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A whale of a tale

Nov 19. 2015
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By Wise Kwai
The Nation

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The struggles in contemporary Portuguese society are reflected in director Miguel Gomes' "Arabian Nights"

Back in film school in Lisbon, says director Miguel Gomes, a professor taught him the two golden rules of cinema – never put your own money into a film, and never work with animals or children.

While Gomes has more or less adhered to the first rule, the latter admonishment – legendarily attributed to famously grumpy actor WC Fields – has been harder to follow.

“I like animals, and I like to make films about the things I like,” Gomes says in an interview at the 13th World Film Festival of Bangkok, which is screening his six-hour, three-volume opus “Arabian Nights”.

The movie has many critters. A speckled rooster crows at night and keeps a whole city from sleeping. A train of camels and horses carry politicians around. A shaggy dog brightens human lives in a glum apartment building. There are dozens of singing finches, a herd of sheep and a beached whale.

Children are also front-and-centre at one point, portraying firefighters in a triangular romance.

Gomes had a crocodile in his previous film, “Tabu”, a sprawling 2012 black-and-white comedy-drama that reflected on Portugal’s faded colonial ambitions. For his next project, he wanted to make a movie that tackled the austerity measures imposed by the Portuguese government and the international banking cabal.

 And so he came up with “Arabian Nights”, which uses “One Thousand and One Nights” as a framing device to link various unrelated subjects. And, like the story-telling heroine Scheherazade, who spins increasingly fantastic yarns to keep her husband from killing her, Gomes keeps going, not only out of his own interests but those of his country.

 “This film is not an adaptation of the book ‘Arabian Nights’, despite drawing on its structure,” reads the preface to each of the instalments. “The stories, characters and places that Scheherazade will tell us about acquired a fictional form from facts that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014. During this period the country was held hostage to a programme of economic austerity executed by a government apparently devoid of social justice. As a result, almost all Portuguese became more impoverished.”

Merging documentary-style footage with fairytale visions, the films present a tapestry of Portuguese culture.

“Volume 1: The Restless One” opens with news of layoffs at the dockyard and segues to a segment about a beekeeper who uses fire to ward off an invasion by foreign wasps. There’s then the satirical “Men with Hard-ons”, which has the government ministers and international bankers in charge of the austerity measures having a change of heart when they receive an impotence cure from a genie. However, the everlasting erections turn out to be an inconvenience, and the austerity measures are restored. Finally, “The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire” has a rooster put on trial for crowing at night. The chicken is eventually elected mayor by citizens who are fed up with politicians.

“Volume 2: The Desolate One”, takes on the look of a spaghetti western with an episode about an elderly murder suspect becoming a folk hero as he evades police. In another case, a trial is conducted in an outdoor amphitheatre and presided over by a stern female judge. She loses control as the proceedings become increasingly convoluted and absurd. More stories are heard in “The Owners of Dixie”, in which residents of a down-at-the-heels apartment building look after their neighbours’ Maltese dog.

“Volume 3: The Enchanted One”, which is the most Arabian of the “Arabian Nights” tales, has Scheherazade herself as the star in flowing Middle Eastern costume, encountering such figures as Paddle Man, a handsome-but-dim surfer who has fathered 200 children, and Elvis, a happy thief. The film then shifts to documentary-like fare, with “The Inebriated Chorus of the Chaffinches”. It follows the big, tough men who have devoted their lives to Portugal’s underground bird-trapping scene, in which they capture chaffinches, lovingly raise them and teach them to sing. An extended sequence covers a bird-singing contest held near Lisbon’s airport. As noisy jets are taking off and landing, the tiny finches sing their hearts out.

Behind the lens is a familiar name from Thai cinema – Sayombhu Mukdeeprom – who has been the cinematographer on the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Gomes says Sayombhu entered the picture when his regular cinematographer was unavailable for “Arabian Nights”. That left him scrambling to find someone who was used to working exclusively with film (rather than digital), on an open-ended project that had no script and would take a year to complete. “It was a very uncommon proposal, and I’m not sure a decent one,” Gomes recalls.

Sayombhu, contacted by phone, almost immediately agreed and moved to Lisbon, which to everyone he knew seemed “crazy”, but it worked.

“On the set, I try to lose control of things. I

 hope that the lack of control will give me something, unexpected things,” Gomes says.

One more night

“Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One” screens at 8.20 tonight as part of the 13th World Film Festival of Bangkok, which runs until Sunday at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld.

Tickets are Bt120. For details, check



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