Arabian Nights

Cinema and Human Existence

Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

The Cinematic gaze chases images, and devises ways of seeing the real. Production details aim to explore every gesture of the world around. Visionary pragmatism, perspectives and methods adjust to the demands of each story and theme.

‘‘Arabian Nights, Vol I, II and III’’ (Portugal / France, Portuguese, colour, 381 mins) by Miguel Gomes is shot between 2013 and 2014. Anguish stems from the crumbling Portuguese society, under a heavy austerity burden, imposed by European Financial Institutions. Gomes uses Scheherazade’s ‘‘Thousand and One Nights’’, to weave together several tales. The mechanical oriental prose remains a tapestry to the fiction and non-fiction stories.

‘‘Volume I: The Restless One’’ (125 mins) presents a sea-side dock. Giant machines and cranes are the foreground. Sayambhu Mukdeeprom’s 16mm camera pans the buoyancy of the waves from a boat. Portugal’s shipyard, Viana de Castelo had 14,000 workers in 1980, building ships for Russia, Brazil and Germany. In voice-over men speak of massive layoffs in present times. Earlier the day a ship was launched, it was a festive occasion. Nat King Cole’s ‘‘Perfidia’’ brings the sailors to focus. Depression overpowers the director’s vision, and he runs away from the film crew. Real people relating financial difficulties alternate with fancy stories and satires. The laid off shipyard workers, are inter-cut with a discussion on the plague of wasps, devastating the country’s beehives. The wasps are comparable to Europe’s financial institutions, destroying indigenous industry. Portugal’s economic plight from August 2013 to July 2015 gives passage to Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate), the classic story teller, who postpones her sultan husband’s (Adriano Luz) murderous impulses, by telling a different tale each night. The stories allow her to live another day, in the island of young virgins of Baghdad. On the 447th night, her first story is the satirical -‘‘The men with hard-ons’’. European Union finance managers arrive on camels and direct Portuguese politicians to keep budget deficit at 4%. On a stroll, the group encounters a wizard (Baisrou Diallo) who supplies them an aerosol spray that guarantees long lasting sexual pleasure.

In -‘‘The story of the Cockerel and the Fire’’, Fernando Loureiro is taken to court, because her rooster disturbed one of her neighbours. The cockerel gives defence and warning by growing of imminent dangers like fire, that devastate nearby fields. The cockerel has been disturbing sleeping men. Children from jealousy over a girl, set wild bushes on fire. Biblical Jonah and the whale inter-cut ‘‘The Swim of Magnifi-scent’’. Two men and one couple relate their helpnessness in the face of unemployment. The camera zooms under water, full of jelly fish and octopuses, as fetid catacombs of hell. Dead fish explode by sea shore. Professors and trade union leaders are unemployed by circumstances. Social benefits are cut off, and no vacations. Bare bodied men and women in swim suits run to the sea. Ethnic documentary and fable are integrated with filmed reality.

‘‘Volume II: The Desolate One’’ (133 mins) is set in Portugal of July 2014 to August 2015. Economic austerity has gripped the country, and the government is devoid of social justice. Queen Scheherazade (voiced by Crista Alfaiate) is saving her own life, one night at a time, by relating stories of socio-political disorder in 21st century Portugal. The first tale, ‘‘Chronicle of the escape of Simao, without bowels’’ focuses on the failure of municipal law and order. Simao (Chico Chapas) while fishing, sub-merges himself in water, as a police drone approaches. He is on the run, after killing four women, including his wife and daughter. He sleeps on hay with goats, and has hallucinations of prostitutes and partridges. While Simoive escapes being caught landlords are tried by justice in a people’s court. The burlesque ‘‘The Tears of the Judge’’ is set in an al-fresco courtroom, with irresponsible people and judicial system. A lunatic case, involving theft of thirteen cows stretches to Chinese mail order brides, a genie, a machete wielding lie director, and a stern judge (Luisa Cruz) which fail to arrive at any conclusion. The judge’s daughter loses virginity to a man, of her mother’s choice. There is a grotesque chain of stupidity, misery and despair. Cattle dealers steal cattle. The economy does not have much hope of recovery, and the allegories remain a celebration of life.

The deferment of responsibility at a range of social levels, becomes prominent in the third tale, ‘‘The Owners of Dixie’’. A bedraggled Mattese poodle, Dixie, shuttles between multiple owners, in the same working class suburban housing estate, of dingy corridors. Eviction notices dampen the mood of the community. Two young girls, Vamira and Vitora, spend time on the terrace of the tower block. The girls give Dixie to Ana, the doorkeeper. African people sing and dance. Lionel Richie’s ‘‘Say you, say me’’ song drifts from an austerity imprinted high rise window. In parallel to human community misguided, the animal community affirms a guide. Overfed by peanuts, a pet parrot of an Indian family dies.

‘‘Vol III: The Enchanted One’’ (125 mins) is a costume film-within-a-film, shot in the Chateaud’If, with the modern buildings of Marseilles, in the background. Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) introduces herself and her father, the Grand Vizier (Americo Silva) in exotic oriental Middle East get-ups. Each night, Scheherazade tells her stories. The Grand Vizier is disturbed, but remembers the fate of his departed wife. A girl dances the Bharatnatyam, with an accompaniment of tabla music. Superimposed images of dancers on the walls, glide by. The Viziler gives a monologue of sorrow on losing his wife. The episodes drift from the castle to the ‘‘Baghdad Archipelago’’, where she meets Paddle Man (Carloto Cotta), who has 200 children, Elvis, a robber and a dancer. There is bloody sacrifice of virgins. At the Musguera shanty near Lisbon social housing blocks, bird trappers in ‘‘The Inebriated Chorus of the Chaffineches’’, teach their chaffineches different songs for birdsong competitions. The small group is led by birdsong expert and trapper, Chico Chapas (Francisco Gaspar). Many of the bird trappers are unemployed men, from Portugal’s impoverished working class. A man who lies on a huge net pretends to be a bird catcher. Modern times are imposed with economic hardships, a truck strike and Ze Luise Portuguese heavy metal band. A demonstration by policemen, breaks the security cordon and marches to the National Assembly. Scheherazade falls silent when morning breaks.

The song of the birds carries the perceptible history of Portugal, for the preceding forty years. ‘‘Thousand and one Nights / Arabian Nights’’ is the history of Portugal, filmed over a year from 2014-15. Scheherazade’s tales never suspend reality. An enormous fresco is built by the cameras of Sayambhu Mukdeeprom, Lisa Persson and Mario Castanheira. Miguel Gomes extracts the crumbling of Portuguese society and heavy economic austerity in the mix of re-enacted actuality and allegorical fantasy.

Vol. 49, No.13-16, Oct 2 - 29, 2016