Interview : Miguel Gomes on Tabu

It may be somewhat premature only half way through August to be calling a film the best of the year, but so remarkable a picture is Miguel Gomes’ third feature Tabu that it’s going to take something pretty special in the coming months to topple it from such a position.

I was lucky to spend some time with the filmmaker in London after Tabu’s Edinburgh premiere to talk about the film, and will be posting a review ahead of its UK release on September 7th.

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There are so many striking images in Tabu. Did any in particular serve as seeds for the idea of the film?

In this case there was no particular image that appeared to me and gave birth to the rest of the film. There were two sources, both very different things. One was a story that was told to me by a relative of mine. She spoke of her neighbour, a very senile old woman with an African maid of whom she was very suspicious. She accused her of being a witch who would shut her in her room at night, but then she was more than a little paranoid and senile. I was interested in these stories that seemed ridiculous, but at the same time became attached to these characters; older, lonely women that have very normal lives but are eccentric in some way. You don’t get to see these types of older women much in cinema, they’re not marginal characters but integrated into society and that’s what I wanted my film to be about. In my previous film (Our Beloved Month of August), which contained lots of songs, I discovered that one of them was performed by a Portuguese band who played in Mozambique in the 60s. I met these guys and they showed me photos of them playing in Mozambique in their white suits, telling me stories of how they picked up girls and sang hits by Elvis and the Beatles. So, it came from these two things that appeared not to have a connection. This is how and why I make films. I get attached to a collection of things; songs, stories and yeah, sometimes images, and in a mysterious way over which I have no control, it all comes together and I know there’s a film coming.

It’s a beautifully stylised film. Did all the aesthetic decisions as to the aspect ratio, the different film stocks etc. come early in the process?

It all came pretty early. One of the things that was important to the appearance of Tabu came from seeing a film in Cannes with my cinematographer. It was shot on black and white film stock and I asked him, “Can you do that?”. Things are changing in the world of cinema, from traditional film stock to digital, so I thought this may be one of my last chances to shoot on film. From the beginning I’d decided I wanted to make a connection to ‘extinguished things’, one of them being forms of cinema, but also memory in a more general sense. In the first part of the film a character called Aurora disappears, only existing as a ghost in another character’s memory in the second half. So we have these memories of her in Africa fifty years earlier, and it becomes about a society that is also extinguished. I wanted to create a dialogue between this and extinguished forms of cinema; of course silent films, but also classical American cinema, and I wanted to do it the proper way, with materials that are on the verge of disappearing, as it was done over decades and decades of film history. I thought this was the only honest way to do it.

The title is taken from Murnau’s 1931 film of the same name, and there are clear links between the two throughout, but were there any other particular cinematic antecedents that fed directly into Tabu?

Several things happen with me at the same time. Neurologically speaking, I have a feeble memory. I remember certain films, but usually I can’t remember the majority that I’ve seen. They all get mixed up in my brain, no matter how wonderful or magnificent they may be. Murnau’s Tabu, for me, is like a symbol of cinema. It’s one of the most beautiful films ever made, and in my mind becomes representative of all cinema. There were good and bad silent films, of course, but with my memory as it is, I don’t need to remember specific titles or directors, Murnau can stand for all of them.

Was it difficult to avoid the trap of pastiche?

I don’t like to talk badly of other films. I used to be a film critic and said plenty of bad things then, so I don’t have to do that any more. I will say though, that I think The Artist is well done, but personally, when watching it, I can’t believe that I’m living through the 1920s. I know that I’m Portuguese and living in 2012, so to achieve the real feelings of silent film, you need to invent a way to get there. Not just reproducing the aesthetic of silent film, not just imitating. We use a specific technique in the second half of Tabu that results from a story being told in retrospect, in memory. You don’t remember the exact words that were said at the time, so in that way I was able to eliminate dialogue. It becomes an exercise in memory; you can remember certain images, certain details, but you don’t remember the words themselves. I could use the music, the background sounds and the narration instead. There’s no dialogue, so in one respect it’s silent, but it has a larger soundscape than any of my films, so in that respect it’s not a silent film at all.

The second half of Tabu is called ‘Paradise’. Do you think paradise is a concept that only exists in old Hollywood movies?

I think that there is a connection between cinema and memory. Memory can be paradise as much as it can be hell. I don’t believe in any other paradises, so I believe the only one we have is the recollection of happiness. Cinema allows that. It’s like a time machine that lets you go back into the past. In this film the past is paradise at certain moments and hell at others. It’s paradise for Aurora and Ventura when they are in love but not for the servants sweeping the floor.

The loss of paradise inferred from the structure of the film seems directly related to the loss of youth, the loss of innocence.

It’s exactly that. Though for historical reasons, it’s also about the loss of land, of a regime. I think it takes a very ironic stance against the regime. It’s about white people and their concerns, they’re falling in love without any awareness of what’s going on around them. They’re politically and socially unaware of a society that’s killing itself around them. It’s like they’re playing out a film, playing Out of Africa, they don’t care, and I imagine they’ll be very surprised when the Empire comes crashing down around them. So in that respect, for them it’s not about the loss of land and the regime, it’s about the loss of youth and innocence, the loss of a time when they were happier, less lonely. I wanted to place the contemporary section first to add an extra weight to the second. You get to see all the young guys and girls in the second part playing around, but with the sadness that derives from the first section adding another level underneath what you’re seeing.

That sadness is most obviously felt in Aurora and Ventura’s story. The way the film is structured, we know the outcome of their love affair even as we see it begin. For me though, the real sadness and melancholy is felt in Pilar’s story, the one listening to a tale of a great love lost who has never experienced anything like that herself. She seems to be constantly searching for some kind of connection that always eludes her; the Polish student stands her up, she’s crying in the cinema alone whilst her date snores beside her, even her relationship with Aurora seems rather one-sided…

Yeah, she’s like the viewer, I guess. The second half of the story won’t change anything for Aurora or Santa, but like all of us, Pilar has this romantic desire to hear stories, stories of history or fiction. That’s why she goes to the cinema, to fulfil a certain emptiness that exists in her life. I’ve elected Pilar as the central character in the film, a woman looking for human bonds that’s abandoned by the student at the start of the film. She wants to connect with Aurora, maybe to take the place of the daughter that Aurora seems not to care about. She’s looking everywhere for these connections, but the only one that seems willing is the painter, and he’s a pain in the ass. As well-intentioned as Pilar is, there are limits. In the first section of the film there’s a vague sensation that something went wrong, we don’t know what, but there’s a feeling that something went wrong with society along the way that affected the lives of these people. There’s an emptiness in comparison to the adventures we see in the second half, but also a vague sensation of guilt. Aurora feels guilty, even if she comes across on the surface as just a senile old woman, we find out the source of this guilt in the second part. Pilar is one of those very Catholic, well-intentioned people that is acutely aware that the world is unfair, so she tries to fix it, well aware that this is an impossible task. She wants to take on everybody’s guilt, take the guilt of society onto her own shoulders, which is why she’s the central character of the first part, even if it’s Aurora’s story that takes over the second half of the film. Pilar annoys me, the way she’s so naïve, but it moves me too, the way she takes on everyone’s burdens to try and make the world a better place. She won’t get anywhere, but there’s definitely something moving when we see these white people in the second half playing rock music, having the time of their lives, in a way very different from Pilar’s life. Then we see them doing stupid stuff, like killing each other. In a very abstract way, she’s carrying the cross for a life she has not lived. I asked the actress playing Pilar to wear a particular expression, to have her mouth slightly open, like a cinema viewer amazed at what she’s seeing on screen. With Aurora, I wanted her to behave like a movie star, like she’s on the other side of the screen to Pilar, performing a show for which Pilar is just the spectator.

The world of Tabu is one of ghosts and dreams, where both hold extraordinary power. Dreams of fighting monkeys, where melancholy souls become trapped in crocodiles. Images from dreams, old movies and memories flow into each other throughout the film, but Aurora disavows this at the start, “I’m such a fool : people’s lives are not like dreams”, she says. Your outlook seems much more romantic than this though.

Yeah. If Pilar stands for the viewer, for those sitting in the audience watching, then yeah. She wants to have all these emotions that are associated with cinema, all these stories and adventures are something that she desires, just like the viewer. Aurora, she knows better, she’s on the other side of the spectacle. She’s the actress, she’s manipulating things to put on the show. To justify her gambling at the start, she invents a film. We don’t even know in the second part whether this Ventura guy is talking nonsense. He certainly seems to be. Nonsense about Kaliphs and revoultions in the Arabic peninsula. He could be crazy for all we know. What’s important though, is how we need these stories, Pilar and ourselves, we need them. There’s a book I read called Arabian Nights, literally a book about the absolute desire to listen to stories. It’s a collection of stories structured around the tale of a prince who marries a new bride every night, killing them at the end of the story he makes them tell him. He’s fooled by one though. Sheherazade doesn’t finish her stories, she leaves them each night hanging in the middle so that he won’t kill her, desperate for her to continue the tale the next night. It makes the desire for fiction a matter of life and death. Ever since I first read it as a kid, it made a huge impression on me. Why tell one story, when I can tell many.

Can you talk about what you wanted to do with the opening section of Tabu?

It’s a film that Pilar is watching in the cinema. It’s introducing Africa, our first crocodile, the idea of doomed love and the idea of time. The crocodile eats the explorer and the last sentence of the narration is “Through time and for centuries to come, this melancholic crocodile and this ghost would be seen together for eternity”. I wanted the rest of the film to get back to this idea of time and romanticism. I liked the idea of the crocodile digesting this explorer, attaching the crocodiles in the film to the idea of time, witnesses to doomed love stories and the rise and fall of human societies. They look so old, so ancient. We usually associate elephants with the idea of memory, but I wanted crocodiles to bear witness to the madness of man through history. The crocodiles were there before men and maybe they’ll be there after them too.

You said earlier that you didn’t believe in paradise in a spiritual sense, but with the ghosts of the film and spirits of people living on for eternity in crocodiles, there seems to be a more Eastern kind of spirituality at work, not dissimilar to the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Of course. I mean, I’m not Catholic, I don’t believe in hell or paradise or anything like that, but I’m Portuguese, so we all have roots in Catholicism. I really enjoy Apichatpong’s films and I think we definitely share something in that we both have a belief in stories. He made an installation before Uncle Boonmee called Primitive, and I think we both share this desire to return to something primitive, to the beginning of stories, which in turn are the beginning of cinema. We both love stories that strive to be unrealistic. Trying to fight against the currency of mainstream cinema, to fight against realism, against naturalism. I like artificial things, the idea of cinema not trying to reproduce reality because it will always be doomed to failure. Cinema cannot compete against reality. I’m interested in a cinema that can be ‘honestly unreal’. If you can be moved by these unreal things, then there is truth in that.

Tabu will be released by New Wave Films on 7th September

Our Beloved Month of August is available on DVD  from Second Run