Kleber Mendonca Filho, Neighboring Sounds
One of the year’s most startling debuts, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds is a queasily effective portrait of a society undergoing dynamic change. Unfolding over the course of a few weeks in the perpetually sunny Brazilian metropolis of Recife, the film centers on several families in one upscale block which is surrounded by new development. Yet the perpetual noise of high rise construction isn’t the only thing haunting the denizens of this seemingly comfortable and manicured urban space. Fear of crime and just-under-the-surface racial tension takes its toll on everyone in unspoken ways. Even as fading reminders of Brazil’s ever-present colonial past never quite wash themselves away, the private security forces that begin patrolling the neighborhood which forms the film’s milieu are clearly a force of change in a new, perhaps less easily ordered Brazil.
The lives of a young real estate operator and his aristocratic grandfather are centrifugal to Filho’s story, but their servants and those who live on the property that has remained in their family for generations are shown indulging in behavior at odds with their public selves. Filho embraces an aesthetic that is at once cautiously observant and yet occasionally quite exuberant; there are moments watching the 43-year-old ex-critic and programmer’s film in which you feel like you’ve discovered an artist of great promise, but who already feels like the real thing. Someone who is at once a Brazilian answer to Todd Solondz and David Simon, Carlos Reygadas and Lars von Trier.
In a regime that is focused on ever-concentrated wealth creation and modern consumerism in full tilt growth mode (as Brazil gets set to present itself on the world stage during the 2016 Rio Olympics), films like Filho’s are indelible; challenging, formally dextrous and morally serious (which is to say, ambiguous) projects which look at the ways in which capitalism and the attitudes of old world colonialism don’t often fit hand in hand. Filho’s internationally celebrated film, which just landed in Brazil after a robust festival run that started in Rotterdam, opens this Friday in Manhattan.
Filmmaker: This feels like a movie that is informed by a lifetime of experience, and a specifically Brazilian one. That seems especially rare for a first film. Perhaps it shouldn’t, but it does.
Filho: I would like to think that the film can be understood universally, that it can be appreciated even in China, in very distant places from where I live in Brazil. Of course it has some very specific points about Brazilian society and I can’t really run away from that. My mother was a historian and she studied late nineteenth century Brazil history. Slavery was abolished in 1888 and nothing was done to integrate the new citizens into Brazilian society. This is an important piece of information because a lot of Brazilians are just not aware of that. A lot of the problems we have today can be traced back to the late nineteenth century. I think Brazil still has a very strong feeling of slavery. It is still very much present in Brazilian society. It’s hard to explain sometimes because the kind of racism we have here is not the kind of racism that you’d find in the 60s in Mississippi or Alabama, it is not the kind of racism you’d find during the riots on the outskirts of London, in that there is no real racism hatred. There is a cordial tension that exists which involves race, and I wanted to put that in the film. We never once used the word “racism” in the film because that’s the way Brazilians actually act out their racism; they’re not being racists, they’re just being racist.
The act of being racist is not really recognized because it’s not really happening in an overt way, although it is there. If you look at the things move and the way things are, you end up with acts of racism. For example, it used to be very common that in buildings like the ones I featured in the film — upper middle class high rises — there is a social elevator and a service elevator. The service elevator has usually been designed to be used by the help, basically for carrying groceries and the like. There have been many incidents where the people that live in the building have told people working for other tenants in the building that they need to use the service elevator. Eventually, some people saw this as a huge problem socially and decided to pass a law to end this sort of practice. This happened just 15 years ago.
Of course, Brazil is not a completely racist society, even if something like this used happened to happen just a few years ago. In some ways, it still happens because people have been trained socially, so the help will still often take the service elevator. Little situations like that brought me the idea to shoot this sort of culture, but everything would have to be very subtle because if you’re making something that has some sort of political ideology, you have to be very careful in film, because on the screen your ideas can seems so large that they’ll scream at you. I had this idea to keep it exactly like it happens in real life. I wouldn’t want to go any bigger than that with these sentiments, because it would feel contrived and artificial.
Filmmaker: As you’ve thought through these issues, how did you go about deciding how to aestheticize them and make a narrative that would be informed but not overwhelmed by these circumstances?
Filho: I was really happy about my short films. Watching a lot of them might give you an idea of where Neighboring Sounds came from, not just in terms of the style, but in terms of a certain feeling and desire to continue this kind of approach, of looking at people and looking at how they function and how Brazilian society functions. My last film before this one is a short film called Tropics. It is a fake documentary about what would happen if this city became cold. This city is very tropical. The local population does not know the concept of cold. Our lowest temperature is 75 degrees Fahrenheit on the coldest winter night in June, so a lot of that film has to do with culture and the way people lead their lives in a tropical environment. I think a lot of those ideas found their way into Neighboring Sounds, in a way.
I think a lot of this film comes from, as you said, just living life. I am 43 now and I’ve had personal experiences with many things and, like I said, I grew up listening to a historian who was always making me think about why things are the way they are. The best drama comes from filming people living their lives naturally, and because we [portrayed] that, I think a lot of the tensions in the film are both very Brazilian and very universal, in a way.
I just had the first screening in Brazil last week after seven months of showing the film in foreign countries and it was quite an amazing experience because a lot of what became mysterious for foreign audiences was just very easily decoded by a Brazilian audience. They just get it. It is supposed to be very true to the experience of living in Brazilian society. Yet a lot of the things shown in the film are actually hidden in Brazilian society. It’s like people just don’t want to see them. It’s kind of painful sometimes to show it because some people are actually very upset and disturbed by the film. Nobody accused me of exaggerating or lying or making things up because everything is very real. It comes from a very heartful kind of thing, from the experience of living and watching the world around you.
As to how to turn that into film, how to aestheticize, that’s a tough one. I think you just try to make the best film you can. You have to try and be truthful.
Filmmaker: I never felt like you were so invested in any one character’s point of view from a cultural standpoint, yet the movie never strains to identify with anyone or their agenda.
Filho: I don’t have a designated hero. I am middle class and bourgeois and I am quite happy with this. [laughs] I don’t feel any guilt. I realize that it’s fucked up and yet at the same time you can be happy. I really don’t have any desire to make a revolution, but I have a desire to be open and honest about what I’m showing. I don’t really believe in villains in a film like this. Many films piss me off because I don’t think the role of the villain fits that particular kind of film and I would never go for that kind of approach in a film like Neighboring Sounds because I don’t think anybody is necessarily guilty or wrong. Not even Francisco, the old man. He had his life, he had his part of history, a very specific upbringing in a very specific time. He seems to love his family. He made some really big mistakes in the past. I am not here to judge any of my characters. I like them most of the time. I despise them sometimes. It’s really difficult to show this panorama, this tableau. When the actors would ask me questions and they’d have this notion from commercial film culture about who the film is judging, I would say, “You can forget about that, you shouldn’t judge him, you shouldn’t judge her. That’s not what we’re trying to do here. The film has a logic pulled from life.”
That logic means the information we get from the film is from places where the film sticks to a strategy of allowing the language of cinema to tell you something before the character understands something. Do you follow? I always made a point to allow the camera to learn with the characters what the hell is going on or what a particular scene is about. Like when the maid says she’s going to take the clothes to the dry cleaners, but then she goes up to the room and we’re wondering why she’s combing her hair, why we’re watching her change her clothes, where she’s really going. We’re just with her. When you do that, when you play it fair with the camera, when you put it in the right place, when you respect the character, then you might have a respectful and good point of view to get at the character.
Filmmaker: You rarely use the film grammar typically associated with establishing point of view or character identification in narrative cinema, and yet you grant the characters incredibly truthful and honest private moments. The accumulation of those, which don’t seem directly tied to the machinations of the narrative per se, is where your film derives much of its power.
Filho: Ironically, that’s why a lot of critics hate it. They lose the film completely. They don’t see the point of watching a woman undress and put another set of clothes on. I just don’t see how they don’t see the point. Maybe they are too attached to these traditional narrative forms, which basically says you have to keep moving the plot forward at all costs. For me it is most important to have interesting moments and scenes in the film.
Filmmaker: You mostly shot in your own neighborhood?
Filmmaker: Was that a choice of necessity?
Filho: I had been photographing this neighborhood since the 90s, when I was in college. I was fascinated by this whole thing of security. It is very photogenic. Ugly architecture is very photogenic. My first proper short film was shot in my apartment and Electrodomestica was shot in my neighbor’s apartment and I know all the right angles around here; it’s a place I’ve been photographing and experimenting with for some time. I could have shot the movie in Rio, but why would I do that? I have everything we need right here. In a way, it feels like a home movie, but with three or four trucks and a hundred people and a proper crew. It was like Orson Welles said, “A movie is the best train set a boy could ever have,” but yet it was still a home movie. I got to walk home every day. Although my place had become a studio, it wasn’t home anymore really, it was so full of gear.
However, this was a low budget film. It cost just over a million dollars. For me, that’s a lot of money. My most expensive film before that, a short I made called Electrodomestica, cost $50,000. We shot six weeks, but it was a eight-week film, that was the toughest part. We shot everything and it was very difficult.