Film : Interview

The Sound of Surveillance

by Ryan Sheldon

Kleber Mendonça Filho on his first feature-length work, Neighboring Sounds, a film with an eye towards the unsteady, often patriarchal relationships between classes and the illusion of security.

Irma Brown, W.J. Solha and Gustavo Jahn in Neighboring Sounds. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Neighboring Sounds is the first feature-length work by Brazilian auteur Kleber Mendonça Filho, and like the young director’s earlier efforts, it belies a keen eye for space, framing, and environmental textures. The film is a masterwork of economy and dramatic tension: it was shot almost exclusively in the environs around Filho’s Recife apartment building (a setting that he’s also explored in his shorter works), and its momentum comes not from any grand narrative gestures, but rather from small, episodic interventions and conflicts, impeccable uses of framing and geometry, and brilliant attention to the atmospheric potential of sound.

Neighboring Sounds might be considered a work of social realism—Filho’s own description locates it in the stylistic tradition of British New Wave directors like Ken Loach—and critics and audiences alike have found it to be a remarkably accurate examination of contemporary Brazilian society. The film makes an effort to represent an entire social spectrum in the microcosm of a Recife street; its cast includes a sugar magnate, Francisco, who owns most of the real estate in the surrounding area; his grandsons, Joao and Dinho (the latter of whom has become the neighborhood’s resident thug); a working class woman, Bea, and her family; and the ranks of hired staff who serve the local families. The unsteady, often patriarchal relationships between these classes provide fecund ground for explorations of social tension, and the proper narrative of Neighboring Sounds begins with the appearance of a private security detail—headed by a man named Clodoaldo—which, after securing the tentative blessing of Francisco, installs itself in the neighborhood and begins patrolling the area. Like the rest of the community’s service class, these guards make a show of deference to the residents—gladly throwing themselves into the neighborhood’s collective employ—but in doing so, assert themselves as the custodians and protectors of the very people they claim to serve. For the Brazilian upper class, whose wealth is accompanied by unshakable paranoia and fear of criminal victimization, money can’t buy security so much as its illusion; Neighboring Sounds actively exploits the anxieties of this system, which is ultimately founded on artifice, to great effect.

As its title suggests, the film is particularly concerned with the way sound generates atmosphere. Its soundtrack is a wonder of engineering, culled from snippets of quotidian background noise: television sets, traffic, appliances, overheard arguments. In Filho’s capable hands, the sound of shattering glass or a sudden, jarring burst of radio music becomes as alarming as the most dramatic of theatrical scores.

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Kleber Mendonça Filho via Skype. I count myself lucky in this respect; he was at a dinner party in Amsterdam, having only just screened the Neighboring Sounds at Film Festival Locarno in Switzerland. Despite the frenzy of distraction and activity around him, Filho spoke at length about the writing of the film, the importance of shooting ugly architecture, Brazilian social hierarchies, and of course, the art of composing a natural soundtrack.

Ryan Sheldon I wanted to start by discussing your work with sound in this film. More so than anything I’ve encountered recently, Neighboring Sounds makes an active and purposive use of sonic textures, and I wondered if you could speak to any intentions to experiment with that particular quality of the film.

Kleber Mendonça Filho You know, when you’re writing the script, you begin to play with what you think the film should be. One of the things was shooting widescreen: I could only picture shooting the film in widescreen, 235, in this case, 239 Technoscope. The other thing was that I never really thought about using a traditional music score because I think that for this film, I really wanted people to sit back and watch the action, even if there was no real action, or action set pieces or sequences. Whatever’s happening in the film, I wanted people to watch.

When you take away music, there is an interesting tension that arises, especially with today’s audiences, because all films are too mechanical in the way they—well, to my mind—try to show certain things or show what people do in their lives. The music kind of tells you to laugh or get emotional or get excited. I really like when I’m not sure of how I should react to a scene—when I’m left alone, it’s only me and the film, and I have to come up with a reaction. It is usually really interesting to observe an audience watching a film that does that to them. I program a cinema, so I see this all the time. Even as a cinephile, you go to the pictures and you kind of sense that the film is doing that, because there’s no music to hold onto.

This is something that was in the script; without the music, I thought that I would have to come up with a soundtrack that would be musical but in a very discrete and even mysterious way—sound effects and ambience would be the main ingredients for this.

If I did the job well, it would sound organic; it would not really sound like it was part of a plan. By adding all those sounds at specific moments,I hoped it would become like a carpet of sound, something that would be the basis of the soundtrack, and that would have to work with the story. For example, there is a scene where Bea has just had a fight with her sister and she locks herself in the bedroom, and she looks in the mirror and you can hear the voice of a neighbor on the telephone. It’s the kind of thing that we hear when buildings are very close to each other—we hear people on the telephone or screaming at the kids.

So those kinds of interventions came about because I needed to fill the soundtrack with these interesting bits and pieces that, when you hear the film, add some kind of texture to what you’re looking at.

RS I was glad to hear you use the word carpet, because what I was thinking of was a tapestry of sound—that’s certainly the effect. It’s also interesting to hear you talk about the desire to create a natural soundtrack; I would say you’ve succeeded, in that I wasn’t sure necessarily if the priority was to take a documentarian representational tack, or rather to create something using organic textures.

I was wondering on which side you fell. Was there an attempt to represent the environment as it was? It seems like you were more interested in engineering something new from a natural register of sound.

KMF You seem to be into sound, because you took the question one step further. The thing is, I don’t think it’s a documentarian approach, because what you’re looking at is a stylized representation of realism. My film would probably fit into social realism—you know, if you think in terms of the British New Wave of the ’60s, Ken Loach, those kinds of films. But at the same time, when you look at a movie screen, depending on the kind of film you’re going to watch, you expect certain kinds of images—that’s what we call cinematic. I know this might sound pretentious, but I had this very mundane and very normal environment where my film is set, I shot this film on the street where I live, the same city block where I live. I thought that if I gave the film this widescreen treatment, and put the camera in places that I found interesting, I would have an interesting tension between this very normal and realistic narrative and something which you might associate more with this idea of the cinematic. And it’s the same thing with the sound: although it’s very realistic, if you put on headphones and didn’t even watch the film, just heard the sounds, I think it’s a bit hyper-realistic.

When you listen to Apocalypse Now, which is supposed to be set in Vietnam in the ’60s, sometimes it sounds like a science-fiction film, because sometimes the sounds are so strange and juicy—it’s not just realistic, it’s something else. I think that maybe I could use the nightmare with the little girl [as an example,] because all the sounds there are very juicy, but I’m not sure you’d be able to tell what they are. What are they? I don’t think that you, as a viewer, could say, “that’s breaking glass,” because there is no breaking glass, even if breaking glass is very recognizable. That’s the most extreme example of that in this film, but a lot of the other sounds are just like that—they don’t sound alien in any way, but they do sound a little off, and I do think that helps create a certain atmosphere for the film.

RS Absolutely. I would go so far as to say that a lot of this is mood-driven. It is atmospheric—

KMF Just one thing about the mood: at a certain point, two of my friends suggested using drone music. You know drone music?

RS Yeah.

KMF And I did not want to use drone music, because that’s too easy; it’s one of the biggest sound clichés in cinema. It’s a weird sound that’s always there, particularly during weird scenes, and I didn’t want to use that because it’s readymade, like buying McDonalds. It’s part of a certain film culture: horror films and suspense films and serial killer films. They all have this drone, and it’s really hard to describe, it’s just like this (imitates drone music).

I didn’t want that in the film, because it would’ve been a cliché, like using a handheld camera to show social realism.

RS I think what you’ve managed to do in this film with sound far exceeds any of that. You can definitely deploy drone music to create this ominous, hovering mood, but Neighboring Sounds operates on an entirely different level, because any sort of tension that hovers in the air like that seems to arise out of a natural sonic landscape. The detail is so meticulously crafted in Neighboring Sounds and what’s interesting for me as a viewer is that as the sonic elements of day-to-day existence become hyper-present, profuse, and more and more salient, there’s actually a destabilizing effect: we don’t know how to process all of those details at once. Things get lost, and we’re almost more aware of what we’re still missing by virtue of encountering more detail. Which is an interesting contradiction.

KMF That would be the best possible reaction to the film, what you just described, yes.

Kleber Mendonça Filho, director of Neighboring Sounds. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

RS Did you know from the outset that you wanted to shoot this where you live, in an area that you’re deeply familiar with?

KMF Yes, but this is almost like a kind of personality defect, because I keep doing this in all of my films. Most of my short films were shot in and around my house; this is the third film that I’ve shot in my building. I’ve never really thought about doing anything different, because I think that this neighborhood is very photogenic. I think it photographs well, as much as I find it really ugly. There’s an interesting tension—too many straight lines, and not many curves. It’s basically all straight lines and right angles, and that somehow, in my mind, gives tension to these images.

Like I said, this was the third time that I used the location, but at the same time, it’s not special in any way; I could’ve done the film in Rio or Salvador or any big Brazilian city. Maybe even Buenos Aires, some other city in Latin America. Who knows? Maybe I could’ve done the film in Brooklyn, but of course, it would lose a lot of the peculiar cultural details that actually help define the mood and the story. If I really wanted to make a movie about people, and segregation, and class tension, I don’t think it would’ve been impossible to do in some other place, some other country, but . . . well, I didn’t. The surprising thing is that it’s being seen as a very accurate portrait of life in Brazil in 2012. That’s what I keep hearing, which I find really interesting because I never thought about doing some kind of travelogue, you know, without leaving my street. To me, it feels like it’s some album—a photo album—of a very peculiar reality. It’s a place that I’ve been photographing for almost twenty years. I have many pictures from the ’90s shot on 35 mm. And I have some videos and the short films in 35 mm, and now this film. It’s just a place that I know quite well.

RS That’s interesting, because just now you said that you could’ve shot it elsewhere. What’s critical is the decision to shoot within a confined space—we do move to the sugar mill for a bit later in the film—but a lot of the action is so concentrated. Working within a system like that—did it force you to explore social architectures, to dig deeper into the layers of this really complex milieu that seems kind of contained, but is obviously multifaceted on social and economic levels?

KMF Well, yes, I love architecture. Right now I’m in Amsterdam, and I was just talking to friends about the windows here—they are huge. Brazilians would never use windows like this, you can see right into the ground floor houses, you can see people watching television as you walk past on the street. What does that tell us? It’s a country, it’s a culture that’s very open and doesn’t really fear anything. Just by looking at a window, you find out a little bit about the way the country is. Same thing with Brazil—you look at the high perimeter walls and the security systems and the way society’s laid out, and the way society builds its houses and buildings, you get a pretty good reading on what society’s doing to itself. It’s quite simple; all you have to do is look around.

This is something that I said yesterday during a Q&A: I think bad architecture is really good for film and photography, because there’s tension there. Bad architecture does bad things to people. It makes people feel small, it’s kind of humiliating, it gets in the way. It’s not friendly in any way. Good architecture is great, of course, but I don’t think it photographs well because it doesn’t create any tension—that’s my take on it, anyway. My film is full of terrible architecture, architecture that calls a lot of attention to itself. I think it works well as a narrative device too, especially when you see a character and you see how he or she is related to the space around them. That’s a very dramatic and cinematic image in any film. We all have our favorite films that deal with architecture, which show architecture in a very interesting way. I wanted my film to have that quality. That was my small, pretentious desire when I set out to make the film.

RS The framing in a lot of these shots relies so heavily on those right angles that you’re talking about. Windows, for instance. You have so many shots of Bea, I noticed, across the same window from different vantages. There are so many shots that look up and down high rises, so many shots across fences. So there’s certainly a great attention to the geometries of space and architecture.

Let’s talk a bit about the themes of security and surveillance in the film—there’s a nice segue, here, in that we’ve been talking about the way you see people across things in this film. The head of the private security outfit, Clodoaldo, makes his entrance effectively by saying “we observed the lack of security and came over ourselves.” That’s fantastic, the idea that the problem—the instability—is initially insisted upon from the outside. The prominence of security, and the film’s preoccupation with watching people, with seeing and hearing, and the limits, or alternatively, the extents to which you can accomplish those things in a confined space like this makes viewers of very much aware of the nature of their viewership. I’m interested in how the premise of the film came about for you.

KMF Well that one is easy. My wife and I were at home, the bell rang, we went downstairs, and there was this guy. He basically told us everything that you hear in the film: he was a security person, working with a private security firm, and he was coming in now to work for the street, and he said he would be very happy to look out for us. If we ever got home late, say after midnight, he would be glad to open the gate for us, and blah blah blah . . . We basically said, “Who sent you here?” And he said, “We came ourselves. We thought that the street needed a service like this.”

And we were the only people on the whole street that didn’t think it was a good idea. The Brazilian middle class, they love to be served—it’s a very patriarchal society, and we still have the DNA of slavery going on, and labor is very cheap. So we struggled with that idea for a while, but after almost two years, we actually observed that they worked. These were not bad guys coming into the street—they were actually working. Because everyone was paying them, they were out in the street doing whatever good job they were doing, so we decided, Yeah, let’s pay. Let’s collaborate now.

And I thought that would be a really interesting idea for a film: someone comes out of nowhere—out of the blue—and the difference between him and me was that he was wearing a vest. I could’ve done the same thing just by putting a vest on, which is ludicrous. It’s completely absurd. And no one ever asked them for a CV, or asked, “Have you ever done karate, or kung fu,” or, “Can you shoot? Can you use firearms?” There was nothing like that, it was just this guy saying he was who he said he was. He had a vest, and magically he was a security man.

RS Fundamentally, it’s a costume.

KMF It’s a costume, right. I’d never thought of that, but that’s what it is, as much a costume as what we used in the film, a special costume from costume design. That’s fascinating because it just shows how fragile a lot of concepts are in society, including politicians and the police. (performs dialogue) “Why are you a politician?” “Because I was elected.” “And why were you elected?” “I don’t know.”

It turns out that this is something that a lot of people react to. It’s funny—they react in the same way that Joao and his uncle react: they’re incredulous. They’re like, “Can you believe this guy?”

But the guards in the film seem to be doing something. A good job. They help out the Argentinian guy. A lot of people think they’re going to do something bad to him, but they help him.

RS That’s a fantastic moment. It is very tense because there’s always that uncertainty about what the guards’ intentions are. That mystery is inherent in the phenomenon you just described, where people assert themselves in a social role attended by some measure of authority, but you don’t know where that authority is coming from.

KMF For Brazilian audiences, there’s an extra layer of tension, because the guy’s from Argentina. There’s an ancient rivalry there, bad vibes going on between Brazilians and Argentinians, kind of like the French and the English, the British and the Australians. You know, because of football (laughter). But because the guy’s Argentinian, there’s an extra layer of tension.

Irma Brown, W.J. Solha and Gustavo Jahn in Neighboring Sounds. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

RS You spoke about this impulse or desire that you find to be pretty prevalent among members of the Brazilian middle class to be served. There’s a highly socially investigative, if not critical element to this film. You’ve just referenced a patriarchy, and it’s odd, because on the one hand, you could understand it as a matter of class entitlement—one needs to be protected, and deserves that protection—but it’s also being reiterated or perpetuated by a serving class that has invested itself with power—that is, the security guards who have established themselves as an authority force in the neighborhood. Does that exploit some kind of class-based paranoia that is prevalent in Brazilian society at large?

KMF You mean from the security guys?

RS Yeah, are they capitalizing on that?

KMF Of course. They feed on fear, which is widespread. You know, I get to travel a lot, and I don’t think there’s another country where constant underlying fear exists so much as in Brazil—in Brazilian life and society. I was in Locarno last week, and of course it’s 100% safe—it’s Switzerland!—but still, I’ve been trained to look over my shoulder all the time. This is just part of how we operate in Brazil. Maybe an American coming to Switzerland would feel totally at home, because there’s not so much urban tension in the US. Maybe in some areas of Los Angeles there is . . .

But that fear is terrible, because we do have to be very careful, and that makes us very paranoid in big cities in Brazil. And people capitalize on that. There’s so many security firms, and the incident portrayed in the film—just about every upper middle-class street in Recife has its own little team of amateur security guys. It’s just part of how things work: I will serve you, because that’s how society operates. And it happens on many different levels, other than security.

RS The self-installation of the security guards in the neighborhood is almost coercive. What’s doubly insidious is that it basically amounts to extortion, in that [the guards] say, “You need to pay us for protection,” but it also forces a concession of personal authority and one’s right to privacy. You’re effectively giving someone the right to watch you all the time.

KMF That was one of the strongest themes in the film. When I finished the script and started rereading it, I realized that the film was actually composed of a series of invasions, and that most of these invasions come about as a result of the very peculiar relationships that exist within Brazilian society between the classes.

Again, we were talking yesterday in a Q&A with this woman, and she pointed out that in a place like Holland, the cleaning lady who comes once a week to her house, that’s a purely professional relationship. In Brazil, the maid is a professional, but at the same time she’s like a child of that house—she probably grew up in that house, or has been working in that house for twenty years, and her kids probably often go to that house. She’s almost like a friend, a mother, and a sister to the kids in the house, but she’s still the maid. And, because she works there, she has access to that house. If the people who live there leave town and travel, she will have access to that house. There are so many incidents—I’m not sure I could even call them “incidents”—of the family of the staff taking over the house after people leave. Maybe “taking over” isn’t fair, they’ll just go to the house one Sunday and stay there, maybe watch some big-screen television.

The way Brazilian society works, these invasions are possible. You have the nightmare invasion—the worst invasion possible, the place being overrun by all kinds of people, Assault on Precinct 13 style. Then you have Joao coming back and finding his friend, the maid’s son, sleeping on the couch, her granddaughter doing homework on the table. Then there’s Clodoaldo and his girl, when they go into the house to have sex—they have the keys, so they invade this house and go in, and they’re not aware that there’s already someone else in the house. All these invasions, they really appeal to me, because there’s something about invasion that brings a lot of tension. The whole idea of violence has to do with invasion and war. But when you turn that concept into very small-scale incidents, that’s when I become more interested. Rather than, I don’t know, shooting the Normandy landings. That wouldn’t interest me. These very small set pieces, though, I thought that would be interesting. But I only realized it after I finished the script.

RS Another thing I wanted to ask about is how the writing of this film went. Did you conceive of the narrative in its entirety before you started writing, or was it something that evolved out of the set-up? Did you establish a framework rife with these tensions and then explore a specific narrative possibility—I don’t want to spoil the film’s denouement—but was the narrative arc something coherent in your mind from the outset, or was it something that came into being as you wrote the script?

KMF No, believe it or not, I wrote this film because I had many, many starting points—one of them was the arrival of this private security firm—but I really started writing the film because I spent years thinking about many of the ideas in the film, and one day I realized there was a deadline for a contest coming up. I sat down and wrote the first draft in eight days. I asked for a week off work—I used to work as a film critic—and then I wrote the first draft and something really cool happened. It was like when you first read a novel and you’re very interested in the book, and sometimes you have to stop reading because you have to go to work, or go to the supermarket or the post office, and you just want to go back home because you want to go on reading the book. I just wanted to go back home to keep writing; I wanted to find out what was happening. It was a very special process. It was not painful at all, I didn’t have writer’s block or anything. I just wrote the thing, and when I reached the end, I thought that could be an interesting ending, but I wasn’t sure.

I made the deadline, but I didn’t win. But I got some interesting feedback from the committee; [the script] went all the way to the final stages. And that made me happy. I thought, maybe I have something. Over the next year, I kept adding details and new scenes, but the original draft never lost a scene; I just kept adding details up until we started shooting. The film is frighteningly faithful to the script. I say that this is frightening because I don’t think films should be faithful to scripts; they have to evolve the way they have to evolve. But this one was quite faithful.

RS And yet it sounds like the script itself evolved a great deal, which I imagine was something of a luxury of the premise, which naturally allows for a bunch of little narrative offshoots, even if they’re just minor scenes, or to use your phrase, invasions. It’s an idea which can be explored on an episodic scale. There’s a moment, for instance, when Fernando and the other guard are on their own, and a car comes into the neighborhood. It turns around immediately, but that’s a very tense moment. What’s fascinating is that in those moments you see even the guards start to grow uneasy in their station after they’ve established their authority in the neighborhood. You see them becoming aware of the limits of what they can do.

This ties back into the social dynamics of the film, too. There’s that great confrontation with Dinho, where he comes down and threatens the guards—

KMF Threatens them with nothing.

RS Basically with a class division.

KMF Yes.

RS He calls on a socioeconomic hierarchy, but it’s ironic in that it’s that lofty position which necessitates the presence of the guards—or at least, that’s their argument: you all need to be protected because you’re important people. So to threaten them with his social importance after that dynamic has been established is rather futile. Yet it does invoke long-standing social command; the politics of it is very complex.

KMF The woman who comes out of that car is a classic rich girl—probably coming from some graduation party, maybe a wedding—completely drunk. The guards are there working, and it’s raining, and this woman gets out of the car wearing this horrible red gown, and she’s throwing up, and they realize that. There’s kind of a discreet tension in the way they watch her. People seem to think something really terrible is going to happen, but I think that comes from film culture. I would like to believe that it’s not Neighboring Sounds that’s making them think that, but maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s the way the sequence is set up that’s making them think that.

RS I don’t know if it’s necessarily that, but the film recommends or forces you to keep up a level of suspicion, of paranoia, which is great. It’s not as though we feel more secure from our position in the audience for knowing more or having more observational inroads; I think we’re actually less secure, because we’re more engaged with the activity of surveillance. We’re subject to many of the same paranoid impulses that the characters in the film are.

KMF Yeah, it’s always fun to observe the reaction of the audience to the film. I haven’t really seen it during the last few screenings, but I might see it again on Thursday, at the Brazilian premiere.

RS What are your plans for future films, if you can speak to that at all? This was a pretty groundbreaking work, and I can’t help but wonder what your next project will be like.

KMF It’s funny, the way you just asked gives me stage fright, thinking about the second film. I have a half-written script, and we have about a fifth of the budget secured, and it’s a completely different project. Maybe it’s similar to Neighboring Sounds in many ways, but the format is different. It’s a film about how we represent other people who come from different social classes and cultures, which I think is something that is embedded in Neighboring Sounds, but this film is more specifically about that. It’s a film about someone who makes films and goes off on a special assignment, and she has to make a film about people that the screenwriter and the producer think are simple, but they’re not really simple. I’m still working on the script, and we might have the funding by next year.

I’m still enjoying the whole thing with Neighboring Sounds. It’s been great. But I have so many ideas—I’m kind of at a crossroads, and now I have to make the right choice.

Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds is now screening at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center.

Ryan Sheldon is a fiction writer living in New York. He also writes for BOMBlog about books, film, and music.