men have been laid off and are unable to find new jobs) and also an attempt to reconnect with the past; with traditions and landscapes they’ve been systematically alienated from. Gomes draws parallels between these maginalised men and their pets, quite literally asking the question: “Why does the caged bird sing?” Gomes soon makes this connection palpable when a man is found caught in a trapper’s net, telling his captor that he only wanted to fly.

In the middle section of The Desolate One, a judge attempting to try a thief finds herself tangled in a morass of cause and effect. Whenever she seems to have found the culprit, a new person is in some way implicated in the crime. This absurd sequence playfully points at the question Gomes is ultimately asking about the contemporary financial crisis: how can you get to the root of the problem when we’re all in some way to blame?

Presented here in a competition that honours the daring, the bold and the innovative, Arabian Nights’ inimitable ambition made it the obvious winner of the FIPRESCI Prize for the 15th T-Mobile New Horizons Film Festival.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross