A Lost Cinema:
An Interview with Miguel Gomes
by Chris Wisniewski
For more information on Tabu, read Jeff Reichert’s review.
RS: In previous interviews, you’ve alluded to a number of disparate inspirations for this particular film. Can you elaborate a bit on where the inspiration for these different stories came from and what led you to bring them together in Tabu?
MG: Well, I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that I’m older now than I was, say, ten years ago, and that’s very objective as a statement. Maybe I’m more interested in characters I wouldn’t have been ten years ago, for instance, older people like those you see in the first part of the film. I think I would never have had the desire to build characters like this some time ago.
There was someone from my family that had a neighbor, a senile old woman with an African maid. There were these stories about her and her neighbor and the maid, very ordinary stories, not like what you get in the second part of the film, nothing like crime stories or love stories. They were even kind of pathetic, but I found them very touching: this older woman with her very small-scale life, this was touching to me. I was moved by these stories and their potential, the actions of these characters. I also came across a song and discovered that it was made by a Portuguese band in Africa, in Mozambique, precisely where I have shot the film. I met these musicians, and they told me stories about being young, picking up girls, singing Elvis Presley songs in white suits, and what struck me was that, more than missing their land or the Portuguese empire, they were missing their youth.
All of these things came together, and then even in the departure moment, I wasn’t aware that I was in the process of making a film. Then it became very organic. Things started to come from everywhere after that, from many different places—songs, stories, fucking Robinson Crusoe—I mean, it comes from everywhere. I don’t think that everything is rational or that I’m aware of everything. I proceed like a collector not knowing what kind of collection I’m making, but I’m collecting something.
RS: That leads me to a comment and a question. Your first feature is also about aging, albeit from a very different perspective. The Face You Deserve is about getting older from the perspective of youth, whereas this film is about getting older from the perspective of looking back on a life. But I also wanted to also hear you talk a little more about music as well, because in a sense all of your movies are pseudo musicals, and I’d love to hear how you draw inspiration from music and use it in your filmmaking.
MG: Well, regarding your first comment, you’re right. When I was telling you that I wouldn’t make a movie about these kinds of characters ten years ago, I was precisely remembering The Face You Deserve, where there is a man who turns 30 and is very childish. The whole film is like a trip back to childhood and an attempt to kill it. He’s behaving in a dysfunctional way. Like a film director, he has to go back and invent characters and rules, and make a film according to those rules. In that sense, the film isn’t so far away from Tabu. The second part is like a film that emerges from the characters of the first part, because they have this desire expressed through cinema and literature.
Regarding music, I think I make films to play music. For instance, Tabu starts with Pilar watching a movie. But that sequence was only put at the beginning in the editing room. That story of the explorer and the ghost was like a radio soap that Aurora was doing. I shot her in the studio doing Foley effects (sounds synched to the action) and the sequence was supposed to come in the second part of the film. I didn’t know where, because we didn’t have a script for the second part. I shot many sequences not knowing if they would fit in the film or which part they would fit into. In fact, when Pilar was going to the cinema—and in the script, she went three times, in the film only two—it was intended that you would never see the screen but would hear a song. Maybe this is my emotional link with cinema, that I wanted to materialize it by not showing whatever Pilar is seeing, only portraying it as a song. For me as a viewer of cinema and a listener to music, I wanted to have the same response to the sequence as I would if I were hearing a great song, not being moved by the lyrics but by a more abstract feeling one has in response to music. It’s the melody, and something that works in your system in a very abstract way. Sometimes you don’t know why the hell you’re so moved. I’ve dreamed of making films that would evoke this kind of emotional response.
RS: This film, like all of your features, is constantly referencing both storytelling and cinema. In The Face You Deserve, there’s Snow White. In Our Beloved Month of August, there’s the actual movie within the movie. Here, there’s the explicit reference to Murnau and Flaherty. But one of the things you’ve done is to invert the structure. You’ve taken that earlier Tabu and turned it upside down. Generally, how do your movies relate to cinematic history, and what specifically are you trying to do here with the Murnau film?
MG: Well, it’s not Murnau itself I was trying to go after. Murnau, to me, represents cinema.
RS: Yes, it’s like pure cinema.
MG: It’s the thing. Murnau appears in my films as a representation of cinema when it was younger. Just as I said that the guys from the band were missing their youth, I think that cinema is also missing its youth. Consequently, this film pays homage to another age of cinema. Cinema is over a hundred years old. I think that cinema today is missing some innocence. In the process of growing, you start to lose your beliefs. You can’t believe in the same things. I cannot pretend to be in my twenties or try to copy the aesthetic of certain films that were made in certain times and had a certain context. I’m quite aware of the fact that I’m a Portuguese guy living in 2012. I tried in some way to create a film that could go back and regain something of this lost innocence. I tried to make the film pretty much unbelievable, to show all the lies, all of its construction. Then, strangely, at the same level, with all of these filters between the film and the viewer—the voiceover, the black-and-white, etc.—I wanted to show the artificiality of this world but to also try to regain the innocence that cinema lost. Yesterday, I saw the Leos Carax film, which is quite impressive at any level.
RS: And has some themes in common with Tabu.
MG: Yeah, it starts also in a movie theater. The film is great because it’s completely artificial and it’s moving at the same time. You have the impression that you are in the realm of a certain cinema, a kind of cinema that comes after another cinema that’s already vanished. But who cares? We still have the power to invoke, in a spiritual, wizard-like way. These ghosts are moving, even if they’re ghosts. So I think that it’s possible to make contemporary films that don’t renounce the world of today, but the world of today is also haunted with ghosts of the past. The Apichatpong film is similar. I love his films.
RS: Certainly, one thinks of Apichatpong’s movies when one thinks of yours. It makes me reflect on both Uncle Boonmee and Holy Motors, in the sense that one of the decisions you’ve made here is to shoot the first half of the film on 35mm and the second half on 16mm. So there is a materiality. Uncle Boonmee is a film about the history of movies and is dealing with the form and materiality of cinema. Holy Motors is doing that too, even though it’s digital. So I was wondering what was going through your mind when you decided to shoot on these two formats.
MG: It was the only aesthetic choice we made before shooting, because I don’t work with storyboards. I just make up the mise-en-scène during shooting, because I have to feel what the actors are doing, and I need to capture what I am interested in at that point when I’m shooting. But there was this choice: always using film stock. I could not do otherwise. The film is dealing with memories, and with memories of cinema. I thought the only way to do it properly was to do it the way it was done by Murnau, and that meant film stock and the Academy ratio. There was a choice of using 35mm in the first part, which would give more definition and range in the scale of grays, a richer image, than in the second part, which is much more like a dream because it’s a flashback. (I don’t even know how to characterize it, even though I made the film; it’s something in between a flashback and a dream. He’s talking to whom? To Pilar and Santa, supposedly, but he’s not. He’s talking to the viewers, not that that is important.) Anyway, it’s much more dreamlike and linked to memory, because he’s telling this story. You don’t get to hear the dialogue, which corresponds to the way we remember things. You cannot remember the precise words that were said at the moment—time has already erased that—but you can still remember what happened, the story and certain images as well as the places. I saw that as a 16mm black-and-white film.
RS: This movie intervenes in a specific political history, but it does so in a way that is oblique. So Mount Tabu is a fiction. You shot in Mozambique, but the film isn’t necessarily set there. And in the contemporary section, you have Santa, who is a character you spend time apart with. So this is a film that is about colonialism and race. How did you approach the subject?
MG: In most of the fiction to this moment, in Portugal at least, there weren’t that many films about the colonial issue. The independence of Angola and Mozambique took place in 1975, one year after the Portuguese revolution of 1974. Yet it’s a closed issue. The people who fought the colonial war are still alive. Because it is so close in time, people have tended to be very pedagogical, pointing out to the viewer or reader that these were the bad guys, etc. I hope that people take for granted that colonialism isn’t a very good system. In the film, I wanted to have these white guys who are unaware, politically and socially, of what’s going on. That contrasts with the first part. Pilar is very aware of the state of the world, and everyone is aware of their guilt. In the second part, they are all playing in a Hollywood film that goes wrong. When the film ends, the Portuguese empire falls.
At some point in making the film, it became clear to me that when they were breaking up, we should shift to the fall of the colonial empire and the war statement of the Africans. It would be the moment for Africa to take over. This is my way of talking about colonialism, with people playing as though they’re in a studio in Hollywood. At the same time, I don’t judge. There is a certain irony, but I don’t need to be distant. I need to be with Aurora, even if she is in this system. Sometimes people think you have to be on one side or the other, but that’s not my problem.