Three feature films into his career and Miguel Gomes is already an art-house prince. The former film critic and graduate from Lisbon film school made his first feature film, The Face You Deserve, in 2004. The title is based on a Portuguese saying that says “up until to you’re thirty, you have the face God has given you. After that you get the face you deserve.” Gomes had little to worry about. His second feature, This Dear Month of August, was a film festival hit and won awards around the world. It is also confirmed Gomes as that rare post-modern filmmaker capable of floating in cinema influences without drowning.
His latest film Tabu, screening in competition at the Sydney Film Festival, is a perfect example. Evoking the silent cinema of directors such as Murnau, Tabu also forges its own totally unique, funny and haunting presentation on memory and history.
Trespass’ Sean Rom spoke to Miguel Gomes about his influences, process and what crocodiles mean to him.
What are your influences and favourite filmmakers?
There are lots of them. I’m very attached to classical American cinema and silent films, like Murnau. There is this whole one hundred years of cinema completely available. You can profit from very different kind of films and I have done that.
Do think your time as a film critic has enriched your filmmaking process?
You know before being a film critic we are always a viewer. I wrote for four years in the other century and it helped me, maybe more than the readers that read my reviews, to figure out why I liked some things in films and didn’t like other things. Before being a film critic, you are someone who sees films and this experience with watching films, this is a part of me. It’s the same as listening to songs or living. It’s something that comes along and is integrated into my experience.
I’m not trying to quote things [in my filmmaking practice]. It is a more general thing where you in some way try to put on your film the sensation of watching other films.
What was the genesis behind the story of Tabu?
There is not one. I think I proceed a little like somehow who is making a collection. In a way, I’m not aware that I’m picking up things that I will use in a film. I just start being attached to some things; it can be a song, it can be a story that I’ve heard from someone, it can be a location or place and a desire to film in that place. Or it can be the idea or sensation of watching a bunch of films, like Tarzan films.
In this case, I think were two moments that were important. One was a story about an old woman and her relationship with her African maid. She accused the maid of doing very bizarre stuff like locking her up in the bedroom at night and making voodoo. Of course, she was very senile.
And there was another moment in my previous film. I used a song, a very corny song, and then I found out only later that this song was recorded in Mozambique in the sixties by a Portuguese band. And I’ve met these guys and they showed me photos of these times. Photos with them in white suits in Africa in the middle of the jungle, pretending that they were the Beatles. Very unreal.
How come these stories came together? That is a mystery even to me.
With Tabu, you walked a line between embracing the romance inherent in colonial African while also pocking fun at it. What interests you about colonial narratives?
I don’t think I have to choose between being ironic and being fair to the characters, even if they are politically, socially doing silly stuff. You can also be honest with them…not just judge them. I don’t think that is the place of the filmmaker. I think things are more complex and you can be ironic and be passionate at the same time.
On the colonial issue…the title “Paradise” appears in the second part of the film in the moment when you see the main character, Aurora, jogging inside her house. And so it’s paradise for her. But there are servants wiping the floor, so maybe it is not paradise for them. And you have both of them in the same image.
I think paradise only exists in the memory. I think paradise is our recollections, which can also be hell. In the film, the recollections are both hell and paradise.
Apart from the colonial issue, I think the film is more about old age and youth. For Aurora and Ventura, they lost their land but mostly they lost their youth. And the love affair they had in Africa…it’s gone. It only exists in memory. Cinema, for me, is one of the ways of trying to regain memory.
What was behind your artistic choice to have the second part of the film with no dialogue, only voiceover?
In the second part you have young people and young bodies. But the very tired voice of the old man who is telling the story…you get only his narration as an old man. And she (Aurora)…you have already witnessed her death in the first part of the film. So it’s like a ghost and an old man that you’re seeing. So the second part is charged with a kind of melancholy and a sensation of the weight of time even if they are enjoying themselves at pool parties.
So the techniques you chose were to evoke that melancholy?
And also…you don’t get to hear dialogue in the second part because I wanted to approach the sensation of watching silent films. It’s like a story that is being told by a guy who recalls the story, remembers the images but cannot reproduce the exact words that he said. And in this way I tried to get the sensation of silent films.
It’s almost like someone reading his or her journal…
If you’re remembering a story you don’t remember the precise words, you remember some details, the images and the whole story. But not exactly what you have said.
What does the crocodile symbolize? Or do you just like crocodiles?
I really like crocodiles! Crocodiles look so old…they must remember things that people can’t remember nowadays. They are maybe witnesses to the fall of colonial empires, of the beginning of people falling in love and separating. So maybe they stand a little bit for memory.
Tabu screened in Competition at the Sydney Film Festival
and will be released by Palace Films later in the year