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Culture Wars: Talking Brazilian Cinema and its Discontents with Director Kleber Mendonça Filho

The Brazilian drama Neighboring Sounds made it onto many critics’ best-of lists for 2012 and recently won Best Feature at the Cinema Tropical Awards in New York, which recognize excellence in Latin American cinema. The film’s director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, was in town to accept the award and to attend a screening at the Museum of the Moving Image of short films he produced over the last decade.

The first of these shorts was made in 2002, the year Fernando Meirelles’ urban epic City of God burst onto the international scene and Madame Satã played at Cannes. In the decade since then, Brazilian film — at least in the popular imagination of the outsider — has continued to be associated with stories of favelas and urban violence, most recognizably in the films of José Padilha. A sense of creative stymy could be detected with fewer Brazilian appearing on the international scene.

Neighboring Sounds, which won the FIPRESCI Prize at Rotterdam, has received attention in part for the film’s symbolic value as marking a real shift in Brazilian cinema, both thematically and in terms of production. Rio de Janeiro, long the epicenter of Brazil’s film industry continues to produce commercial films as an offshoot of the television industry, but Neighboring Sounds has put Filho’s hometown of Recife, located in the Northeast state of Pernambuco, on the international map; and the city is home to a burgeoning community of independent filmmakers.

Given the emergence of a possible new wave, it seems an appropriate time to check in on the health and well-being of Brazilian film culture from the inside, and Filho generously obliged.

Filmmaker: Neighboring Sounds was just released in Brazil four weeks ago. How is it doing there?

Filho: Neighboring Sounds is doing very well within the independent market. In fact, it’s doing so well that some of the big commercial cinemas picked it up. [After two weeks on January 13, it had taken in $159,000.] In some cities, it worked and in others it was a complete disaster. It had to do with the profile of the multiplex. But the strange discussion taking place is: “This film has done something really original, which is to show the middle class.” It’s completely absurd, because 100% of Brazilian filmmakers come from the middle class — they are bourgeois, so why the fuck don’t they tell stories about themselves? Generally speaking, Brazilian cinema tells stories about stuff the filmmakers themselves don’t really understand that well. I could never make a film about the favelas because I would be out of my jurisdiction, artistically and socially.

Filmmaker: Why are Brazilian filmmakers continually drawn to stories about favelas and about urban violence?

Filho: What you’re asking is probably the toughest thing to discuss with a foreign observer. Even to say something, means generalizing. There is one truth, which is the absolute lack of films about the immediate reality [of Brazil], which is why Neighboring Sounds has seemed to touch a nerve, not only in Brazil, but also to outside observers. I’ve read outside criticism that remarks on the film not showing poor communities. We’ve had some true Brazilian classics, such as Barren Lives (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963), which is about poverty in the Sertão and the outback. All the films from Cinema Novo in the 1960s were mostly about these themes, but had an interesting and refreshing point of view. Then Cinema Novo became the holy grail of Brazilian cinema. Perhaps one could explain what happens today because of the influence of Cinema Novo, which is Brazilian neorealism ten years after Italian neorealism. It became a very strong school within Brazilian cinema and reverberates today. When Central Station (1998) came out, everyone associated it with Cinema Novo. When City of God came out, people associated it with Cinema Novo, but in a negative way because it was not like Cinema Novo. Everything was measured against it. Interestingly, we’re in 2013 now and I haven’t read anything about Cinema Novo related to Neighboring Sounds, which suggests it may be on the way out in the consciousness of those who watch Brazilian cinema.

Filmmaker: Is not tackling the middle class in contemporary films related more to a financial motive?

Filho: Wherever there are people, there are stories to tell. With Neighboring Sounds, I made the film I needed to make. For people in Brazil but also in the US and Europe, it was as though Neighboring Sounds was the film they expected to see coming out of Brazil at this particular time. Brazil is undergoing interesting and dramatic changes because of the economy and the Lula government, not all of them positive.

Filmmaker: Neighboring Sounds shows how class tension is a major part of contemporary life in Brazil.

Filho: Well, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff in the last few months because of the film’s release, and some [Brazilian] critics say that a lot of the [independent] films coming out now are actually about the middle class, but tend to concentrate on existential drama. They use Neighboring Sounds to badmouth these other films. It’s a bit uncomfortable. On one hand, I see filmmakers’ point of view but I also see the critics’. These filmmakers tend to shoot in close-ups and medium shots and don’t show the actual context of spaces.

Where are [the characters]? It’s all out of focus. It feels like a missed opportunity. People reacted very positively to my showing the spaces in Neighboring Sounds. [Most of the film is wide-shots.] But this is basic. You have to show where the action takes place. It generates more involvement if you see the character in relation to where he or she is.

Filmmaker: How have the recent economic and political changes in Brazil affected the film industry?

Filho: That’s fascinating because when Lula [President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] came into power [in 2002], he changed the Ministry of Culture, which is now lead by Gilberto Gil, one of our most interesting composers and pop stars. Although he’s 70 today, he’s very young in spirit. At first, people thought he was a curious choice, but it turned out that he’s brilliant and he brought interesting changes, which affected people like me.

Historically, most of the government support was channeled to the Southeast regions, to Rio and São Paulo. There’s something very specific to the Lula government, not only in culture but in almost every area of government — he brought democracy to the use of money in the country. The Ministry of Culture, which gave money to feature films, now had to give money to specific regions, and everybody had a fair share of the pie. This explains why someone like me, coming from the Northeast, can get money to make a first feature. This wouldn’t have been possible in the ’90s because the probability of getting money then was more like ten to one.

Filmmaker: Did this have to do with there simply being more industry infrastructure in the Southeast?

Filho: Well, before the digital revolution, you could only make a film in Recife by bringing in film and sound equipment, because there were no labs or equipment rental places. Local cinema suddenly became stronger once the digital revolution took hold because we could make films ourselves. On top of this, the government made access to money more democratic. Today, Recife has one of the strongest film scenes in Brazil — not in terms of industrial film production but in terms of auteur-driven, personal films. We have the films that are doing really well in international festivals. The commercial films still come out of Rio, but are like by-products of television — essentially, soap operas or sitcoms shown in cinemas. We have a new film from Recife premiering at Rotterdam this month called They’ll Come Back (directed by Marcelo Lordello), which is a really good film.

We show each other rough cuts. It’s a very interesting community. I still program films at Cinema Fundação [Joaquim Nabuco Foundation] and it’s where everybody meets. It’s being re-equipped with a 4K projector. It’s funded in part by the Ministry of Education but the foundation is a think-tank with a cultural section. Fourteen years ago, I was invited to program the cinema, when I was a film journalist.

Filmmaker: Brazil sold a record number of tickets this year, approximately 148 million. The Avengers was number one highest-grossing film. But within the top 20, there was only one Brazilian film, and from what I can tell it’s a comedy.

Filho: In Brazil, there is a huge chasm between commercial cinema and smaller independent cinema. There’s a huge discussion going on right now on Facebook because Neighboring Sounds opened a week after one of these commercial television comedies, which has been seen by almost 3 million people in Brazil in the last four weeks. Some people say my film is the antidote to that kind of crap; the people who make these films say my film is not an antidote to anything because it’s slow, it drags, and it’s confusing. So there’s this primitive battle going on between the two cinemas.

You shouldn’t expect the industry to make films like Neighboring Sounds, but maybe I’d prefer them to stop making films like that and try something else. Comedy is the toughest genre to tackle and all they make are comedies and they’re terrible. The big producer of this comedy [De Pernas pro Ar 2 (Legs in the Air 2)] posted on Facebook today that if Neighboring Sounds had opened on 700 screens, it would not have made 3 million tickets like they did. But what he forgets is that we opened with $100,000 in publicity and advertising. They spent something like $2.5 million. So maybe if we had budget, we could sell 1 million tickets.

Director Kleber Mendonça Filho
Director Kleber Mendonça Filho

Filmmaker: It’s strange that the film’s success is ruffling their feathers to such a degree.

Filho: Neighboring Sounds makes fun of Brazil’s weekly national magazine, which is considered a sacred institution. Veja magazine is like Newsweek for Brazilians. Politically it’s terrible: it’s as if Fox News here in the US published a paper magazine. In the condo-meeting scene, there’s a joke about Veja, which only Brazilians understand [it pokes fun at the reactionary values of the middle class]. Unlike in the US, we don’t have a Bill Maher or Jon Stewart or Michael Moore. This is the first time that [a film] makes fun of the magazine and it became a big deal. So what happened is Veja gets the weekend [box office] numbers from the second week of the comedy and the first week of our film and says: “Loved by critics, but unfortunately despised by audiences: Neighboring Sounds sank without a trace over the weekend. Only 18,000 tickets versus 2.5 million tickets.” They give no context.

Neighboring Sounds was playing on 13 screens versus 720 screens for the comedy and we actually had a higher per-screen average than this commercial comedy. The left-wing press rallied and went for the jugular, correcting the facts. There were 200 angry comments on Veja’s website after that. It’s as if the commercial film world wants to kill little films — especially this one because it’s the first small production that’s making waves.

Filmmaker: How much of Neighboring Sounds was financed by the Ministry of Culture?

Filho: The Ministry provided about 50% of the budget, the local state government from Recife provided about 30%, and Petrobras [the state-controlled oil company] provided the rest. It was all publicly funded. We’re in a very interesting position making independent films in Brazil. It’s much better than in the US. You can actually raise money and make a film, but your film will cost anywhere from $200,000 to $1.5 million, which is the budget of my film. You can do a lot with this. I think Brazilian filmmakers are in a very good place. Of course, you have to do the submissions, pitches, travel to different regions to present the project to people who probably don’t understand what you’re talking about. The Ministry gives money to 10 features a year, for a total of something like $10 million. There may be something like 600 submissions, but there are really only about 50 scripts that can be considered [real contenders]. Also, the filmmaker’s CV and past work counts a lot [in the decision-making].

Filmmaker: Both the Rio International Film Festival and Mostra in São Paulo are massive festivals that screen upwards of 300 films each. What is your relationship to these festivals?

Filho: The Mostra is an interesting festival but you shouldn’t premiere a Brazilian film there because it will just get lost in the machine. Neighboring Sounds arrived at Mostra after having played at the international festivals and so every screening was sold out. I think it played a very important role in making the film popular in São Paulo, which it is right now, and by far the best box office numbers come from there. It won Best Film there and it won Best Film and Best Screenplay at Rio. At Rio, they created a new section called Premier Brazil, which is a showcase of new Brazilian films and it’s almost like fashion week but for cinema. However, it’s very connected to Rio’s commercial film market, which requires them to show a lot of mediocre films, so the festival has a strange mix of the personal and the commercial films in competition.

Filmmaker: You premiered Neighboring Sounds at Rotterdam. It’s a festival that has supported other Brazilian filmmakers like Cláudio Assis, Gabriel Mascaro, and Marcelo Gomes.

Filho: We got the Hubert Bals Fund from Rotterdam, so they were tracking the film at every step of production. They saw the first terrible cut, the improvements three months later, and the final cut. They wanted it in competition. I could have said no and waited for Cannes, but that would’ve made me nervous. I could have ended up with a pie in my face. What really made a difference is that Gerwin [Tamsma], a curator at Rotterdam, is so great. He was very friendly and very sure of what he was doing. The fund gives you €20,000 to develop the script and €20,000 for post-production, which we actually used to pay for music rights for one track.

Filmmaker: Was there a definitive break for you moving from film journalist to filmmaker?

Filho: Yes, there was. I did video in the ’90s — narratives and some documentaries, mainly using VHS and Betacam. I made this fairly big production (for my standards) in the ’96. For all practical purposes, it was a film — we had a proper film set and everything and it did quite well — but it was shot on Betacam and it was always treated not as a film but as a “video.” I got fed up in ’97 because it was always treated as the poor cousin, and then I went into writing about film and became chief film critic at the [local] newspaper. And then the digital revolution happened and Dogme 95 and things really changed. Video became digital, which is more noble, more respected and more film-like. And then Macintosh computers became more affordable and I realized that what I was doing with tapes and going to production facilities and using their equipment was over and I could make the whole thing at home with better quality and more independence. That’s when I made The Little Cotton Girl with a mini-DV camera in 2002 and when the second wave of production for me came.

Filmmaker: Was it important for you to shoot on 35mm for Neighboring Sounds?

Filho: It was important for me for other aesthetic reasons. We’re at a moment in history when I thought this is probably the last opportunity I’d have to make a film in 35mm. I think it was very important for the process of making the film: you become more aware of what you’re doing. I’ve visited many film sets and made films in HD and sometimes you see [filmmakers] just leave the camera on and it’s obscene. OK, it’s easy now, but it’s going to be tough in the editing process. Even more so today, it just becomes silly to shoot a film on 35mm because the film is actually digital all the time: you scan it and edit it and it’s likely going to be screened in DCP. In Brazil and in some international festivals, we screened 35mm prints, but Cinema Guild released it in the U.S. on DCP only. I actually like DCP but when you see the film screened on 35mm it’s a different kind of pleasure. Tarantino was apparently looking for cinemas to screen his new film on 35mm. It’s a losing battle; it’s gone.

Filmmaker: What would you say is the biggest difference in film culture between the U.S. and Brazil?

Filho: Well, I had to change some of my ideas about this because when I came to the U.S. last year, I met very cosmopolitan Americans who’re interested in the whole world of film. I think the main thing is that Brazilians think Americans only tend to look at the world from the American point of view. But then last year, I met people like Dennis [Lim] and he understands there’s a world outside the US. My wife is French, so I’m very familiar with the French cinephiles who are hungry for everything. In Brazil, there are true cinephiles like this but there’s also the cinephilia which has to do with popcorn movies and people who think The Avengers is a masterpiece.

We had a huge hit in Brazil with the French film The Intouchables and yet it was seen by only about a million people in Brazil. Why? Because it’s a French film: they’re not speaking English. Amelie is still an “art film” there. But Brazil actually has a very good distribution record for releasing non-American foreign films, many of which don’t actually get released in the US.

Filmmaker: New York is probably the best city for movie-going in North America, but it’s true that we rely heavily on institutions to showcase new works. For Brazilian film, there’s MoMA’s Premier Brazil, and The Museum of the Moving Image is screening your short films for the first time here.

Filho: One of the highlights of my year traveling with Neighboring Sounds was going to Indiana and Ohio. I went to the Wexner Center and to the University of Indiana in Bloomington, and to Notre Dame University. It was a fantastic week traveling in the Midwest. I only met people who were interested in watching films from different places. One of the great things about cinema is it literally tells you that there’s stuff going on in other places and these people are just like you.

The way politics is going, it’s tough in terms of segregation and imposing differences — and this is everywhere. It turns out people are very much the same and this is the best thing about watching films from all over. I’ve been to Sydney, New Zealand, Bosnia, Portugal, but my film seems to touch a nerve with some people in the audience and they would tell me afterward, “I have a neighbor just like that guy.” It’s touching and I’ll never be blasé about this. It’s why I love film.

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