“When you can be moved by things that are unbelievable, that’s when cinema starts to be really interesting for me.”
Miguel Gomes‘ beguiling Tabu won the Alfred Bauer Prize for Artistic Innovation and the FIPRESCI Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival this year, and is set to continue enthralling and confounding audiences on the international festival circuit, just as it did at the 2012 Sydney Film Festival. It begins with a legend involving a melancholy crocodile and a ghost, is followed by a present-day tale of older women in Lisbon, and then concludes with an extended, near-silent recount of one of the ladies’ youthful, whirlwind romance in Africa. In actuality, all three of these stories are part of one story. I sat down with Gomes and discussed the origin of his ideas, the influence of Arabian Nights, if he gets bored with telling a single narrative at once, and whether or not audiences should spit on the screen.
Tabu played the Sydney Film Festival. It does not yet have an Australian release date.
SM: I understand that you were a film critic in Portugal before getting into filmmaking yourself. Did you find there were any particularly films or particular types of films that informed the way you would make movies later?
MG: I don’t think so. I mean, before being a film critic… what’s a film critic? It’s like a guy that’s being paid to write about the experience of watching films, you know? I think that my engagement, or the way I’m attached to cinema, came before this. On the contrary, I think that I wrote for four years in the other century, because I stopped in 2000. And so, I remember that in the last year I was quite bored by the job, because one of the things that puts you inside a theatre to watch a film is precisely the desire of seeing films. In this case, as a film critic, I was going there to get paid. So my desire to go watch film was put in question in those times. I remember that after quitting the job I didn’t watch many films after to compensate. But I would not say specific films. For instance, in my country of Portugal, I had a chance back in those days – something which does not happen these days – to have public television that would show every Hitchcock film for a year. Every Sunday you get a Hitchcock film. Even Murnau. So from childhood I was accustomed and had these experiences. It came to me, no? It appeared on television. I started to be attached to films, but I would not say a specific type of film or film director. More general experiences.
SM: With Tabu, was there a seed of inspiration? A bolt of an idea that formed into the movie we have today.
MG: Neurologists say… I don’t know s**t about neurology -
SM: That makes two of us.
MG: They say we have two hemispheres in our brain. One is connected to emotions, the other more rational things. I think that I work more with the emotional part of my brain. Normally when I start a film, it’s not with a concept or an idea, or a theme. It’s the emotion. I’m like a guy that makes collections. There are, for instance, stories I hear about that stay with me. Or songs, where suddenly I have this very strong desire to use on a film. Or the sensation of watching some films. So it comes from everywhere, you know? I don’t think there is a moment where I can say, ‘This is the starting point,’ because it’s so organic. I know there were moments important in the construction of this film. One of them was the stories that one relative of mine told me about their neighbour; it was a very senile woman who accused her African maid of locking her inside the room. I was interested in these stories – very normal stories – about common people, and at the same moment I was interested in… I remember I used in my previous film a song, and then I remembered the song – the first version of it – was made by a Portuguese band that played in Mozambique in the 60s, in the white suits. I knew them, and they showed me the photos and they told me the stories. This is very different, you know? A senile woman in Lisbon that is suspicious that her African maid is like a wizard and does things against her, and these guys playing in white suits in the 60s in Mozambique. It’s things that don’t belong to the same sect. Different things. But they stayed with me, and there is a moment where things start to get together like a puzzle. Then I found out that maybe I was making a film about memory and time, and I was available for something that I never had before; to work with characters like old women. I had never thought of these character; never interested in this kind of character. They appear in the first part of the film; three lonely women. Old aged. And then one of them dies and you go back to the past and what looked only senile in the behaviour of the oldest one, Aurora, you see 50 years before and she’s playing Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. In a way, it goes completely wrong.
SM: You’re right in saying that ideas are organic in the way they form, especially in film. I’m curious though, as there are some really bold stylistic choices as well: the aspect ratio, the black & white, and the lack of spoken dialogue in the second half. Were those early additions? Were those things that came to you when you finally sat to write the movie and put the puzzle together? Or were they around since the beginning?
MG: The thought of having this kind of ratio and black & white, I wanted to do from the starting point. I had this idea that the film – being about memory, someone that will die, a colonial extinguished society – I wanted to approach it like an extinguished kind of cinema, which is silent films. I should work with film stock and with black & white film stock. Do it the way it was used before me. Real film stock. As for the absence of dialogue in the second part: there is sound, it’s not technically a silent film. You get narration by the guy that is telling the story, you get the music, the songs, and also the sounds of nature, and the sounds of moving, but you don’t have the dialogue. In the story that is being told to someone… when you remember something, you forget the precise words between the characters; you remember the images, you remember the story, but you don’t remember the precise words that were said at that moment. It’s like a recollection without the words. Of course, this was the way to approach the aesthetics of silent films. But not just to pretend to be like in 1928 and to do it like this, because I know I’m in 2012, and I’m Portuguese, not in a studio in Hollywood or something. So I had to invent a way to get to this part; make a path to regain some of the sensation I had as a viewer watching Murnau’s films. I had to invent the structure to get there. There is something in this kind of silent films – the good ones; there are good and bad silent films of course – like an innocence that got lost somehow with the time. Now we have more than 100 years of cinema, and maybe 80 years ago people were more available and could believe more in things. It’s like when you’re a child you believe in things, and then you grow up and start to lose this.
SM: You become cynical, and question things more.
MG: Yes, so, in a way, I tried to make the film completely unbelievable, but at the same level, I tried to regain something of this innocence. When it’s possible to look at the sky and see the clouds where they change into farm animals, and things like this, which challenges nowadays ourselves as viewers as we have seen too much. We know too much. But I tried to do this; to recapture some of this innocence, to the point where we can be moved by such things that are unbelievable. When you can be moved by things that are unbelievable, that’s when cinema starts to be really interesting for me. It’s like childhood; the moment where you know that these are not true, not reality, but you believe in unreal things. That’s the beauty of cinema.
SM: You’ve mentioned previously that the least fun part of filmmaking is the fundraising. With Tabu, how was that process?
MG: Well, it’s a process where I’m not there most of the time because it’s the producer that does the job. In fact, my previous film [Our Beloved Month of August] was well-succeeded mostly in the festival circuit, and so I gathered a little bit of traction. I had to wait a little bit, but in the space of one year, there was money coming from Brazil, Germany, and France in the funding in these countries. It was not a huge amount of money, but it made it possible – with Portuguese money – to go to Mozambique. That would not have been possible if I only had the Portuguese money. But it’s, of course, frustrating at times because you’ve just got to sit on your ass and wait until the phone rings and says, ‘OK, you have money. We have won this funding; we have lost this funding.” At the end, things can be possible.
SM: Speaking of your previous film, that’s another movie where halfway through it shifts gears. You’ve also made some short films prior. Do you get bored with telling one story for an extended period of time, or do you like keeping the audience on their toes?
MG: If you can tell a couple of stories, why choose to tell just one? I don’t know what the title is in English of a book I read when I was a teenager. The English translation is like 1001 Nights. Or maybe it’s Arabian Nights. It’s like a collection of Arabian tales and it’s a book about this woman, Scheherazade, that is married to a prince. He marries a virgin every night, and he cuts their head off every night. Then he gets another virgin for the next night. But Scheherazade starts to trick him. She starts to tell him a story. When the sun rises, she’s in the middle of the story, so she asks the prince to spare her so the next day she can continue the story. This is literally a book about the urge for fiction that everybody has, and that’s why all of us enter into the cinema or read books or something. In this book there are stories within the stories. In the middle of a story, someone starts to tell a story, and sometimes in the middle of that story, someone starts to tell another story. It’s like boxes inside boxes. For me, it was fascinating, as a teenager to understand this urge for fiction. More than one story by itself; it’s like there are thousands of stories and you can put them together. The story within the story changes the story within the first one. I worked with this. I had this book; maybe it was important to me.
SM: Everyone reads films in different ways; everyone experiences films in different ways that aren’t necessarily right or wrong. Is there a desired reaction that you want from audiences in Tabu? Do you wear walkouts like a badge of honour?
MG: I think that it’s not up to me to think about it. I prefer when people like the film. I’m very common like that. I don’t want people to spit on the screen. I heard one time in Mexico, people were so angry – not with one of my films, but a film – that they started to spit on the screen. That is quite impressive. Maybe if I had that, I would be impressed. How powerful is the film that it gets this kind of reaction? I think indifference is the worst. Just to forget the film 30 minutes afterwards. I prefer that people enjoy the film. I make films not thinking about the audience as an abstract entity; the audience is lots of people put together and each one of these people has a different kind of universe and interests and sensibilities and sense of humour. Everyone is different, and you cannot reach everybody. I think that’s a silly idea. But I would prefer – what I’m looking for – that there is maybe a strong connection between the viewer and the film, and if there’s lots of them it would be good for me and [Australian distributor] Palace Films.
Tabu played the Sydney Film Festival. It does not yet have an Australian release date. Check out our review here.