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From critic to director: Miquel Gomes’s journey

A scene from “Tabu”

Most critics think that, given a camera, they could make a better film than most directors. But Miguel Gomes actually can.

Trained in filmmaking at the Lisbon Film and Theatre School, Gomes didn't have a lot of luck finding assistant-to-the-assistant-director work in Portugal's tiny film industry. "I'm not good at making coffee," shrugs the now acclaimed Portuguese director.

At one point, when still trying to finding a footing in the business, a journalist friend asked him to write a film review, and then another, and another, and he eventually wound up being a full-time critic for four years.

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The problem was that he was losing the simple pleasure of seeing a film, the pure joy of which was so important to him. "I was fed up," he recalls.

Which is incredible to hear given that his latest film, Tabu, comes across as such a loving homage to early filmmaking. It tells the story of a slightly batty older woman in modern-day Lisbon and her sordid past and affair in Portuguese colonial Africa. Aesthetically, Tabu is a study in the most basic elements of filmmaking, from the grain of the film to the absence of dialogue in the second half of the film, and the high-contrast black-and-white photography Gomes uses throughout. It's a wonderful, very purposeful study of mid-century film techniques.

"I have the impression nowadays that films have lost a primitive innocence. There are more than 100 years of filmmakers, and viewers at the beginning were more capable of having a more innocent view of films." F.W. Murnau, the German expressionist best known for directing Nosferatu and Phantom, is a key influence, he adds. (Fans of Murnau will note he also made a film titled Tabu.)

That return to the basics is likely why Tabu was unusually placed in the Toronto International Film Festival's experimental Wavelengths program. Gomes says he wasn't intending the film to be seen as simply an experimental or academic study of film technique. "I can't anticipate the way it is received," he says.

But he doesn't mind being included among the avant-gardists in Wavelengths, even though it makes him feel (and it's a running joke he has repeated to others) like the "Walt Disney of Wavelengths."

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