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.ScreenAnarchy: 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
, 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
, 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
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
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.
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?
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
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
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."
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.
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:
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
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.For the complete article, please click here.
The letter claims the Portuguese government lacks "the political will" to enforce "the law that it drafted."
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