Written around January 23rd 2016 for my Future Cinema-Digital Narrative Class.
A screening note on Arabian Nights Volume 3 by Miguel Gomes.
— Yuling Chen.
photo by yuling chen
Arabian Nights: Volume 3, The Enchanted One is the final installment of Miguel Gomes’ political trilogy. Gomes borrowed the framework of Arabian Nights, an ancient Arabian folk tale, to present a series of fictional tales that were based on real-life Portugal under austerity between 2013 and 2014. The Enchanted One opens with a woman in an elaborate costume dancing by the sea during a sun-drenched afternoon, when Scheherazade’s father, Grand Vizier, mistook her for his deceased wife. The film sequence of her dance slowly dissolves, leaving only the semi-transparent image of the dancer moving across the screen as the Grand Vizier returns to his palace and grieves for his wife’s death and his daughter’s fate under the bloodthirsty king.
This overlaying technique was used multiple times in Gomes’ film to create complex interpretations. In that particular sequence the overlaying of the dancer represented the Grand Vizier’s mental state: being troubled by the ghostly image of the deceased, and feeling racked with sorrow and guilt. In another sequence, Scheherazade escapes the palace and surrounds herself with inebriate and somewhat belligerent bohemians on a hillside, who chant and prance around her. Gomes overlays old black and white footage of a Brazilian rock band onto this saturated landscape of Scheherazade’s time, which was supposed to be much older than the time represented in the rock band footage. The overlaid image not only punctuated the song the bohemians were playing, but its black and white image contrasted with the colour film of Scheherazade, also indicating that the troubles and pains Scheherazade and her people suffered under the vicious king were more contemporary and urgent than the viewers would like to imagine.
During her escapade, Scheherazade commented that no matter how many stories she told the king, it was inevitable that he would kill her and search for the next virgin. In the end, she was only a storyteller with no real power. Gomes, the filmmaker, and Scheherazade thus became one, lamenting his position as a spellbinder, who can only observe suffering but have no real means for relieving it.
The latter half of the film is focused on multiple stories about bird trappers in rural Lisbon, as spoken by Scheherazade to the king. Veterans from World War I in the community are fixated on trapping chaffinches and compete with each other over who’s bird has the best song. Gomes employed documentary-style techniques to explore the lives of the bird trappers, featuring archival footage of the neighbourhood before the social housing block was built, using non-professional actors, non-linear observational narrative and hand-held shooting. One of techniques Gomes used was overlaying text on the screen, telling untold stories and background details of characters’ lives. The text also mentioned that Scheherazade told the story of the bird trappers in multiple nights. When the text “When she saw the morning light, Scheherazade fell silent”, the sequence of the film corresponded with the start of morning. Gomes used this text to compress the temporal duration of the actual events. The text also forced the viewers to constantly engage with the film and pushed the moving images into the realm of literature, expanding the possibility of the film as a storytelling medium.
Gomes inserts a story about a Chinese student, whose name meant “Hot Forest”, in with the plot about the bird trappers. The viewers could not see Hot Forest but only hear her voice. While she talked about turbulent love affairs with a bird trapper, abortion in Portugal as a foreigner, and her subsequent friendship with a countess, the viewer were shown only the footage of a mass police protest in front of the parliament. The fact that the audience can only listen to her story instead of seeing the actual visual account of it pushes them to associate her personal story to the larger police protest context. The movement of the mass protest tumbled across the screen, resembling ocean waves, exhibiting an anarchistic and feverish political landscape. As the protest erupted in violence, the story of Hot Forest ended with the countess’ quote of a Chinese poem, revelling in its exquisite words: life as it is, filled with constant sorrow and fleeting pleasure. Thus, the final chapter of Gomes’ trilogy completes its exploration of cinema as a meaning-making machine and affirms its critical examination of the power of words and images.