Wild tales

The World Film Festival Bangkok screens wonderful Arabian Nights

'Morning now dawned and Shahrazad broke off from what she had allowed to say…" -- so begins the story on each night of Tales Of 1,001 Nights, the fantastic yarns of peasants, kings, slaves, lovers, viziers, angels, sex, human anatomy (Night 449), devils in the bottle (Night 567), glory, injustice, pleasure, and all the mundane and the magical in the world. It is the collection of some of the greatest tales ever told. But then, what, exactly, is Arabian Nights all about?

Survival, I think. Shahrazad spins her 1,001 tales to the Sultan because whenever she stops telling them, the next morning she will be killed. The greatest tales are told because of the greatest reason: the teller's life. A story begets a story, which begets a story, and so on. Storytelling is one way to defy death, or at least to give hope that death and tragedy can be consciously deferred.

Forgive me for being long-winded. This weekend, the World Film Festival of Bangkok will screen the acclaimed Portuguese film Arabian Nights, directed by Miguel Gomez, which is not, as the film announces, an adaptation of Shahrazad's tales, lest gullible minds might have imagined that impossible feat. What the film shares with the original tales is not the stories, but the structure of stories, and most importantly, the spirit. Namely, the spirit of survivalism in the midst of great woes -- the economic woes of Portugal, the crunch of austerity programmes, the unemployment, the lives lived courageously or cowardly, or in uncertainty. The film is also a display of the sorcery of storytelling, driven by the engine of anger, humour (a lot of humour, mostly black) and humanity.

Divided into three volumes, Arabian Nights will be shown at the festival, as it's intended to be, on three separate screenings over three days. Each volume comes with a title -- The Restless One, The Desolate One, The Enchanted One -- and each runs at around two hours. Gomes will also be in Bangkok to meet the audience and answer questions this weekend. And since the film was shot over a year around Portugal by a Thai cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom ("We told him that we had a 16mm camera and a set of anamorphic lenses guaranteed for a year despite the fact that we didn't have the faintest idea what we would be shooting," Gomes laments in his press kit), it's likely that he will also be there at the screening at SF CentralWorld.

So what did Gomes and Sayombhu ended up shooting? Everything, or a lot of things in crisis-hit Portugal -- peasants, port workers, migrant workers, apartment dwellers, dogs, sheep, a cocky rooster, a folk bandit, bird-trainers, union leaders, street protests, and so on. Arabian Nights is a formalist tableau of events, fiction, testimonies, imagination, and maybe hallucination. Shahrazad herself shows up, as well as genies, camels, and the nubile population of the Island of Virgins (whatever that is), but most of all this is a rich collection of stories about humans and their hardships, their joys and sorrows, and their relationships with the modern world run by crooked bureaucrats and lusty bankers. It is also a reportage of a country that was once an empire.

This is heavy stuff, but Arabian Nights is not a six-hour exercise in miserabilism. Far from it, the film fires its political bullets through eccentric humour, madcap digressions, while most importantly, it shows generosity to acknowledge the faces of the men and women whose stories it is telling. How Gomes conceived all of this seems to be a mix of gut feeling and careful research. Part of the filming process involved the director sending out a team of journalists who travelled around the country and reported back on possible leads -- something small or seemingly insignificant happening at a remote village, say -- which Gomes would consider as his material to follow up on. A story begets a story.

This storytelling format -- part extemporising, part planned, part instinctive -- was used in Gomes' Our Beloved Month Of August, an unclassifiable hybrid of forms in which a film crew (well, this film crew) is stuck in a small village and their people in the middle of summer. To most Thai viewers, Gomes is best known for Tabu (which was shown at World Film Festival in 2013), a tale of vanished glory and doomed romance set in a Portuguese colony in Africa. The portrait of Portugal in all of Gomes' films, particularly in Arabian Nights as well, has a heartfelt quality under their odd surfaces -- not the typical melancholia of an empire that can no longer strike back, but an honest, reflexive lamentation of a place, its peoples, its past and possible future.

It's interesting to note that this year, Portugal has submitted Arabian Nights Vol 2: The Desolate One -- the middle film in the three parts -- as its representative to the Oscar's Best Foreign Language category. I would have loved to see the entire film, all six hours of it, sent to the Academy, which means it would not have been seen by the Oscar members with a short attention span, so singling out Vol 2 is the best choice, for the part that takes place in old apartment blocks is probably the most touching, the most intimate encounters with the people of this proud and sad corner of the world where, like in Shahrazad's time, the mundane and the magical take place at the same time.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Former Life Editor