Interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds)

lokakuu 11, 2012

Tämä on täysimittainen versio haastattelusta, josta tein lyhykäisen version Nizimazine -nettilehteen. Keskustelu oli sen verran mielenkiintoinen, että halusin julkaista lyhentelemättömän version itse, poikkeuksellisesti englanniksi. Se saattaa kiinnostaa niitäkin, jotka eivät ole nähneet puheen kohteena olevaa elokuvaa.

This is the long version of an interview that can be found in short form here.

It’s always interesting to see how filmmakers find ways to link different aspects of film grammar to various social issues. The Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho presents one such case with his feature debut Neighboring Sounds (2012). It is a breath of fresh air in Brazilian cinema that has been mainly known for it’s stories of poverty and crime after the international success of Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002).

Every Brazilian film seems to take place in the favelas even though the country has been going through a strong economic boom for a while now. Although the story of Neighboring Sounds has it’s share of crime too, the main point of interest is in the ways the changing society affects people’s lives on one particular street in Recife, Brazil’s fifth-largest metropolitan area. The inhabitants try to escape real and imaginary threats behind high walls and at the same time it is exactly this need to build new barriers that fills their world with the ubiquitous noise of the construction sites – a problem they aren’t able to run from. To the middle of this situation arrives a group of tough-looking men who present themselves as an independent security service. Tensions start to build and luckily the film never falls for the most obvious outcomes.

Neighboring Sounds is directed by a former film critic Kleber Mendonça Filho who has previously done a few short films and the documentary Critico (2008) which deals with the uneasy relationship between filmmakers and critics. I sat down with him to discuss the new film and in particular the way he uses classic cinematic conventions to tell the story of a changing Brazil.

The film seems to be deeply connected to what’s happening in your country right now. Many of it’s aspects may not be that obvious to foreign viewers but then you have these moments that just work on a sensory level and can be understood by everyone. One such case is the scene where the woman smokes a joint next to a vacuum cleaner. That noise is terrible and yet the moment is so calm, almost erotic.

A friend of mine told she looks like Ella Fitzgerald when she’s holding the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner. When you’re making a movie, what you do should work on one level and then it also has to do some other thing. The woman has this childish understanding that her kids don’t know of her drug use. So it’s something social – trying to hide your drug use – but I really like the fact that to feel peace she has to make more noise. A lot of people do that. And it’s actually a very peaceful moment with the slow zoom and all.

I love the way you use those zooms. A lot of people don’t do that anymore.

I think people are afraid of it because their film culture doesn’t go back to Leone or the French New Wave or whatever. When you make a zoom, it’s almost like if the film states that it indeed is a film and they aren’t comfortable with that.

While the human eye isn’t physically able to zoom it’s something that implies peeking.

You do it mentally all the time. We have lots of peeking in this film. But it also goes with the fact that while I wanted this film to be almost like social realism, I also wanted it to be very filmic in the classic sense. So we shot in ’Scope with all these wide lenses. The zooms come with the package.

When modern films employ zooms it’s usually the jittery kind that’s used with hand-held camera to simulate a documentary style.

I hate the way all the films today have that shallow depth-of-field where the actor’s nose is in focus and the ear isn’t. I want to see where the film happens. I want to see Russia and London. Just look at the films from The United States of the 1970s. They are very realistic but at the same time they are very filmic. Just think of Deliverance (1972) with that magnificent anamorphic Panavision look. The current trend of shooting everything hand-held goes with the digital cinematography because with film you have to plan your moves a bit but digitally you can shoot everything and work it out in the edit. A lot of recent Brazilian films do that and while it can be done, I don’t think it would’ve been right for this film.

At the beginning you have this beautiful tracking shot that follows the little girl with the roller skates. It effectively shows you what the setting is. And there you have the effortlessness of her movement and at the same time you hear walls being built around her.

I never thought of that but it makes sense. The sound is very important in that.

There you introduce the recurring sound motif that reminds me of a piledriver.

In Brazil there are piledrivers everywhere because there are so many buildings being built due to the booming economy. Every time a new building is being built, for three weeks there’s that constant thudding noise. It’s a very interesting sound because it’s rhytmic and your brain sort of sinks into that rhythm.

It is a threatening sound. It makes the viewer to expect the worst. A bit like the car crash at the beginning to which the film never returns.

The crash is sort of like the scene later on where we learn about the end of this relationship only in a passing mention. That’s how it is in reality where you ask your friend: ”Where’s Sofia.” And when you learn that they have separated, you change the subject. The car crash is just piece of life that could be mentioned in a conversation without making a fuzz about it. And it also works as rhythmic stop to the sound of the piledriver.

Did the producers give you hard time about that crash since it doesn’t advance the plot in any way?

That’s interesting because it never came up although it cost us 10 000 euros to make the scene and it lasts maybe one second. It was never questioned.

Did you do that to toy with people’s expectations? At first I thought this is going to be one of those films that start with a car crash and later on you learn the meaning of it.

It’s very hard to do that. You can try to manipulate people’s expectations but it’s very tricky.

I think you can do that by using genre conventions. There’s a lot of those in your film and yet it also sidesteps most of the obvious consequences that usually come with them.

For me it’s been a big surprise to slowly understand how the film avoids a lot of expectations. Some people react negatively to that because they want something to happen and nothing happens. When this one character goes to have a swim in the ocean they expect a shark attack and when he just returns all wet they are disappointed. Although we’ve had quite a lot of shark attacks in that region it doesn’t mean that if you go swimming you’re going to lose an arm. But because it’s a film there should be a shark attack.

There’s also the drunk guy who’s lost and goes to speak to the tough-looking guards. You expect them to start bullying him and then they just help him.

They help also. Those kinds of guys work on my street too. While they look like they are going to do something wrong, I have no information of any such thing. They are the security after all.

Is this a moral or an aesthetic question to you? Do you do that because it would make for an interesting scene or is it something that should be done because it’s more truthful than the usual stereotypes?

That’s a tough question. Again, it has to work on many levels. The scene is about an urban environment that is so absent of character that every place looks the same and you get lost easily. And it’s shot like a war scene where you suddenly realize that the security guys are actually everywhere. There’s fast zooms, walkie talkies, guys materializing from everywhere and yet it’s a scene where nothing happens. Cinematically it’s almost like Mission: Impossible and there’s absolutely nothing happening.

It’s the same thing with the guy who’s lost an eye. As a teenager I knew this guy who had lost an eye and I though that maybe someone had shot at him. But according to him he actually hurt it in a home accident. I thought that was great for the movie because it’s not Mad Max. Even if he looks tough, this guy has a home and had an accident there. A lot of people react to that and ask why I didn’t have him say he lost it in a fight. Because he didn’t.

You show the maid change her clothes and transform from a servant to a human being in a long, unbroken take. Why shouldn’t you be able to show the security guy in the same light.

One thing I hate about Brazilian films is that they are all made by upper class people. Filmmakers there are white and well-to-do, you can’t deny that. A lot of the time when they depict lower classes they are prejudiced even if they mean well. It’s like a white person telling a black person that in his eyes the black person is a human being too. In these so-called ”favela movies” poor people are criminals and then they kill each other. The filmmakers don’t know the world they are depicting.

You shot the film where you live. I think that’s hard because you only see the place in terms of your everyday life. Was that a problem to you?

I’ve been making a lot of films where I live and also shot a lot of still photos. I know the angles and I think it’s very photogenic. It just works for me. It feels a bit weird that I made most of the movie there. We used my apartment as a location and the car crash happens just next to my home.

Shooting on 35mm film definitely helps you get the feeling that you’re witnessing real life being lived although it’s actually fictional.

I feel very fortunate that I was able to do it on film. I don’t have a problem with digital but in my mind this film had to be shot on film. It’s part of the classic film language just like the zooms. If I shot it today I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it on film. It was actually one of the last 50 films shot on Technicolor. It’s mind-blowing if you think that The Wizard of Oz from 1939 was already in Technicolor and then 70 years later my film comes out and it’s one the last films shot that way. It’s just incredible.

What’s the film/digital situation in Brazilian cinemas?

The transition has been slow. 70 per cent of the films are still shown on film which doesn’t mean it’s a good thing because the cinemas are forgetting how to show films.

Finland is all digital now but I noticed the same thing happening before the transition.

I heard that when Terrence Malick was in Cannes for the Tree of Life premiere he went beforehand to check that the image quality was okay. He saw the 35mm image and said it looked fine but the projectionist insisted he should take a look at the 4K DCP. Malick was amazed by the 4K and decided to show it on DCP. I see my film on DCP all the time and even if you can see the grain and the picture is bright, it’s almost like botox. Two weeks ago I saw it on a film print in really good conditions in Brazil and it just felt good watching some real fucking film. It looks good on DCP but on 35mm especially the night scenes look fantastic. So much better than on the DCP. On the other hand the daytime exterior shots look like they have less resolution on film than on the DCP so these are confusing times.

Neighboring Sounds is something between an art house and an entertainment film. Do you think it has commercial possibilities in Brazil?

It could have but the real question is what the people will do with the film and if it’s given opportunities. Some of these what might be considered auteur films have been seen by 2000 people and some others by at least 12 million people. At this point I feel my film has a chance. The market is only ready for romantic comedies and American 3D-films but the reactions I’ve been having from Brazilian audiences have been very strong.

You never know.

It’s impossible. We made a short film called Cold Tropics (2009) and took it to an important film festival in Brazil. Me, my wife and a friend made it together, this small short film. It just became the hot topic of the festival and we sold almost 6000 DVDs.

That doesn’t really happen with short films.

But it did happen to this one. That’s what makes it interesting.



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