The BFI London Film Festival ran from 7-18 October, opening with Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette and closing with Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. Whilst there, I caught neither of these (natch), but did see a host of other new films, most of which had been around the festival circuit for a while but were making their UK debut in the English capital. A highlight was Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights which had its world premiere in Cannes this year and is structured in three parts; Volume 1: The Restless One (125min), Volume 2: The Desolate One (131min), and Volume 3: The Enchanted One (125min). Seeing all three films back to back (with 30min breaks in between) at LFF, might happily make the experience one to include in those deemed ‘endurance cinema.’
Gomes previous films, Our Beloved Month of August (2008) Tabu (2012) and Redemption (2013) all play gleefully with notions of documentary and testimony. Actors are commonly non-professional, playing versions of themselves in re-enactments of events in their own lives, mixing with professional actors too. Arabian Nights takes this even further, using the structure of Scheherazade’s tales to present fictional stories about the economic, social crisis in Portugal from July 2013 – August 2014. At the same time, the director is all too aware of the problematic nature of his approach, presenting himself at the outset as a man in crisis, wondering how he can resolve his social and political responsibility with his desire to present ‘wonderful stories.’ He runs away from his crew, and upon finding him, Gomes’ destiny is to be punished according to ‘the Law of Cinema and Audio Visual Media’.
This irreverent and contradictory approach is what makes Gomes’ films so involving, at once he appears deeply concerned about ethics and committed to confounding his audience. So in Volume 1: The Restless One, we see the story of The Men with Hard-ons, where Portugal’s political elite are usurped by their own desire for virility, whilst in The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire, a cock that crows before dawn is tried by a committee for disturbing the peace, and defends itself through a translator. It’s elements like this that bring to mind an absurdist tradition along the lines of The Marx Brothers, Monty Python or more recently Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg, Chevalier).
In Volume Two: The Desolate One, the true story of a couple who took their own lives in a tower block, becomes the basis for a narrative about a dog who encounters their own ghost, in The Owners of Dixie. Here Tabu actor Teresa Madruga plays Luisa, one of Dixie’s owners, giving a moving performance of a woman becoming gradually overwhelmed by her circumstances.
Gomes worked with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, known for creating the lush look of Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past lives (among others) for Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Throughout Arabian Nights, the use of 16mm and 35mm creates a depth of colour and texture that enhances the film’s atmosphere, seeming to make the experience of the characters somehow more palpable. In Volume 3: The Enchanted One, the sun-drenched Mediterranean, standing in for Bagdad, looks utterly gorgeous, as we see Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) encounter the inhabitants of the archipelago, such as Carloto Cotta’s hapless and endearing Paddleman. Later, Volume 3 becomes almost entirely a document of Chaffinch training and singing competition, though structured loosely, it’s impossible not to become invested in the fate of these little birds and their dedicated owners.
That Arabian Nights became three films is down to the looseness of Gomes’ production plan at the outset, and the resulting volume of footage shot – somewhere there is a nine hour version of the film. In an interview with cinema scope, Gomes talks of the film as being equally one film and three, so that either volume would come to represent the whole experience that he wanted to give the audience. By explicitly using a storytelling structure – a story leads to another (actually something like Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, which also screened at LFF) Gomes perhaps makes more explicit than in previous films, the critique of narrative that has consistently concerned him. Does a ‘documentary’ perhaps deceive its audience by presenting something ostensibly ‘real’? A document of social distress, told through the narrative of, say chaffinch trainers channelling energy previously dedicated to regular employment, is perhaps most compassionate and honest when communicated as a collaboration of document/performance between director and ‘actor.’