Like a lot of late (oft-fetish) objects of cinephilia (cf. Django Unchained, Holy Motors, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, the films of Gabriel Abrantes, even, or perhaps most of all, This Is Not a Film), Miguel Gomes' Tabu is a sutured fantasy, that is, with the seams showing: all calculating formal frameworks for cute fantasy only end up referring back to their production history (as documentary), as well as the same national history the self-contained storyline was supposed to shield against. Of course the point is simple: stories are cultural products, and as in the African documentaries of Salzar's chief propagandist, António Lopes Ribeiro, Gomes' stories end up revealing everything they're designed to evade. Until its late swerve into unremitting pastiche, the point when cultural history collapses into a Forrest Gump crime scene, Tabu, like so many Portuguese films with their cheap resources and love letter narrators, straddles the bounds of fantasy and history—or narrative and documentary, if it's easier—so that each seems to be parodying the other. Since I'm in the midst of work on a retrospective of Portuguese cinema, we started talking about Manuel Mozos, whose great Xavier will be playing in a week or two at First Look in New York.
DAVID PHELPS: I know you've done so many interviews that you have ready-made responses for almost every question. So I thought we could just have a conversation—but whatever you're most comfortable with. I can feed you questions, if you want.
MIGUEL GOMES: Do you want me to start?
PHELPS: Go ahead!
GOMES: Anyway, I answered not sometimes the questions people put me. So they can ask anything, and I can answer not necessarily the thing you have asked me. So...
PHELPS: We'll start with Manuel Mozos and work our way to Tabu.
GOMES: You know, Manuel, I think it was him that taught to me how to edit films. I never worked with as an editor alone, I always worked with someone. But the second short film, I worked with him, with Manuel. He's very generous, incredible generous. I guess he let me try some things and he gave me confidence to do these things he showed to me; it was not a technical job, you know? It was another thing. From then on, I think I gained confidence to co-edit my films. Even if I'm always with someone; because to have a counterpart...someone who is able to talk about the film and what the hell we're doing without necessarily knowing the answer—neither me nor the editor. Before I was a filmmaker I was a film critic during a period of four years...
PHELPS: Where you were writing for?
GOMES: I was writing in Publico. In fact, you know, I didn't do much interviews, I didn't like to do it. I thought: I don't have nothing to ask. But I'd seen one film of Manuel Mozos and I said “okay, with this guy I'm going to do this interview.” One of these films I had seen...
PHELPS: Was it Xavier?
GOMES: No, Xavier came later. He showed me the version, the unfinished version of his film, but what I saw was ...Quando Troveja, and I was very impressed by this film. I was so impressed that at the end, I said “I'm going to do the interview.” And then we became friends. I asked him to write with me my first feature, seven years after, The Face You Deserve, where he plays too, as an actor. That film has a strong connection with this film we have made [Tabu], because in this film we came up with the dwarfs, this guy who has a crisis, he was abandoned by his girlfriend, with his best friend, and he invents these dwarfs. And the structure of the film has these two blocks that are hitting each other, the crisis and these punishing dwarfs that film invents for him.
PHELPS: Or vice versa.
GOMES: Yes. So I said to Manuel, okay now I'm going to do a film about these guys that is very childish and goes into a crisis and it'll have to invent not dwarfs but, uh... you know, some fantastic creatures that will make like a film with them, it will invent them, make rules for them. They will do things in order for him to continue. He has to kill, to return to his childhood, to kill, and escape from Manuel Mozos. Anyway, with Manuel it was one interview, I was not doing them often; I also wrote a book about him. But some of the text of this book will appear in the catalog of Viennale.
PHELPS: In a way, all three of your films start with these self-contained worlds and then break down. Tabu works like this, but it also works the other way, in which it seems to become more and more self-contained. You can look at it two ways: Tabu starts off with the reality, the double reality that builds this fiction; but it's also the other direction, which starts off with scripted fiction and moves to documentary, where you're just shooting all the things around you. It has this kind of double movement from each world.
GOMES: You're right.
PHELPS: Don't tell me I'm right, you have to argue with me!
GOMES: That's the effect. So I cannot contradict you... The structure of the film, of every film, is not decided in advance. It's so visible, the structure in every film I make, because I put it on the screen. Which is a way to point to the viewer that they are not watching reality, it's a construction. At the same time, I think that the viewer can fill implicated in the film on an emotional level, and watching the obvious artificiality of...obviously artificial forms, feel there is an inner truth with artificial forms, they are not trying to imitate reality.
PHELPS: They're a type of honesty.
GOMES: Yeah. I think cinema has the ability to bring us back, in a way, to childhood. That means to a place where you can believe in certain things that when you grow up you cannot believe in any more. Santa Claus, or something. And cinema, showing the completely lie, the construction that's not reality, allows you, in a way, to visit that time, to regain the ability of believing in unbelievable things. That's the miracle that cinema allows the viewer. In the case of every film, I think that there is always this urge, this desire of fiction. That you see, for instance, for the main character in The Face You Deserve to continue, he has to fabricate a film. In Our Beloved Month of August, for being able to make this film, you have make this collection of people, places, of rituals I think that people do in the countryside in Portugal in this month of August, and then, only then, do the film with everybody. Because you have gathered the elements to make the film. There is a crisis and then a film is possible after the crisis. Because of the crisis. The crisis of eighteen, like The Face You Deserve, the crisis of not being able to shoot, because of money, because of, I don't know, that film, why is it. You have to gather all the things and then you are able to go film. Film is re-writing because you are seeing all the people, some of the people you saw they've started new characters. It's like re-visiting the things you have seen in reality. In terms of Tabu, I think it's also the same. Maybe more close to The Face You Deserve: the departure from reality—which is not very real! There is this desire in common life, in ordinary life: fiction. That means cinema, too, and songs, literature. Robinson Crusoe and Katherine Hepburn, Errol Flynn...I don't know, romantic crocodiles and Phil Spector songs. This second part of the film will not change the life that the people who are listening to that story, that means Pilar and Santa, who are listening to the story, but they have the urge of fiction. So the second part is like a gift that is given to fulfill the characters of the first part, to fulfill this desire of fiction, I guess. I'm telling you this because in the last months I've talked a lot about the films I have done, and I have to have some conversations, to say something.
PHELPS: You have to think about your own films.
GOMES: Yeah. While making the films, the process of making the films, everything is very intuitive. For instance, that may be because I'm not that clever.
PHELPS: You like to say that.
GOMES: No, no! Once, in Berlin, where I was for the first time for Tabu, all the press were asking about the crocodile, the meaning of the crocodile. The first answer I was giving to the journalists is that the crocodile is a crocodile, you know, I like crocodiles, I don't know why, but I'm attached to crocodiles. And then it was always the same answer. Once, I was answering and I said another thing, I said, “You know, because I like that crocodiles look so old. They appear, you know, to enter the world at the beginning of time, they are prehistorical. They are so old that they remember things that people have already forgotten.” Only then did I realize that maybe the crocodile had something to do with time. He's like a witness; we must have a witness. People that fall in love and separate. Empires that raise and fall, colonial empire. So maybe they've seen the motion of humans through time, like the story in the beginning of the film, the crocodile that eats the explorer and he continues to exist by its side with ghost wife. This continuity in time with the crocodile being witness of everything emotional.
PHELPS: But when you say “the beginning of time,” that's also the movie they are watching. There's a lot of questions I could ask about that. One would be: that suggestion that cinema is the beginning of time, that it's the beginning of fiction for these people. The first part begins that day, December 20th, the day that movies were invented—or so I heard.
GOMES: That was by chance, someone told me... I wanted to have this week before Christmas, you know Christmas is very important in Portugal, such a Catholic country, between ages, between the end of one year and the beginning of another. I wanted to have this time that is, well, a sad week. It is between things. I don't know. For me, it's associated with a feeling of loss.
PHELPS: It is interesting to me that you're saying that fiction is something the viewer has to project themselves into, in a way. And that this is what your first film, and the short films, are about, people participating in a communal fiction. It's an interesting idea, because there's been this idea since the 1950s that cinema has to trick us into believing. Whereas for many years before that there was blatantly false acting, silent films, Murnau, completely artificial acting for viewers to project themselves into. It becomes a really fascinating thing in Tabu where, on the one hand you say you are calling for belief—and this is how a lot of people have written about Tabu—you are calling for a redemption for cinephilia, with Murnau and all these references. But there's the other side which is that if you believe in this fiction, it's a colonial fiction, it's Mogambo, it's Sternberg, it's Red Dust. If you choose to believe all that, it's at the expense of something outside historically. One of the things that was maybe the most extraordinary thing about Tabu for me, in that second part, is simply the dates, where you have the months, going by. Are we in 1973-1974? Is that when it's taking place?
GOMES: No, it's the 60s.
PHELPS: The 60s! So they're talking about how these people will get effected by the revolution, but it's not...
GOMES: In the end, there is this speech, by the Independentist, they are claiming the death of Mario, the guy who gets killed. So '61, '62, was the moment when the first movements when the Independentists began. And so, it's the beginning of the war, of the colonial war. The colonial war started around '62, '63.
PHELPS: But you are still marking off time when there would be no indication of it otherwise. Because what we're watching could be any day. It could be one day, it could be many years. There's this indication that at the edge, that something is coming in, something at the edge of this.
GOMES: I wanted to count time in different ways. In the first part there is day-by-day counting. We are counting, arriving to the moment where there is Aurora's death. We are counting in the second part, when we start the story, just before the lovers know each other, Aurora and Ventura, until the moment they separate. And that moment is mixed with the moment where the war will begin. That was a more roman-esque way of counting, and a more expansive space in the second part of the film, and the time expands too. In the first part there is a small, metromanic, I don't know...metrical way of counting every day, more clinical, day-by-day, a more reduced time measure...to open up and put bigger this way of counting in the second part.
PHELPS: It is also the movement from realism-that's-not-realism to the epic, the epic film.
GOMES: That's true but that's a false epic. because it's true that I'm doing...yeah, there's Mogambo and Hatari!...the mythology and the idea that the cinema has created for Africa, an Africa that's not the real one but one projected by and invented by films. And colonialism goes hand-in-hand. On the other hand, you have to have, like in August, in a way, and perhaps this time not in just an obvious way, the material reality at this place and this clash, of course. For instance, there is a scene, very brief, where it is announced that Aurora will have a baby. The cook-wizard—you remember, he announces?—and he gets fired. I knew this guy there, he was the guy that was keeping the house, he was like the cook of that house when there was a Portuguese family living there. So it was kind of cruel to say to him—because he always wanted to be in that house, he was a very obsessive man; he was invited to be a cook for the president of Mozambique last year, but he said that he wanted to be there—maybe in a nasty way that it gave me the idea to say you're going to do this, to do what he's doing. When he's cooking and preparing a chicken, he's talking about the president of Mozambique, a story he told us practically every day, and I was shooting him, I asked him to prepare the chicken, to talk about the president of Mozambique, and put the bizarre necklace, like a wizard necklace, completely a fictional thing. And I got him fired in the film—with the voice over of Ventura is saying that he's talking to the other servants in the house that Aurora is pregnant, and then I make this shot of him going away, and the voice over says that he was fired. By filming this, him going away, a guy that was living there and had decided not to leave ever that place, maybe it was a little bit nasty for me to put him this way in the film when in real life he decided to stick to this place. But I take profit from this thing, I make up the film there. There was no script.
PHELPS: They are also both there. It's not that the sound is correct and the image is wrong. In the second part, the images are all diary—it's improvised. It often doesn't relate to the soundtrack at all, it's people on bikes, it's all these things that you captured and they take place both 1961 but they also take place in 2010.
GOMES: Yeah there are kids with Obama T-shirts. People ask me should we take them out and I said no.
PHELPS: Right, “that's what we're filming.”
GOMES: Yeah. The next sequence after the cook is the husband of Aurora giving handshakes to the people, to African guys, and that came from a ritual they were making...we asked them to make a ritual for the film, in the village, a sorcery thing to call the ancestors. And this kind of handshake is like a ritual—not completely post-colonial, because it's revolutionary. So what we were doing was recording the ritual they were doing, I don't remember if there still is a scene...no I took it out. We shot a ritual of them putting things on the mirror by the tree, putting like alcohol and a little bit of I don't know what, wood, and it was a ritual for the spirits to give good luck to the film and we put the actress there. So I knew that this could be something; a connection with the husband getting handshakes would enter the film, I didn't know where. But it was for the voiceover to invent. In fact, it's a documentary. These guys cheering the crew and the actor. So you have both documentary...no...a diary of our shooting there.
PHELPS: You could just take the voiceover off and it would be a backstage documentary—and you could put the extra feature on the DVD. But the other side of it is that you're staging this complete fantasy fiction. When I was in Lisbon people would always talk about how Portuguese colonialism is not like other colonialism; it's very different. One reference point would be the film Paraíso Perdido, by Alberto Seixas Santos, although I know you use "Paraíso Perdido" and "Paraíso" because it's an inversion of Murnau's Tabu, which is structured in the two parts of "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost." But the Santos film, like yours, is also about these colonialist immigrants from Africa who are looking back, staring at these paintings, and going to the cinema, and they're recalling this wonderful time, and for the most part imagining that they are very Leftist. They don't think of themselves as colonialists—they think of themselves like Americans think of themselves, as people who have always been here for hundreds of years, this is the land where they're from. It would be like if the Americans were expelled from this land now. But the thing about Tabu is that it is colonialism of the Out of Africa kind of colonialism, it's the colonialism if the white people who are self-centered—or white material—who themselves who seem to define colonialism from movies. So they're staging it, you're staging it, and then finally there's the letter, which is the final moment, which is also staging it. So there are all these layers of it being projected. And it being the memories of the dead woman.
GOMES: I always conceived it so that the second part would be like a ghost story, with dead people talking. This kind of spectral feeling of something very far away. It's close but far away. You can see the image but there's the feeling of something lost in time in the second part of the film. Regarding colonialism, Portuguese have always this identity, this fantasy... I think they were a little bit caught by surprise when they understood that people didn't like that much them there. Because they said “we are different than the others. English, they don't mix with Africans, with other cultures. Dutch, Belgians. It's the opposite: we fuck them and they are my children! So why the hell don't they want us here?” So it's a kind of childishness, one of the political particularities of the Portuguese colonialism has to do with this strange idea, let's make children with these people and they will become one with us, they will become more Portuguese.
PHELPS: So: we won't look down on them, we'll make them Portuguese.
GOMES: Yeah. And, uh, it didn't work out. But I always considered the film a Hollywood film with people playing completely in a fictional way with unbelievable elements, people having crocodiles as pets, things like this, and being very, very unaware of the beginning of the disintegration of... I mean the year of this film, the film will end and Africa will take over. Without them; in the last minutes of the film, the white people are expelled and you just have Africans and the crocodile and the voice, much more spectral, much more ghostly, of Aurora and Ventura talking about old letters that are gone.
PHELPS: So it's the end of cinephilia, not the beginning. The idea the critics love, that it's going to redeem reality when it's the opposite, it's destroyed.
GOMES: I don't know, I haven't read these critics.