Interview: Miguel Gomes Talks TABU And The State Of Portuguese Cinema

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer
Tabu, a film that playfully evokes the golden age of silent cinema, took home the FIPRESCI Jury Prize and Alfred Baeur Prize for Artistic Innovation at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Its director, Miguel Gomes, along with Pedro Costa, Manoel de Oliveira and other notable filmmakers working today in Portugal, is the driving force behind Portuguese cinema's opposition to the economically strapped government's austerity measure that cut funding for its small but vibrant film industry. The subject dominated our brief conversation at this year's New York Film Festival. As a great admirer of Portuguese cinema, his insights on the matter were very informative and helpful to understand the state of their struggle.

Twitch: Seeing your last film, OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST and now TABU, I can't help thinking that you aren't interested in the traditional narrative filmmaking. Are you just tired of straight up storytelling in general?

Miguel Gomes: I don't know if I can do films any other way. In Portugal, there is a saying that sometimes good things come from bad circumstances. The fact that we are making films with very small budgets, even compared to other countries in Europe: Spain, Italy, England, Germany, we don't have the pressure to make the money back. We are not expected to do big box office hits or anything. That's our only advantage in being poor.

In the case of Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu, the connection was their lack of money. During the production of both of these films, there were moments when my producer came in and told me, "Miguel, we don't have the money to do what's in your script." So I dumped the scripts in the garbage can. And of course in Our Beloved Month of August, that's in the film. The fact that we were not able to do a film that we planned to do became part of the film.

While filming Tabu, the same thing happened. It may not seem that way for someone watching the film but we were not able to shoot the film the way it was written. Shooting in Africa for instance, we had the general story you see in the film but we didn't have money for certain things. There was a wedding scene that was written with about 100 white people in mind but the place I chose to shoot in had like 5 white people. The bride and groom were supposed to make an entrance sitting on an elephant and there were no elephants in that area. I just had to get rid of 100 white people and one elephant from the film.

So what I do is recreate, reinvent as I shoot the film along. So we just went there with the actors who knew a bit about their characters but they didn't know about which scene they were going to play each day because there was no script. I formed a little group in the crew called the Central Committee. The job of the Central Committee was to come up with a menu list of possible scenes. We had about 150 possible scenes that we wrote up in small cards and put them on the wall and everyday after shooting, we took down the cards of ideas that made it into film and then we put up some more new ideas. It was little bit of a mess. I think the actors were quite generous, them being professionals and all: they were in the hands of this Central Committee, not knowing in advance what they were supposed to do.

We knew all the time that by the end of the process we would have a voice over. We did have the first draft of the script with the voice over and everything but only in the editing process did we rewrite the script, restructuring the whole movie with what we had.

How long does the process take when compared with a normal production with locked script and schedule and all that? I assume it takes longer.

Well, in the case of Tabu, the shooting was about 9 weeks for the first part, and about 5 for the second part, which takes place in Africa. But what takes time is in-between. It takes time to know the people for instance. Some of the things that you see in the second part of the film were things that we discovered while shooting there, like the waterfall. In this rural area where we shot, there was a man who was a cook for this Portuguese plantation owner's family. And so we asked him if he could play a cook/wizard in the film. He became the character who foresaw Aurora being pregnant. So you see him preparing the chicken in real life, which we used in the film. We just gave him some props, like a chef's hat and some colorful necklace and made a story out of him being a wizard in the voice over, incorporating the real setting and real life characters in to the film.

That's very interesting because what you see on screen is very effortless. The film is not messy at all. And it does have that lived in feeling as if all the characters have known each other for a long time.

That's how I work. It takes time.

The legacy of colonialism is not portrayed with Aurora in the second half of the film, but with Pilar in the first part of the film, which takes place in the present. It's as if she is taking the burden of being white.

There are a lot of opposite elements between the first and the second part. One of them, in the first part, people are much more aware of, politically and socially, what's around them, maybe even the failure of the society. I mean the world is quite unfair.

Right.

But this awareness doesn't seem any way to bring her to be fair to anyone. But in the second part, characters seem to be completely unaware politically, that they just don't care, as if they are playing in a Hollywood film- having fun. One of the things we had in mind was to start the film with the vague sensation of guilt. Something that we wanted Pilar to be the main character in the first part of the film because she is kind of a character that wants to repair the damage, dealing with the guilt of other people.

The African part is the taboo that we westerners don't want to talk about. There is a strange relationship going on with Santa the maid and Aurora. But there are no mentions or signs of Africa anywhere in Aurora's apartment. I wanted to let the audience see that this old woman who looks senile and then you see the second part and say, "yeah, she has some reasons to be guilty, the way she is acting in the first part.

I heard about the big crisis in Portuguese cinema that ICA (Institute for Film and Television) stopped funding all the national film productions early this year to go along with austerity measures in the midst of the country's financial crisis. Is it still happening? What's the latest news?

At this precise moment as we are talking here, we are waiting for a new law for cinema funding which is already approved in the parliament and it's going to be implemented, we hope, by the end this year/early next year. We are still waiting for these new regulations to see if everything is still the same as before. As you know, what's at stake here is that all the personal filmmaking with such filmmakers as Manoel de Oliveira, Pedro Costa are very different than others, has been taking advantage of the (support) system.

As we were talking about the making of Tabu and Our Beloved Month of August, maybe it doesn't show on the screen the messiness behind the scenes but it's always a process for me- from the script to editing, I am constantly renewing my desire to make films and that's where the freshness comes from. But if they are stopping this support system, all this will be in jeopardy. This fight is not only for us, but also for the generations of Portuguese cinema to come.

It seems only in the last ten years or so that we have discovered this new Portuguese cinema, which seems very vibrant. Indielisboa festival is a household name now among cinephiles who want to look up and see what's going on in global indie cinema. It's amazing to see the amount of small productions, festivals that are being helped by this government subsidy. Then I hear they are not getting funding anymore.

It's a general thing that's happening across the board- even the Lisbon National Cinemateque for instance: when I was flying over here I read the newspaper that the cinemateque showing Russian and East German films without subtitles for the first time because they don't have money to translate them. So people in the theater could not understand what they were seeing.

That's terrible.

So it's a general thing that affects cinemateques, festivals, production of films, everything. But you know what's funny about all this? The funding for the films does not come from the national budget. It comes from the tax applied to the television networks on their advertising profits. 4 percent of the taxes usually go to the Institute of Portuguese Cinema. It would be understandable if the lack of funding was because of the financial crisis, but it comes from a very specific area. Just like everywhere else (I'm assuming here too), politicians are subservient to the financial power of big conglomerates. These big companies are saying now that they don't want to pay that.

Let me get this right. So they are basically saying. "OK. That 4 percent, we want to take it now."

That's what they have always been saying. But what's changed was that politicians could say that they had to pay because it was the law before. And Portuguese cinema has been a minor issue for them. It was surviving because they regarded it as 'public service'. They could care less. Now with the financial crisis, they don't want to lose that 4 percent and there is no political will to stop them.

As a fan of Portuguese cinema, I hope everything will work out for you.

My inkling is that the Portuguese government now is more like the Tea Party here ideologically. They believe the market should supply everything, and that the state has nothing to do with the well being of its citizens, that we will all live in capitalistic paradise, even though things are not going well in Portugal and everywhere else.

I have so many questions about the film. But it seems I'm out of time. Good luck with you and your fight for the survival of Portuguese cinema.

Thank you. The fight will continue.

An update on Portugal's new cinema law:

According to The Hollywood Reporter, as of December 5 of this year, the Portuguese government again delayed the new law to be implemented, which means there won't be subsidy money flowing in for the country's audiovisual sector.

Fears that the law would be further delayed sparked an online protest by Portugal's filmmakers. A number of the country's most prominent directors, including Manoel de Oli veira, Joao Botelho, Miguel Gomes and Teresa Villaverde signed a letter of protest, titled "Portuguese cinema blocked!" published on the official blog of the Portuguese film director's association blog.
The letter claims the Portuguese government lacks "the political will" to enforce "the law that it drafted."
For the complete article, please click here.

Tabu opens in New York today, December 26, at Film Forum and rolls out to additional U.S. cities starting in January. For more information, please visit Adopt films' website.



Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com
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