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Film is one of the largest art forms across the globe. The idea of using films to draw attention to important social and political conversations is a common theme in all areas and cultures of film. In Portuguese cinema, specifically within the films ‘Saint George’ and ‘Arabian Nights’, we dive deep into one of the most important events in recent Portuguese history. The financial crisis of 2011 to 2015 was a large part of the plot of both of those films. Each film shared stories of people who struggled through this financial crisis and subtly pointed out areas in the government that need to be improved upon.
Did these films make a difference in the political Portuguese community? As one of the first of its kind, the film ‘Arabian Nights’ is part of a trilogy that mixes fiction with non-fiction events. The film is dark and depressing and truly shows the effects of a financial crisis. The subtitle of this film, ‘The Restless One’ is a parallel to the restless emotions and seemingly hopeless events and situations that occur throughout the story. In specific, the film puts an emphasis on the ideals behind story telling. In a way, this was a call out to the public and to the government to listen to their people and the stories they had to share.
Arabian Nights was full of stories from people who lived through horrific times. The end of the film is filled with ‘testimonies’ from multiple people. The first man’s story sounded similar to the current events around the world today. He worked for a company for 14 years and helped bring in a large amount of money for this company. When they laid him off due to the financial depression, he understood and felt helpless. He didn’t feel the need to blame the company, but he didn’t know what to do. He ended his story by asking himself who he really was, and he questioned why we needed to fit into a box for employers while looking for a new job. You can tell that he is tired and exhausted from this thought. This scene is cinematically well done. The camera angle during this scene is shot in one frame and slowly moves closer to the man telling his testimony. This camera style is used in intense documentaries and films to slowly show the passion and distress in a person’s face. As I learn more about this film, I believe the goal of these testimonies is to share a real life and pair a real face with those original ‘fictional’ stories. The entire film leading up until this point has seemed fictional, but those testimonies are what tie the movie together. ‘Arabian Nights’ is also an old folks’ story about genies and wishes. It has always been said that a genie will grant you three wishes. The many stories from real people feel like those three ‘wishes. Those people were vulnerable to share their lives in hopes that it would make an impact on their community and on the government. Arabian Nights used a wide variety of filming techniques and analogies throughout their fictional stories. Although they may have been hard for some viewers to understand, the film caught the attention of the public for how strange it was. This is exactly what the director intended and knew he was doing throughout the entire film.
The use of storytelling is a common theme in many films around the world. In fact, it has become a critical skill in the industry. In the past decade, film and media has become the main pathway for information and knowledge. Newspapers and books are no longer as common as they used to be. Due to that, the impact that film and media creators have a much more important role on their communities and on the world. In a news article written by Timothy Wijaya, a film student, he explains that the movie industry has been focused more on special effects than actual content. However, in the film ‘Arabian Nights’, we can see the raw ability of storytelling used. The director pushed the creativity boundaries. It is a direct reflection of the use of fiction to explain and validate a non-fiction scenario.
The film ‘Saint George’ also occurs during the years of the financial crisis of Portugal. A family is caught up in poverty and real-life drama. The father was a boxer who decided to take on becoming a debt collector to provide for his family. Debt collectors are not well-liked people and during an economic crisis, they are, quite honestly, feared by the public. In fact, Jorge, the father, struggles with the morality of his job. Over time, he loses sight of who he is as a man and what he truly values. He understands what it is like to not have money and to be in those hard situations. Simply put, he had this feeling of identity loss and self-confusion. This theme is common in any financial crisis or depression that may be happening around the globe. There is a specific scene from this film that involves Jorge and his family sitting around the dinner table having a conversation about their financial burdens. This is a direct correlation to conversations that Portuguese people wish the government would hear. What better way to bring up a political conversation than displaying the struggles of a family in a fictional yet real setting? Saint George shows the caring culture of Portuguese people even within difficult circumstances. The film was simple to comprehend and contained many small details that made the film seem like a true story. The director knew that by putting the main character in a place of discomfort, it would show the true struggle of the debt collectors and hopefully the public would see what they were doing to the communities around them. For context, there were more than 1.8 million families and companies that were in debt by the year of 2011 in Portugal. More than 60 debt collection agencies participated in ‘immoral’ activities to intimidate people enough to pay their debt even though they had practically nothing left. Therefore, the life that Jorge was living was a true reality for many Portuguese families. The director of this film knew that the impact he would make would help a community of people feel important and listened to. Since the financial crisis, Portugal is now in a ‘thriving’ economic state and this reflects the many realities faced in the film. The director made this film not only to inform, but also to remind. In an interview, Marco Martins says, ‘What often happens, in the media in particular, is that when we talk about the crisis, we resort to statistics, we stop talking about people.’ When tragedy strikes, we should not focus on the goals of ‘corporate’ and ‘economic’ leaders, but rather focus on our compassion and solitude for our people.
The political impact that these two films were able to create in the Portuguese community is small but mighty. Not only did people pay attention to the goals of these films, but also, they started a hard conversation. For many who have experienced a similar life to those seen in the films, a sense of empowerment was felt. After Arabian Nights was released, there was a New York Times review written about the film. They said ‘According to the British scholar Marina Warner, who wrote of “Arabian Nights” in her book “Stranger Magic,” “The stories do not obey internal rules about character, motive, verisimilitude or plot structure; they do not easily fit existing theories about fiction, history or psychology. The same could be said of those in Mr. Gomes’s “Arabian Nights” film.” The way that Director Gomes told his story used a very different plot structure and left the viewers to use their imagination and own minds. The complexity of this form of storytelling is that it may not connect with each viewer and limits the possible ability to understand and also could cause some mis interpretation. As for the film ‘Saint George’, it uses emotions and satire to connect to the viewer. In a way, the director used pity to draw attention to his film and to the reality of the many situations. This may have brought attention to his film, but it also brought an unprecedented fame. At the Academy of Portuguese Film awards in 2018, ‘Saint George’ won more than twenty awards. This shows the effect that the film had on its viewers and the popularity that it gained because of it.
Story telling is a theme in all of Portuguese culture and it is used intelligently in both of these films. There was a scene in Arabian Nights where an older man said, ‘story telling is the way we connect the past with the future’. Both of these directors used storytelling to shed light on important issues and share history with the children and families of the future. As I think about these films and the financial crisis that happened in Portugal, I cannot stop to compare to the current situation in the United States and globally. A disease has shut down practically all jobs and unemployment rates are horridly high. People are losing their jobs every day and there is no stable economy to lean on. The theme and regularity of kindness and understanding in Portuguese culture is a theme we need to adopt in the United States during all of this.
Life is unexpected and will always test you. The most important thing is the way we treat others in this time of troubles. Story telling will continue on for many generations to come, what do we want to tell our future world? What do we want to say about times of trouble? How did we react? We cannot go back to the past to change what has happened; however, we can always look to the future with a new mindset and reflect on the lessons we have learned. As the director of ‘Arabian Nights’ said, ‘There is reality and then there is dealing with reality’.
Notably, I cannot say that these two films changed the lives of millions of people and fixed the issues within the government system, as that is seemingly impossible. However, the attention that these films brought to the issues at hand is the most important and positive outcome of these films and their effect on the Portuguese community. The use of storytelling, unique film production, and relatability to real life were all aspects that both directors focused on. These films present a form of nostalgia regarding the topic of financial crisis in Portugal. A type of nostalgia that we may face years from now as we reflect on the current times globally. It also helped tell stories of the many viewers who have lived in these realties. The viewers felt seen in a way that they hadn’t before. By sharing the truth about the lives of others, it reduces isolation and reduces loneliness. Thus, creating a larger, deeper, and more supportive community of support in Portugal. As I completed research for this assignment, I stumbled upon this quote that I want to leave you with by Marianne Williamson, ‘In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it.’
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