Arabian Nights (2015) by Miguel Gomes
Retro Review by Michael O'Malley
So realism. We talk about movies being “realistic,” oftentimes in praise or defense of a movie (“You didn’t like the ambiguity at the end of the movie? But reality has ambiguity, man!”; “The misogyny is period-appropriate!”; etc.). But can a movie ever truly depict “reality” as people experience it? The obvious answer is “of course not”; Jean-Luc Godard famously said that “every cut is a lie,” and that goes for every tool in the cinematic toolbox: lighting, costuming, even the framing of a shot all involve artificial devices that are not strictly “real.” Which poses a problem for a filmmaker trying to depict seriously our literal material reality.
The traditional approach to such a problem would be to say, “Well, it’s never going to be ‘real,’ but we can at least make it as convincing an illusion as we can”--enter the use of nonprofessional actors and on-location shooting of Italian Neorealism, the non-cinematic rigor of the Dogma 95 rules, and so on. But such a tactic doesn’t really address the central issue, since it relies on a sort of gentleman’s agreement between the filmmaker and reality that the techniques of cinema are “good enough” to be realistic. Audiences and critics don’t always seem to buy this agreement anyway--movies are repeatedly dogged for not being realistic enough or for not rendering reality perfectly, whether that’s for its handling of events that actually transpired in reality (e.g. Detroit) or in a complete fantasy (Thor--remember the internet whining that people of color shouldn’t be in Space Asgard because it wouldn’t be realistic? I do, unfortunately).
It’s this conflict--between the impulse to comment on real events and the fundamental unreality of movies--that’s at the heart of Miguel Gomes’s 2015 three-volume feature, Arabian Nights (As Mil e uma Noites, in its original Portuguese). Gomes’s previous film, 2012’s Tabu, is completely in love with the “lie” of cinema, a multi-generational epic filmed in lush black and white and armed with a host of beguiling cinematic tricks, and by its premise alone, Arabian Nights would seem to be an opportunity to follow in the same mode; on paper, this is a movie that uses the narrative framework of the original Arabian Nights to spin a cycle of satirical fantasy vignettes that interrogate the policies of economic austerity that the Portuguese government enacted in the early 2010s, the explicit unreality of which seems like a perfect excuse to form exquisite bits of cinematic fiction. And there’s a little of that: characters occasionally appear in elaborate costumes (usually cartoonish and generic “Middle-Eastern” clothing), magic occasionally disrupts the stories (most comically in the early “The Men with Hard-Ons” vignette, in which impotent members of the Portuguese government are granted permanent boners in exchange for ending the country’s austerity measures), and cinematic technique occasionally becomes a self-conscious storytelling device (like when, in the film’s third volume, a double exposure conspicuously appears).
But these are just small touches. The vast majority of the film’s 6.5 hours swings hard in the other direction, using traditional “realist” techniques to render its stories, often to extremely dry effect that underplays any fantasy element. Drier still is the fact that many of the movie’s vignettes are really just thinly veiled documentaries with a layer of narrative feature painted over them--for example, “The Owners of Dixie,” a Frederick-Wiseman-esque bit of observational nonfiction focusing on public housing complex that masquerades as a Homeward-Bound-esque fictional story about a stray dog, or (notoriously) the third volume’s lengthy “The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches,” which barely even claims to be narrative film as it documents a real-life community of chaffinch keepers.
In a lot of ways, this mix of actual documentary footage with narrative film feels like a logical step from the likes of Dogma 95 and the various neorealism movements. The techniques of narrative film are fundamentally unrealistic, so they’re supplemented with documentary techniques to make a closer approximation of reality (granting that documentary can actually approximate reality, which… more on that later). And for Gomes’s specific goals of critiquing the policies of the Portuguese government, it makes sense. The most overtly “cinematic” and fantastical sequences in the movie are the ones dealing with the ruling class: “The Men with Hard-Ons,” for example, which of course focuses on the actual government leaders, or “The Tears of the Judge,” an elaborate shaggy-dog tale focusing on a judge presiding over a court in which, among other things, a talking cow takes the stand as a witness. The closer the movie gets to the lower and middle class--i.e. those most hurt by austerity--in its vignettes, the closer the movie gets to full-on documentary: this is absolutely true of the “Chaffinches” bit, and it’s also the case with “The Swim of the Magnificents,” a vignette that interviews people who have lost their jobs to austerity measures, as well as a number of other segments within the movie. The movie wants to show the detrimental effects of economic austerity, and using documentary to depict people who have been hurt by it drives that point home directly and compellingly--we as viewers are forced to literally look into the eyes of the Portuguese citizens struggling in poverty. Imbuing the film’s fantasy with documentary makes a good case for the urgency of the political message of the film, as if to say, “See, it’s not just strawmanning; here are the real people and real consequences of austerity!”
But there are more radical politics on the movie’s mind than just that. People familiar with the original Arabian Nights will probably know its premise: Scheherazade is going to be put to death by the king, but she is able to postpone her execution by telling the king stories. Gomes’s Arabian Nights preserves this framing device for its vignettes, only naturally Scheherazade is telling stories about contemporary Portugal instead of the Middle East. However, the movie’s third volume shakes this up a bit in a vignette simply titled “Scheherazade.” In this vignette, we watch Scheherazade go about life in her regal setting, riding ferris wheels and walking on beaches and in general living in luxury (despite the threat of her life), and while she does this, the film splays pages and pages of onscreen text describing all the stories Scheherazade can’t tell because she is not there to see them. Scheherazade’s position of privilege as royalty in Portuguese society distances her from the reality of Portuguese suffering, and so those stories go untold.
The term “escapism” is often thrown from a place of snobbery, often as much an indictment of a movie’s audience (an audience that, it is implied, is less intelligent, less educated, less prestigious) as it is of the movie itself. What Gomes does with the “Scheherazade” sequence is to flip this paradigm around, where it is the people in power who are guilty of escapism. In fact, Arabian Nights implies that there is no such thing as escapism, merely just the isolation of power brokers from reality. The stories told to the world--especially in the world of cinema, where storytelling is so expensive--are only the ones that the powerful are able to observe from their perch at society’s apex. “Reality,” as shown through this movie’s lens, is limited by what can be seen through its creator’s point of view.
This comes off less as an indictment in Arabian Nights than a deep anxiety. Because of course the real Scheherazade of Arabian Nights isn’t the woman we see onscreen. It is writer/director Miguel Gomes and co-writers Telmo Churro and Mariana Ricardo and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and all the other individuals responsible for crafting this feature film--a feature film that, as it goes on, seems to become obsessed with capturing more and more of the breadth of economic austerity’s injustice, until it’s devoting an hour just to the small community of chaffinch enthusiasts. Gomes and co. broaden the film’s scope in an attempt to include the full spectrum of the reality of Portugal’s political situation, creating a movie over six hours long and bursting at the seams with details and narratives. But as the onscreen text of the “Scheherazade” vignette shows, there will always be stories left untold, because the power dynamics of storytelling lean toward exclusion. This is true of traditional narrative cinema, whose basic vocabulary of “framing” and “cutting” revolves as much around what is left out as what is included. The camera is privilege; the camera is power; the camera is exclusion. As large and expansive as this movie is, it is still obsessed with boundaries and just how many can possibly be transgressed. Realism is not broken by fantasy--it is not what we add to reality but what we subtract that creates the boundary between “film” and “reality.” In the quest to render real life--even the ecstatic, deliberately fanciful version presented in Arabian Nights--subtraction is the enemy.
In the face of this, the use of documentary becomes Gomes’s attempt to address the fundamental inequality of cinema’s unreality, breaking from narrative norms into a more inclusive language that extends the storytelling platform to those not usually afforded this position, literally allowing them a voice in the movie via talking heads and the chronicling of their own lives. But even this isn’t “reality” in its full scope; documentarians still must choose which direction to point the camera and which people to interview. Documentaries still must subtract. Arabian Nights’s gargantuan run time and the “Scheherazade” onscreen text (which appears relatively near the end) is an object lesson in this principle; even at over six hours, there is still the impression that Gomes could have continued to chronicle the effects of economic austerity for hours and hours ad infinitum and still have left people out. The movie’s deep sadness is its realization of this in Volume Three, the recognition of its fundamental distance from what it hopes to show.
But within the movie’s failed attempt at true realism also lies Gomes’s solution. However incomplete an attempt it is, the film does manage to relinquish some measure of its controlled reality to the voices of storytellers outside the technical filmmakers. The way it allows chaffinch keepers and the unemployed and the residents of the housing projects to speak hints at a democratization of storytelling that this single film isn’t capable of realizing because it can’t be a single film--it must be a litany of films told by every voice in every strata of society. True cinematic realism is each and every human being in existence with a camera (however metaphorically); it is the collective effort of a humanity fully franchised and empowered by a platform to tell stories.
The true problem with economic austerity, Gomes argues, is the way it disenfranchises, the way it exacerbates the power dynamics that permit a small few (i.e. “The Men with Hard-Ons”) to speak for the many. The same is true for any cinematic realism that allows only a select few to tell stories. As long as there are gates kept by resource inequality, by lack of representation, by disregard for other human beings, reality will be fundamentally unequal and film will be fundamentally unrealistic, a medium by which the powerful tell stories about themselves and lies about others--incomplete and broken.