Kleber Mendonça Filho is the kind of writer who believes you should write what you know. His latest film "Neighboring Sounds," which he wrote and directed, takes place in his hometown of Recife, and most was shot on his block and even in his own home. But he's also a fan of horror movies and science fiction. He's made short films of both genres, from "A menina do algodão" (2002), based on a local legend, to "Recife Frio" (2009), a fantastic mockumentary about a cold spell that takes over the northern Brazilian city. He's one of the most exciting directors in Brazil at the moment, one who's changing the course of Brazilian cinema.
I interviewed Mendonça in Recife by phone after meeting him briefly in New York, where he came to promote his new movie and accept the award for best film of the year from Cinema Tropical. "Neighboring Sounds" has won accolades the world over, including being named one of the best movies of 2012 by The New York Times. A movie programmer in Recife and a former movie critic, Mendonça told me he wanted to make a film that he would like to watch. From the perspective of a viewer, Mendonça wanted to focus on what he calls "small-scale incidents," the day-to-day occurrences that make up daily life. "I've never been involved in shootouts, and I don't carry guns," he said. "My life is interesting enough." The movie focuses largely on the daily lives of middle- and upper-class families living in Recife, and their relationships with their working-class employees.
The Middle Class as a Protagonist
Mendonça noted that Brazil's middle class is not normally part of Brazilian cinema. At a January screening of the director's short films at New York's Museum of the Moving Image, he explained there's now a "huge discussion going on" since the new movie showed an intimacy with this group. The film also zeroes in on class tensions, which Mendonça said are part of Brazilian society and "make Brazilians tic." "For me, it's obvious because it's part of our lives," he said. In several of his films, Mendonça spotlights the maid's room, which can be found in many Brazilian homes and evolved from slave quarters.
For Mendonça, it was natural to focus on the middle class, since that's where he comes from. "That's what I understand," he told me. "I'm familiar with the way people think and behave." He said many people told him how much they identified with situations in the film. "That's what the arts are all about, really; they tell you something about what you understand or something that you feel," he noted. But he was taken aback that people thought the film was original for focusing on this group. "There's nothing revolutionary about this," he said. "It baffles me." He cited a film called "O Invasor" (The Trespasser) that influenced his work, and touches on similar themes. When he saw it a decade ago, he wondered: "Why don't we make films like that?"
Brazil's Frenzy of Consumerism
"Neighboring Sounds," as well as the 2005 short "Eletrodoméstica," were inspired in part by the boom in consumerism after the Real Plan in 1994. Mendonça was first struck by the phenomenon during a family trip to the United States in the early 1990s when he saw Brazilians bringing piles of VCRs, microwaves, and fax machines back to Brazil. He was also struck by an incident involving the winning Brazilian team during the 1994 World Cup in Los Angeles: the players and entourage brought home 17 tons of baggage filled with purchases after their win.
Before inflation was conquered and imports opened up, Brazil had a "strange kind of capitalism that was very similar to life in communism," Mendonça said. "I remember a time when you would go to the supermarket in the morning and in the afternoon, the prices would have gone up." There were very few choices when it came to buying electronics or cars, but after 1994, he began noticing people "going crazy with consumerism." Even though things have changed since then, Mendonça noted, Brazil still has a developing consumer culture, with new money coming in and a growing C class.
Breaking the Mold of a Domestic Film
With a limited budget, "Neighboring Sounds" has had success because people are discovering the film, which Mendonça admits doesn't usually happen. "It's slowly stepping out of the place where the market says it’s supposed to be and supposed to stay," he said. The film was well-received in Brazil, which isn't always the case. The term filme nacional, or domestic film, could sometimes be spoken as a derogatory term. A recent Carta Capital article declared Brazil a "cultural wasteland," with the exception of "Neighboring Sounds." Mendonça disagreed with this assessment, but noted that this perception of Brazilian films does exist. On Twitter, he's seen people comment on the movie, saying, "Well, it's nacional, but it's actually quite good," or "It's so good that it feels like an Argentine film." The solution, Mendonça believes, is to create more good movies and to expose viewers to different kinds of films. "Cinema is many different voices in the whole world, not only American or Hollywood voices," he said.
Connecting History to the Present
One important element of "Neighboring Sounds" is a clear connection between the past to the present, from showing black and white photos at the beginning to showing crumbling buildings in rural Pernambuco. There's also a mirroring of class relationships from colonial times to the present. At the end of the film, one can't help but wonder how much things have changed. Mendonça, the son of a historian, says he intuitively tries to understand where things come from. "I try not to be nostalgic," he said. Though some people would say the film begins with old pictures, "for me, they're just pictures," Mendonça explained. "That's what we're living now, but in black and white." If you drive 40 kilometers outside of Recife and shoot photos without color, Mendonça told me, you'll get the same images.
The Genre Film Gap
Brazilian genre films aren't taken seriously by critics, Mendonça lamented. There are no Brazilian horror movies, except for Zé do Caixão, and no science fiction; these types of movies are often dismissed as being unrealistic. Mendonça made a choice with "Neighboring Sounds" not to venture into this realm by say, landing a spaceship in the middle of the street. And while it wasn't a horror film, the element of fear was important, and Mendonça created a film that leaves viewers feeling on edge for the entirety of the movie. In the future, Mendonça considers making true genre movies. "I go back to me as a viewer," he said. "It’s basically the kind of thing I would like to see."
Image: Universo Produção