Born in Lisbon in 1972, Miguel Gomes has been considered one of the most promising European directors ever since his 2008 film 'Our Beloved Month of August'. The odds are that with his new feature film, the superb and mysterious 'Tabu' (read our review here), Gomes will come to be recognised as one of the greatest living directors. Time Out met the great man over cigarettes and Jack Daniels...
Time Out Paris: In 'Tabu' you play with references to silent cinema – starting with Murnau – in much the same way as you referenced the tale of Snow White in 'The Face You Deserve'... beyond intertextuality, however, you seem to have an active, playful relationship with culture.
Miguel Gomes: No need to be so formal [Time Out was using the polite 'vous' term of address]. Yes indeed, I believe that these things that are simply part of our lives – all these films, these songs – these are things that live on within us. Our era certainly has, more than others, a memory of different times, different worlds. So why not give expression to all these phantoms that reside in the collective memory, and include them in our films? It's like all the popular songs in 'Our Beloved Month of August', which belong to a land, a region, an era, but which we can easily revive today. In 'Tabu', there is this invented Africa, which is based on a kind of fake memory of Africa, for which we can thank classical American cinema.
At the same time, 'Tabu' represents a distancing from this classical cinema.
Although I went to Africa to shoot a period film, I also wanted to film people as they are today, with their Obama and Messi T-shirts. I didn't do this to 'be modern', but because I need this materiality, this authenticity as a counterpoint to the fictional. The fictional in this film is all these guys with moustaches and girls with '60s hairdos who play with baby crocodiles. It's a response to our desire for characters, adventure, romance. But at the same time, I didn't want to reject the materiality of things, these contemporary truths that balance out fiction and allow us to recognise it as a lie... but a good lie, which illustrates our desire for tales, songs, myths.
This is especially bold, because the entertainment industry tends to inform the collective imagination in a way that tames and normalises it. Your work reclaims popular culture in a personal way, through a unique, subtle fiction where abstract memories bring certain details into focus...
The imprecise nature of memory, its hesitation, is something I also tried to capture in the flow of images in the second part of the film, playing on the absence of dialogue. Without dialogue, the film turns into something else. It establishes a new relation to the viewer – one that evokes the way memories and dreams work, with that slight abstraction. But you know, regarding references, it was never my intention to make a film of citations, a genre that I find rather superficial and not very generous to the audience. In fact, I think that most of my references are not conscious. I have a fickle memory, and a natural tendency to mix everything up in my head. Above all, I tried to recapture the sense of a certain kind of lost cinema, that of Murnau or American classicism – John Wayne's gait, or the way in which Bogart spoke to girls. But without a defined goal, or a clear film in mind. I find this method to be much more intimate than straightforward citations.
The absence of dialogue creates a less complete reality, leaving more to the viewer's imagination. This was the great strength of cinema in its early days. Paradoxically, in 'Tabu' this has the effect of creating distance for a modern audience.
This distance is something that seems necessary to me. We live in a culture of so-called post-classicism, post-modernism, post-colonialism... post- everything and anything, actually. So what I wanted was to create a way to rediscover the innocence of classical cinema, while maintaining a modern distance, without being naïve about it. You know the film about the explorer that Pilar is watching in a cinema right at the beginning, where the hero sees his wife appear as a ghost before he gets eaten by a crocodile? The deal with 'Tabu' was to depart from this romanticism, so that the film could manage, step by step, to recreate this initial sensation, but without losing sight of the historical moment in which we find ourselves. This is what I told my crew – the film had to start with a hangover and end in drunkenness.
This device in the second part of 'Tabu' of using sound but no dialogue, only a voiceover, is reminiscent of Dreyer's 1932 film 'Vampyr', at the juncture between the silent and sound eras. It's as if these two films herald, each in its own way, the transition from one era to another.
Yes, 'Tabu' is also a film about endings: the end of an era, the end of a form of cinema. This corresponds to our present, which resembles an end point – people talking about the apocalypse and so on, but with a very strong desire for rebirth. Culturally, socially, we're really getting the feeling that we need to find a way to start afresh, right? Well, for me, films need to be driven by tension – generating tension through antagonism. So for example, for one scene, I'd asked my production manager to grow a very long moustache, and I got him to play a soldier. And on another day, we filmed Mozambicans coming out of church. And so when we juxtaposed the two images, we found that it made for a really interesting shot-reverse-shot – with the fiction of the big moustache on the one hand, and the actual truth of the area we were shooting in on the other. The fictional, colonial Africa versus the real Africa. It's this kind of contrasting of opposites that attracts me, as a way of offering more than what might normally be expected.
You also seem to reverse the established hierarchy of studio cinema, which starts from a script and a set of specifications from which everything else is derived. You have a much stronger sense of risk, randomness, and the questioning of history.
I confess that I spend a lot of time trying to relinquish control on set, to create conditions in which there’s room for the unexpected. I see that as necessary. This can mean drinking gin before shooting, or setting myself challenges or constraints. But it’s not always of my own doing, as with ‘Our Beloved Month of August’, where financial problems forced us to improvise a lot. With ‘Tabu’, no sooner had I touched down in Africa with my small crew than we learned there was no more budget. In the original script, there were elephants, wedding scenes, and many more sequences that depicted the beginning of the war for independence, of decolonisation – now, that only appears at the very end of the film. Basically, I had to revisit my script, which was no longer filmable. So we decided to create a ‘central committee’ on the spot, consisting of the screenwriter, the assistant director, the script and myself, with the task of making up a story as we went along. We’d jot down ideas for locations and scenes on scraps of paper and post-its, which we then attempted to string together into a coherent whole. Many scenes in the film were created this way. But above all, it was a way for us to fictionalise our job, to think of ourselves as a small team struggling for survival in the jungle… In brief, to live our very own African adventure in parallel with the characters.