Thoughts on LFF 2015: Arabian Nights

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’.

Still from Volume 1: The Restless One, The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire
Still from Volume 1: The Restless One, The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire

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.

Still from Volume 2: The Desolate One, The Owners of Dixie
Still from Volume 2: The Desolate One, The Owners of Dixie

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.

Still from Volume 3: The Enchanted One, Scheherazade (on the 515th day of narrating stories to the King)
Still from Volume 3: The Enchanted One, Scheherazade (on the 515th day of narrating stories to the King)

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.’

NB – for anyone located in or around Edinburgh, you can see Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August as part of the Edinburgh Film Guild programme, LOCAL/LOCALE. More info here. Facebook event here.

Voices in the darkness: Horse Money review

Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro) is the first theatrical release from Second Run DVD, who this month celebrate ten years of releasing neglected masterpieces of world cinema. Second Run have long supported Costa, previously releasing Casa De Lava (1994) and O Sangue (1989), so their first foray into theatrical distribution is apt. Celebrated on the festival circuit – Horse Money won the Best Director prize at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival – this is Costa’s first narrative feature since Colossal Youth In 2006, having directed several shorts and one feature documentary, Change Nothing (2009) in the interim.

Vitalina Varela
Vitalina Varela

Again following the retired labourer Ventura, just as he was the focus of Colossal Youth, Costa casts a shaft of light on the largely uninhabited interior spaces within the hospital that his lead wanders through. Ventura, a man in his seventies, here appears making declarations of his youth, telling the doctor that he’s nineteen and was lost in Fontainhas, his past ever present and unresolved. He encounters Vitalina, she is waiting for her widow’s pension and tells the story, with whispered intensity, of how she struggled to obtain a visa to attend her husband’s funeral. Later Ventura comes upon Benvindo, waiting for his salary; ‘’How long have you been waiting?’’
‘’Over twenty years.’’

Such interactions might perhaps exist only in the mind of Ventura. He appears frail, trembling and confused. He’s vulnerable to the neglect of the state, determined – as are those he encounters – but from their perspective easy to ignore. Until that is, he’s apprehended attempting to leave and the sight of him surrounded by soldiers, cornered by a tank is an image that describes so much about the treatment of Portugal’s post-colonial forgotten peoples. It’s this subject that Costa has made his primary concern, documenting testimony from those whose voices would otherwise be unheard.

Costa and regular cinematographer Leonardo Simões use darkness to startling effect, as exterior light casts shadows on walls in otherwise opaque spaces, the shadow of a window frame creating a structural reference against which bodies are temporarily illuminated. Whenever a close-up occurs, its impact is magnified by the predominance of mid and wide compositions throughout, suddenly identifying the loss and desperation writ upon a lined face.

Horse Money can be thought of as a ghost story, where Ventura is at once haunting the establishment that failed him, and haunted by the voices of his community. Ventura is a figure carrying the weight of personal and collective experience with him, and here Costa has stretched his inhabiting of space and gathering of stories to its gloomy, mesmeric eventuality. An extraordinary and absorbing work of cinema.

Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava

I could write just about the symbolic red of Mariana’s dress – such is the richness and potential for interpretation in Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava (1994). Storming around Cape Verde with either a forthright, potentially desperate intent or equally desperate aimlessness, Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) appears a figure of life, potency and sheer bloody will. Towards the end of the film Mariana changes her clothes, adopting more neutral attire and seeming to calm internally too. Colour is used to startling effect throughout the film, in many cases where Costa’s compositions involve a single character framed within a scorched, dramatic landscape.

Costa’s second feature following the monochrome Blood (O Sangue, 1989) is a ‘remake’ of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and frequently cited as alluding to Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950). Construction worker Leão falls on site and becomes comatose, then, in a very concise piece of expository dialogue, the doctor announces that a letter and a cheque have been sent from Leâo’s village, he’s being discharged and will be sent on a plane back home. Nurse Mariana accompanies him from Lisbon to Cape Verde and on arrival attempts to ascertain her patients origins, but is met with denial or silence. A stranger in an unfamiliar land, Mariana’s presence is neither welcomed nor met with hostility, rather a questioning insight that seems to reveal to Mariana more about herself than she is willing to accept.


Violinist Bassoé (Raul Andrade) recounts his sorry tale to Mariana admitting that he has many sons, but is vague when questioned on whether Leão is one of them. Finding her equivalent in Edith, a white woman who arrived years ago and simply never left, Mariana is once again left frustratingly non-the wiser by Edith’s refusal to speak. The refusal, or denial as Jonathan Rosenbaum (who provides the booklet essay for the DVD release) puts it, is the locus of the film. Despite the sometimes perfunctory explanatory dialogue, the bulk of interactions have an ambiguity that hints towards many things and many interpretations, with plot points left unresolved and character motivation in doubt. Mariana is herself in denial about the purpose of her stay on the island, it seeming to go beyond the initial week she supposed without her noticing. At once a musing on colonialism and the notion of the individual within a community, this obliqueness of plot is characteristic of Costa’s filmmaking, the trajectory of which has been described by critic Peter Bradshaw as ‘one of the most fascinating in modern cinema’.

Indeed Costa’s films are highly celebrated but hard to access, none of them having had a UK release beyond individual screenings. Lucky for anyone able to get to the ICA in London this Sunday 30th for a special screening of Casa de Lava in collaboration with Second Run DVD. Costa himself will be in attendance for a Q&A with EIFF’s Chris Fujiwara.