Recife Breathes: Kleber Mendonça Filho on Neighboring Sounds

By Aaron Cutler

A young man guides a few people through a large, white, empty apartment. The room stretches wide from one bare wall to another. It’s morning on a hot day, and dust hangs in the air. The man, João (Gustavo Jahn), works leasing his grandfather’s buildings. It turns out a woman died recently inside this one, and the client would like a discount. As she and João talk (“Look, the incident has no impact on the quality of the place”), we hear noises—faint, far-off, indiscernible, echoing around and below. Perhaps it’s a football game, as we quickly catch a kid searching for a ball, but there has to be more going on. Maybe it’s construction, people roaming, or domestic tools churning—or it could be all or none of them, and our imaginations are doing the work.

These are a few members of the community of the Brazilian film Neighboring Sounds, the debut feature of Kleber Mendonça Filho, and this year’s FIPRESCI prizewinner at Rotterdam. Mendonça Filho is a 43-year-old former film critic who currently works as a film programmer at the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, a large cultural organization. In his previous shorts, he mixed genres and tones with results ranging from tragic horror (2004’s Green Vinyl portrays a little girl whose curiosity is slowly killing her mother) to sci-fi satire (2009’s Cold Tropics depicts a world so mixed-up that rich people actually want to take over their maids’ rooms). This time, he’s made a subtly shifting piece that leaves you off-balance—at any moment, you’re not only uncertain of what you know, but also who to side with, what anyone’s position is, and how to feel about it all. 

Part of that uncertainty comes from the simultaneous sense Mendonça Filho gives you of being inside and outside the community. The neighbourhood João and others call home lays within a suburb of Recife, the capital and largest city of Brazil’s Northeastern state Pernambuco. The sense that we get of the high-rises João leases is of the past buried and new work built on top of it, with glass and steel insulating the edifices from any life outside. But much of the area seems designed with an eye towards self-enclosure. The home of housewife Bia (Maeve Jinkings), who’s more intimate with her washing machine than with her husband, looms as its own little fortress, or prison, with narrow corners, flat surfaces, and cool pools of darkness. The bars of her gates and windows loom large, and fill the widescreen frame whenever she nears, as she sometimes does, because there’s always a dog barking very loudly outside, and even the ultrasound machine won’t scare it off.

Bia is just one of the present-day residents. The past contains the campesinos glimpsed in the film’s opening black-and-white photos, poor farmers who lived in serfdom to the senhores dos engenhos (plantation owners) for hundreds of years. Even now, a former senhor, Francisco (W.J. Solha), casually owns half the neighbourhood, and has enlisted his family in his business. But no matter how many new people João settles with, we don’t forget those photographs’ subjects. They linger in the memory and haunt the movie, and we sense that somehow they’ll come back.

At the moment, though, the community has another visitor. Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) shows up one day, his clapping hands heard offscreen (people here have surveillance cameras, but no doorbells), and, from behind a fence, announces himself as the spokesman for the neighbourhood’s new guard service. He says he saw that the street lacked security, and he works with prevention to guarantee peace of mind. But what needs preventing? Security from what? Is the community under the threat of invasion, as some characters suspect, or are they simply paranoid? Neighboring Sounds leaves a lot unsaid by design, challenging the viewer’s assumptions as the characters question each others’.

A society based on class division also runs on class-based suspicion. The film suggests how this might work in Recife in particular, and in Brazil more generally, though the idea is relevant to any society. Mendonça Filho consistently addresses at least three levels of history. There’s film history, with, as a guidepost (among other works), Eduardo Coutinho’s great 1985 documentary Twenty Years Later, which compares footage of the same campesinos shortly before and after Brazil’s military dictatorship. There’s cultural and political history in the portrait of a society expanding post-Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva), Brazil’s President from 2002 to 2010, who grew up as a campesino’s son himself. As well, subtly but indelibly, there is a sense of personal history. And there should be—the movie takes place around the director’s home.

Cinema Scope: How did you figure out how to film the neighbourhood?

Kleber Mendonça Filho: It is where I live. We had to change a few things due to permissions denied, but 70% of the locations are in and around the actual street. I also fought hard to shoot most of the film in very wide shots, which brings logistical problems. Shooting wide was extremely important for a film where I wanted viewers to see the architecture. I can no longer stand watching films where the people are filmed in tight close-up with a shaky-cam, or only to the point of their nose, or where the nose is in focus but the ear isn’t, or the hand, or the tip of the fingernail. I like opening up the plane, and in this film in particular I very clearly wanted to establish the people within their environment.

I’m interested in a cinema of fiction that’s documentary as well. You see Taxi Driver (1976) today, and it’s fascinating because it’s fiction, but it’s also New York in 1975. You can see how New York was—roads, traffic lights, places that don’t exist anymore. It interests me to film scenes that not only function dramatically, but also show the surroundings. So I had to film in a way that was generously open. Only at certain moments I then closed the space, to say, “Look at this face, this face is important right now.”

This happens with Bia three times. She’s extremely solitary and you stay alone with her when the plane closes. When you’re with her as she looks at the washing machine, which is basically a low-angle Sergio Leone shot, the effect is a little startling because you’re used to looking at her through various wide shots, and suddenly it changes. The close-ups were saved for very special moments. I wanted a classical manner with breaks.

Scope: You often play with expectations, especially towards violence. The viewer expects violence to break out, and then it doesn’t. The first time Clodoaldo appears, João asks if he’s armed. Clodoaldo says that he can’t really say yes, and can’t really say no. Some viewers will assume he is. And I think you know this. 

Mendonça Filho: I realize they’re going to think he has a gun. But I don’t know if he does. I discovered this capacity for suggestion with my short Eletrodoméstica (2005), where two absolutely innocent scenes left viewers extremely tense. And now, OK, when you see a car passing at night, I understand that creates a menacing atmosphere. But I think that in general the human mind goes with cinema in thinking that anything’s possible and generates a tension that was never the filmmaker’s intention. And this film, at least from what I can see, has the ability to lead people to imagine the worst, possibly due to its thematic elements. When Clodoaldo’s co-worker Miguel (Nivaldo Nascimento) says that he’s lost his eye because he hit a shelf at home, a lot of people regard this as unbelievable, because they’d have thought he’d lost it from a gunfight or a knife fight. Why? Because he’s a security guy, so he should be dangerous. He must have lost it in a fight. But no, he lost it in a domestic accident: he is just like you. I don’t know whether the film plays with you. I just wrote it like that.

Scope: A great source of tension is the sound, which you designed. How did you plan it?

Mendonça Filho: Credit should also go to Pablo Lamar. If you use music in cinema, you risk giving the viewer instructions. Audiences have been programmed how to react to films, and that’s bad. When you take music out, a part of the audience is absolutely baffled, because there’s only you and the film. You don’t have anyone saying, “It’s all right to laugh, to cry, it’s all right to ask, ‘What the fuck?’” When you don’t have this relation, an audience grows tense because it needs to develop an original reaction.

So I didn’t want a traditionally melodic soundtrack. I told Helder (DJ Dolores) that I wanted something that would be more than a sound effect and less than music. The sounds should together compose a rhythmic series that perhaps you would not perceive straight away, but there would be a sonic carpet underlying everything. And it was extremely important that half these sounds would not be immediately apparent. For example, breaking glass, or knives and forks, very recognizable. So those were out. Some sounds there are juicy, but you don’t know what they are.

The greatest concentration of these noises occurs in a nightmare scene. There’s a large bag being dragged, and nobody knows what that is, and there’s a heavy piece of furniture that I dragged across the floor, and then I slowed the sound down a little bit. There’s the wheel of a supermarket cart. The sound had to open up narrative holes and at times increase the estrangement, but still satisfy as a wonderful piece of noise.

Scope: You’ve said that to direct the actors you talk a little, and talk a little more, and then film.

Mendonça Filho: I don’t believe in a simply technical performance. When we cast an actor, we’re also calling upon this actor’s life story. The experience that he or she has had with love, with the relationship that he or she has had with her brother, or her mother, with people at work. All this is very important. I think it’s possible to work with an actor who is a complete idiot but has a fantastic face, but this hasn’t happened yet. All these people are very interesting people that I discovered, knew, or worked with before. They bring their life experiences to their roles. And when I say that we talked, we talked a lot about their lives: “This situation happened with me.” This experience for me is absolutely essential, because it’s not an issue of motivation, but of understanding aspects fundamental to the manner in which we live together. The film is very much about relations between people in a determined social ambiance. All this was discussed during the filmmaking. I was always also trying to include my own life experiences, most of which I wrote into the script.

And we talked a lot about a delicate issue. In Brazil, there exists a very peculiar kind of racism, it’s not an Alabama/Mississippi/civil rights movement racism, it’s a “cordial racism.” It’s a racism coming from everything that’s mixed into being Brazilian—from the natives, Africans, from the Europeans, Catholicism, etc. A result of this is that there’s a kind of visual racism, a racism of design. This is reflected in the film’s casting, which, first and foremost, brings a diversity of faces and skin colour true to the diversity of Brazil itself. Essentially the whites—or people that are whiter each generation—would be at the top, socially; they’re the more well-off people in the film. And the poorest characters are the darker-skinned, too. But how do you be faithful to reality and avoid an idea of a racist casting? Do you understand the problem? It’s hard for me to say, “You’re black, you’ll play a maid. You’re not, you’ll be with the family.” Issues with representation are still the most problematic aspect of making films in Brazil, and if we start looking into Brazilian television and publicity, things get really complicated and downright disturbing.

Scope: Each of the film’s three principal actors is neither completely white nor black. They’re mixed.

Mendonça Filho: But this is complicated, too. You have the American idea of Caucasian. But they’re not Caucasian, they’re what you’d call “Latino.” In Brazil, they’re just white, or worse, “They don’t look poor, therefore, they’re white.” Even Clodoaldo, who’s not “white,” but on a census he’d be marked as white. Who could never be marked as white would be Miguel, who is effectively black. We were always looking to find a just equilibrium in the casting—humanistically, socially, racially. We did this for the film, for society, for the actors, and for reality.

We talked a lot about social and racial roles as well, because in certain cases actors from the middle class or lower middle-class are playing very poor people. They’re dressed like poor people, but they’re not poor people—they’re educated, they don’t live in a poor community, or in a favela. And this left us a little uncomfortable because there are people living like this in real life. It wasn’t just life issues that we talked about, but issues about society, too. And this is why I say that you look at a face, talk to the actor, like the actor, and then you turn the camera on.

Scope: There’s a scene where João finds his maid’s teenage son barefoot and asleep on the couch. Why did you include it?

Mendonça Filho: We had a maid who worked for many years in my house. One day I returned from work and found her son hanging out on the couch and watching TV, and her grandson in the kitchen. It felt like an invasion, and I always found this very curious. It’s my house, they’re in it, but there’s a social line they aren’t supposed to cross between the kitchen and the living room. I didn’t draw that line; it was drawn by history and by society. They “should be” in the kitchen, or in the maid’s room…and I hate this. I am particularly fond of the moment in the film when you see Seu Francisco’s maid change from her work clothes into street clothes in front of the camera. You see her changing from a service robot back into a human being.

Scope: Why the opening photos?

Mendonça Filho: Normally in a film someone would use these photos as a background for the opening credits, and I didn’t want to drop them into the credits. For one minute and 28 seconds I wanted you to watch a slide show of Pernambuco’s past. And this is a theoretical base for the film—not just in a historical sense, but also in terms of images of Pernambuco, a history of human faces. Because immediately afterwards I break this, and you leap into a horrifically modern plane.

The complete absence of justice in many social situations in Brazil is something I find extremely disturbing, and that is often established by class structure. What happens in a film like Twenty Years Later is not really cinema changing the world, but cinema showing you a story coupled with history, and years going by, and then cinema using its own images to go back to the past and explain the present. The opening photographs in Neighboring Sounds are probably the biggest nod towards that. Because when you’re watching those photographs you have no idea why you’re watching them. Maybe, when you get to the end, you might feel and remember them.

Scope: Is the situation of the former rural landowner ruling the present-day suburb something you’ve seen in Recife? In Brazil?

Mendonça Filho: I’m more interested in a state of mind than in hard facts. This idea came from a work experience I had ten years ago in a local company. The way the boss and owner dealt with the employees reminded me of what you’d expect from a landowner in a sugar-cane plantation. This is something people talk about in Pernambuco, part of local folklore, “So and so is a senhor de engenho…” It’s in the cultural DNA. Zero understanding of the needs of others, a rough perspective on things, a little like an old farm hand working in a 21st-century office.

Having said that, in the ‘70s I did live in a street in Casa Forte, a very traditional and even “aristocratic” neighborhood. My family rented a house on that street, the whole area belonged to one family. The patriarch used to ride his horse up and down the dirt road. This is in the middle of the city, but the street kept an atmosphere of tradition, down to the absence of asphalt. In fact, that street, which is almost a symbol of my childhood, is in the film itself.

I see a lot of good in my society, but ultimately, if you look at its “body language,” the way it moves and the things it does to people, it doesn’t seem to understand that altruism, solidarity, and identification with others are basic parts of human nature. It’s all there, of course, but when you read into it, there are far too many dividing lines, walls, and fences—a lot of distrust. The constant feeling of insecurity is part of the culture, embedded in the different social layers.

A lot of the things that happen to the lower classes in Brazil are not really met with the expected reaction, of “This is unfair.” There has been for many years an understanding that this is normal. “This is what happens to people like us. We are poor, and they are rich.” And I really do believe that over the last ten years, with Lula in Brasília, the lower classes see themselves with more respect. And I find this amazing, moving, and fascinating. I think Lula has changed the face of Brazil in so many ways.