Jeff Reichert is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker and critic based in Brooklyn.
If Portuguese director Miguel Gomes had merely decided to follow the two strands established at the outset of his Arabian Nights: Volume 1 at length, shaping them into a standalone film with a recognizable beginning, middle and conclusion, he would have delivered one of the most curious, intellectually playful documentaries of 2015. By intertwining the tales of the closure of the massive ENVC shipyard in Viana do Castelo with the story of a beekeeper working to stave off a plague of wasps threatening the local bee industry, he’s managed to find, in the former, a direct, emotionally devastating encapsulation of the havoc wrought on the tiny European nation by harsh austerity policies, and, in the latter, a metaphor for those fighting to stave off the same. It’s the kind of brain-tickling combination that a filmmaker like Patricio Guzmán has woven into nonfiction poetry (see: Nostalgia for the Light and this year’s The Pearl Button), and Gomes goes wild with his material, freely layering audio from his interviews with the beekeeper overtop images from the shipyard and testimonials from laid off shipbuilders over shots capturing the fiery deaths of wasps.
This is complex documentary, yet, there is a third strand in the mix that emerges and eventually eclipses the beekeeper and the shipyard after about 25 minutes of screentime: the tale of a film director, Gomes himself, who loves his job, but is so distressed by the state of his nation that he runs off the set of his new movie in shame. His goal, as stated in voiceover, was to create a work full of seductive stories that simultaneously tracked a year of Portugal’s post-austerity economic woes, but the realization that this was impossible leads him to make a break for freedom, with his leaderless crew giving chase. Gomes, his errant sound recordist and one of the screenwriters are eventually caught, buried in sand up to their necks and forced to answer for their crimes. The director, to save their lives, hearkens back to his film’s titular namesake, and begins spinning tales like a modern-day Scheherazade, ending the prologue (entitled “The Work of the Film Director, of the Shipyard Workers and of the Wasp Exterminator”) and beginning Arabian Nights proper.
His first story, “The Island of the Young Virgins of Bagdad,” is set in a fairytale past and covers the backstory of Scheherazade in which she uses her innate storytelling prowess along with material given her by the other island virgins to fend off the rapacious advances of her new husband. This flows neatly into “The Men with Hard-ons,” in which negotiations over the economic future of Portugal conducted by very serious people are derailed by set of stubborn erections. Following this is “The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire,” in which the sentencing of a local rooster to death in a small village opens up an exploration of local voting patterns and political preferences. Some of those villagers pop up to tell their stories in detail in the final, three-part “The Swim of the Magnificents,” which picks up the narratives of economic distress established during the prologue before exploding into a celebratory document of a traditional, freezing New Year’s Day dip in the ocean. Confused yet? Hang on, because The Restless One is only the first part of a three-part six-hour epic that is, throughout, obsessed with seeing how many stories can be piled atop one another. Waiting to see if the edifice collapses is one of the chief pleasures of the whole of Arabian Nights.
Yet, like Gomes’s earlier shorts and features, all similarly concerned with nested narratives and stomping gleefully all over the alleged border between fiction and nonfiction, Arabian Nights goes down easily. This has somehow been true of his films no matter how many elements he’s thrown into the mix. His two features prior to Arabian Nights, Our Beloved Month of August (2008) and Tabu (2012), featured a storytelling dexterity and utter disregard for those conventional ideations of “true” and “false” that hobble many films intent on surmounting that same binary unmatched pretty much anywhere outside of the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Instead of movies that neatly bracket off a variety of disparate elements and experiences to make viewing safe and uncomplex, Gomes ambitiously smashes them together, overlaps them, shoves them into small spaces until the whole enterprise bursts, sending one narrative cascading out onto the next. It doesn’t hurt that his films are also very funny and often sprinkled over with infectious girl-group pop and winking nods to film history.
These tendencies are all carried over into Arabian Nights: Volume 1 but what’s new here is Gomes’ outrage. Though he locates hilarity throughout his tales, casting a warm eye toward the foibles of the Portuguese working class and his nation as whole, the first volume of Arabian Nights never shakes the anguish in the voices of those unemployed shipyard workers – many of whom had dreamed their whole lives of working at the ENVC – heard at the film’s outset. Gomes’ assertion of the impossibility of crafting a film filled with seductive stories that’s also about Portugal’s economic crises was just a bluff, then — by the end of Arabian Nights: Volume 1—The Restless One, he’s shown his viewers, and hopefully more than a few filmmakers puzzling over how to craft aesthetic, polemical works, exactly how it’s done.