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"The imaginary is just as real as real life"

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Miguel Gomes • Director

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- We met up with Miguel Gomes to talk about Arabian Nights, his trilogy made up of The Restless One, The Desolate One and The Enchanted One, unveiled at Directors' Fortnight

Miguel Gomes • Director

We interviewed Miguel Gomes on Arabian Nights, just after he presented the trilogy, comprising three feature films/parts : The Restless One [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Miguel Gomes
film profile
]
, The Desolate One [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Miguel Gomes
film profile
]
and The Enchanted One [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Miguel Gomes
film profile
]
, at Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. With the mischievous spirit that runs through his film, the former film critic turned filmmaker talked to us about how his compilation of events capturing the essence of modern-day Portugal, in full-blown crisis, which are drawn from real life but padded out by fiction, a decided sense of the ridiculousness and the desire to lose control, became a devilishly delightful and skilful ‘rosary of wretchedness’, with beached mermaids, handsome and moronic rowers, chaffinches which learn the songs of the working classes, and a happy little dog, who has just won the Palme Dog.

Cineuropa: How did this project turn into a trilogy?
Miguel Gomes: It’s my fault! (smiles impishly). That said, I was also the one who wanted to include a clause in the contract with my producer that I couldn’t surpass 3h30. Except that a project called Arabian Nights requires lots of very different elements: different registers, characters and stories… how do you cram all that into 3h30, which is already quite a generous amount of time! It became clear during editing. So, I had an idea and said to my producer: "Calm down, we won’t go over two hours, in the end it will be over six hours long, but in three films!"

How would you describe the progression, the path beaten by these three films?
Part 1 is linked to childhood, I think. There’s a banker who has a sexual flashback, a cockerel which tells a love story acted out by children, a puerile director, a trade unionist who wants the unemployed to throw themselves into the sea on 1 January. They are rather distressing things, just like the fears of children.

In Part 2, the protagonist of the film (which is not an individual but a group: the Portuguese people) takes on a more tragic feel. A judge despairs because everyone is guilty and not-guilty at the same time… Indeed, the only innocent soul in it all is a dog worthy of a Walt Disney film, if the latter had had the misfortune to be born in Portugal… Incidentally, this dog won an award at Cannes: the Palme Dog! (laughs) I swear, I didn’t even know that was a thing!

I don’t think I’ve ever made a stand-alone film. Each time, there’s always a second part which links with the first – take Tabu [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Miguel Gomes
interview: Miguel Gomes
film profile
]
for example. So part 3, which is lighter, is a reaction to the tragic dimension of part 2: we find ourselves in Baghdad with Scheherazade, only we’re by the sea (because we’re actually in Marseille – I mean it’s my film, and I can put water in the desert if I so wish!). Afterwards, we see people in the slums who, instead of engaging in revolution, are teaching birds to sing.

Starting with real life, you always drift into the realms of fantasy, but never lose this concrete anchor…
That’s because the imaginary is just as real as real life. Reality is always supplemented by things born from desire on the one hand, and fear on the other. So if you portray people affected by real things, you also have to show what they fear might happen and what they want to happen, the two go hand in hand.

With each film, sort of as your signature stamp, you adopt the naive approach of a director who, in trying to make a film, throws himself into an unrestrained exploration of the narrative, but the end result is definitely very skilful…
When I make a film, I try to lose control a bit. I think films are less lively if you keep too tight a hold over them. I believe in a different approach, it’s important to realise that when you make a film, you will need to negotiate, with things and people, and you need to do that head on. For me there is no other way. So my approach is to try and lose control, and then try to claw it back.

At the end, you tell your ideal audience that they can watch the film when they like and make what they like of it.
Yes, it’s bigger than me. I made three films (three instead of one, that is…) but we managed it and I trust the audience.

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