Portuguese director Miguel Gomes twists odd tales into Tabu

Portuguese director Miguel Gomes saw a film in a crazy lady and a pop cover band.

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      TORONTO—It’s midafternoon, and Miguel Gomes settles behind a desk in an office at his distributor, Films We Like, pours himself a glass of wine, then takes a sip before explaining that the origin of his new movie, Tabu, is a bit of a mystery. “I’m a little bit like a collector,” the Portuguese director says. “I pick up things that can be stories—it can be songs; it can be…filming certain people doing certain things—and there is a moment where things come together.” (The film opens Friday [October 19].)

      Talking to the Georgia Straight while promoting his film’s premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Gomes explains that for Tabu—named for a mountain in Africa—two collected ideas combined to create a movie with strikingly contrasting components. The piece of the puzzle that became the first part of Tabu—a contemporary domestic drama—is the story of a senile white woman and her strange relationship with her African housekeeper. The idea that spun out the second part of the film, which plays like a silent-movie adventure serial, was Gomes’s discovery of a Portuguese band that became a hit in Mozambique by playing and recording cover versions of pop tunes.

      “There was this idea of having this old lady who looks completely crazy and not interesting. She doesn’t look to have lived a very interesting life, and, in the second part, she was like a starlet in a Hollywood film and had this incredible life.”

      The director was delighted that his story gave him the chance to work with several fine actors of a certain age. “These characters you don’t get to see much in cinema: older women, their characters between 60 and 80 years old, that are lonely but no one gives a damn about them. Cinema does not care about these kind of characters, so I wanted to have them on the film.”

      Gomes, a former film critic, started making films because he loved to watch them. Asked what he loves most about making movies, he takes another sip of wine and talks about how much he enjoys the challenges of shooting. “Every day, it’s time to make a deal between what was your first desire, your first ideas, and then what’s happening that day, what’s happening in this location, what you see. This is the most enjoyable moment. Sometimes it also brings a kind of anguish, because…you ask what the hell I’m doing here, you’re not sure, it’s not very solid, it’s improvised in the moment. But in the process, in making films, the anguish it continues, but I learned to deal with it.”

      Part of the anguish of filmmaking in Portugal is dealing with the lack of funding. “We film with lower budgets than almost any other European country. So, for instance, now, because of the crisis in Portugal, everything is cut—the funding, it will continue only next year. This year, there was no production of cinema. Normally, before that, we have eight, 10 features a year, which is not much.

      “The only advantage of being poor…is you can afford yourself a little bit more freedom. Because you don’t have the pressure of industry and money. So you’re not obliged to do a big box-office hit. That does not exist in Portugal. You can profit from that freedom. Sometimes freedom can also make very bad films. But if you have the chance of doing a good, interesting film and you can afford the freedom to not deal with the pressure, you can take advantage of this.”

      And you can even come up with a movie that blends two stories, two genres, and two styles in a way most filmmakers with funding would consider completely taboo.

      Watch the trailer for Tabu.