The Portuguese filmmaker talks about taking one of the last chances to shoot on film with his stunning new work, Tabu.
Tabu is the latest film by Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, a gorgeous, eccentric diptych about the power of dreams, memories and cinema. It is the follow-up to his 2007 film, Our Beloved Month of August, which wowed the festival circuit with its daring structure and soulful themes. We met Gomes in London to discuss the particulars of Tabu and the current difficulties of shooting and exhibiting his film on celluloid.
LWLies: Even though Tabu won a technical prize at the Berlin Film Festival, it was disappointing things was when you didn't win the main prize.
Gomes: I saw that coming because of the jury. I'm like the octopus that predicts the football matches. Only with film festivals.
Mike Leigh was head of that jury. Are you a fan?
There is a Mike Leigh that I pretty much enjoy and it's a little bit different from the majority of his films. It is Topsy-Turvy. I thought, if he's in a Topsy-Turvy mood I might be able to get something.
You said when you collected the prize that you were quite bemused as you were trying to make an old-fashioned film.
It was a joke. I was very pleased to get something. It was my first time in a major competition. If it was the Golden Bear I guess it would be better for business. When I said that, mainly it was a joke, but yeah, this was a film that was made in the way that films were made at the beginning of the appearance of cinema. So that means film stock and black and white. I didn't want to shoot on digital and take out the colours. This film is of course connected with cinema. So I wanted to do what directors had done before me, directors like Murnau. I wanted to shoot in this ratio [Academy] that existed in cinema before television appeared. Cinema wanted to compete with television so they went wide. But for fifty, sixty years, all films were like that.
Was it challenging to work in the Academy ratio?
It's very instinctive. I've already worked in Cinemascope. But I just frame. It was not a theoretical question for me. I think it's a good format. There is something very focused about it. It's not a technical thing, and I can't develop this idea, but it gives me a feeling of concentration.
Tabu is also shot on celluloid.
One of the reasons I made this film was because I guessed that this was one of the last chances I'd get to do it this way. The film deals with things that are on the verge of disappearing. It's a film about memory. So you have this character that dies – who literally disappears – and that gives life to a new, lost civilisation from a Portuguese colony in Africa that does not exist any more. In this part of the film I decided to use a style of cinematic dialogue that has also become extinct. This can be silent films, but this can also be classical American cinema. I wanted create this world with a material that was central to the history of cinema: film stock. But it is also something that is disappearing. The industry is changing. Kodak will survive because no-one knows how long DCPs will last. Know one knows how to preserve films without a negative. So, we will soon be in a situation where we have missing films because no-one can technically be assured that we can see them again in 50 years.
What inspired you to shoot on film and in black and white?
I remember, I was in Cannes with my cinematographer and we were watching a film shot in black and white. It was a film by Philippe Garrel called Regular Lovers. It's also a film about ghosts. I said, do you want to do a black and white film? Could you manage to do something like this? We knew that this would be one of the last chances to shoot on film. But maybe I could shoot my next film on film because Kodak will not be completely abandoned?
Are your films screened on DCP?
Showing a film on a print is much more expensive than DCP. This move is nothing to do with quality. Here, for instance, I don't know whether there will be a print. Of the nine cinemas screening the film in Portugal, one had a print and the others had DCP. This, again, wasn't a financial issue, but more to do with the fact that the screens didn't have working film projectors.
Were there any other points of reference you had with your cinematographer?
We said that if viewers noticed the black and white, then we had failed to do a good job. We used 35mm in the first part of the film and 16mm in the second. It's richer. It has more greys. In the second part it's fuzzier and has more grain. It's more volatile. It's more vaporous. That was nice as it's a story being told, a recollection. We don't want to make it over stylish. For the first part I gave as an example American films shot in black and white. I showed my crew Bringing Up Baby by Howard Hawks because it had a leopard in it.
You get the impression from this film that you're friends with a lot of old people.
I think some years ago I was not that available to these characters. One of the reasons I chose to do this film is because there was a relative of mine who told me a bunch of stories that were happening with her in the building she was living and she had a senile neighbour who was always coming over to her apartment and complaining about the African maid. She was very senile so it was all bullshit, I guess. It was a very small world with ordinary people in it. Old people. I think I was touched by the potential of these characters who were doing these silly things. These are people living a life without adventure, and that's why they have this urge, this desire for adventure. It is of course what the second part of the film will provide.
Is there a suggestion in the film that people remember things in a cinematic way?
I know that older people, if their brain is working properly, they can remember more than the younger generation. That's for sure. So, cinema is like old people. It remembers many things. In a way, I didn't try to reproduce these aesthetics, I just tried to get back some of the sensation I get when I watch old films. One of the things I'm really in to is trying to recover something that we are missing in cinema. This is something that disappeared in a very natural way: innocence.
Innocence in the viewer or innocence in the film?
I think that in the early years of cinema, the audience were more susceptible and open to childish emotions. When we grow up, we lose our innocence. Of course we gain something else. But there is a moment where we start to be more in the disbelief than the belief frame of mind. I wanted to get this back. You can see things that are unbelievable, but you can still be moved by them. What is magnificent about cinema is that it can transport us back to a time when we believed in more things than we do now. We are aware of film history, but not the innocence.