Austerity Is Stranger Than Fiction

Filmed in Portugal in 2013 and 2014, Miguel Gomes’ new documentary Arabian Nights tries to make sense of life under IMF rules.

Michael AtkinsonDecember 18, 2015

Miguel Gomes’ three-part epic, Arabian Nights, is a modernist anti-film that is alternately politically engaged and artistically aloof.

At the out­set, Miguel Gomes’ three-part, six-hour epic Ara­bi­an Nights, seems to take on the whole­sale dam­age done to Por­tu­gal as a result of the aus­ter­i­ty imposed by the IMF in 2011. Each of the three chap­ters begins by declar­ing that this is not an adap­ta­tion of the Ara­bi­an Nights per se, but the Scheherazade-spun sto­ries acquired a fic­tion­al form from facts that occurred in Por­tu­gal between August 2013 and July 2014.”

The reality of economic hardship runs through the film like an underground stream, sometimes out of view but always there. Gomes pulled many of the absurd stories (including the outlaw, the pyromaniac and the cock) directly from news headlines, his effort to make sense of a surreal year in his nation’s life.

Dur­ing this peri­od,” the titles con­tin­ue, the coun­try was held hostage to a pro­gram of eco­nom­ic aus­ter­i­ty exe­cut­ed by a gov­ern­ment appar­ent­ly devoid of social jus­tice. As a result, almost all Por­tuguese became more impoverished.”

Giv­en the chin-out atti­tude and the project’s for­mi­da­ble length, you’d think you were in for a hell­fire screed of the kind Argen­tine film­mak­er Fer­nan­do Solanas has been mak­ing since the scorch­ing doc The Hour of the Fur­naces (1968). But Gomes — whose fea­tures Our Beloved Month of August (2008) and Tabu (2012) are ellip­ti­cal med­i­ta­tions on sto­ry­telling, mem­o­ry and the slip­pery bor­der between doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion — is no full-throat­ed rad­i­cal. He’s more of a whim­si­cal poet, and regard­less of his stat­ed scheme, the pain of socioe­co­nom­ic dis­as­ter couldn’t be far­ther from his agen­da. In the begin­ning of Ara­bi­an Nights, Gomes tries to escape his own film crew, run­ning like a fugi­tive — and then con­fess­es to being in way over his head. (“This is hon­est,” he told Cin­e­ma Scope. Mak­ing this film trou­bled me.”) It shows: His vast, mean­der­ing film is infused with the ten­sion between what Gomes thinks he should do polit­i­cal­ly and what he sim­ply wants to do as a storyteller.

View­ers of the film (see all three parts or don’t both­er) should be pre­pared for a mod­ernist anti-film, crammed with sto­ries with­in sto­ries, none of which end prop­er­ly, and some of which are hard to read as polit­i­cal para­bles. Gomes’ real flu­en­cy is with inti­mate detail and Renoiresque human­i­ty, which can lead us astray if in fact the project is tar­get­ed toward out­rage. In the end, the ground staked out turns out to be rather Buñuelian: absurd, uncon­cerned with nar­ra­tive propul­sion, amused at the antics of the human zoo. The sto­ries that pro­lif­er­ate, framed by a gor­geous Scheherazade (Crista Alfa­iate) spin­ning yarns to keep her Sul­tan from exe­cut­ing her, are most­ly con­tem­po­rary, frag­ment­ed, entan­gled with doc­u­men­tary real­i­ty and some­times maddening.

The loose fab­ric begins with rumi­na­tions on lay­offs at the Viana do Caste­lo ship­yards, and then the relaxed chaos rolls out from there: far­ci­cal­ly mer- cenary IMF bankers (on camels and with inspired erec­tions), wiz­ards, talk­ing roost­ers, ghost dogs, immi­grants, sui­cides, cliff-divers, urine-drenched ele­va­tors, haunt­ed apart­ment blocks, an explod­ing whale, a heart­sick pyro­ma­ni­ac, a plague of bee-killing wasps, a tele­port­ing out­law flee­ing into the moun­tains, an in-depth explo­ration of chaffinch­es and the bird­song-obsessed men who trap them, a crim­i­nal tri­al that impli­cates every­one present (and uses a cow as a wit­ness) and on and on.

The real­i­ty of eco­nom­ic hard­ship runs through the film like an under­ground stream, some­times out of view but always there. Gomes pulled many of the absurd sto­ries (includ­ing the out­law, the pyro­ma­ni­ac and the cock) direct­ly from news head­lines, his effort to make sense of a sur­re­al year in his nation’s life.

But here, truth is always hap­pi­ly mud­died with inven­tion, even if it’s fan­tas­ti­cal title-card expo­si­tion lay­ered over pas­sages of gen­uine en masse street protests. Sto­ries of ordi­nary Por­tuguese resort­ing to pet­ty crime to sur­vive may or may not be true. On the sound­track, pop music bounces iron­i­cal­ly along, from near­ly a dozen dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Per­fidia,” to the haunt­ing mass cho­rus of The Lan­g­ley Schools Music Project’s ver­sion of Klaatu’s Call­ing Occu­pants of Inter­plan­e­tary Craft.”

Where are sto­ries born?” Scheherazade’s father asks her in Part Three, atop the sum­mer Fer­ris wheel at Plages du Pra­do. They spring from the wish­es and fears of man,” she replies.

And what is their purpose?”

To help us to sur­vive,” she says, and there’s no clear­er way to artic­u­late the sto­ry­telling spir­it behind Gomes’ film. Its inter­con­nect­ing ten­drils do not reach out to you in an obvi­ous way; repeat view­ings, as one film inter­rupt­ed by time, like Scheherazade’s sto­ries, may be nec­es­sary. The thing’s sense of life ener­gy, how­ev­er, is unmistakable. 

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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