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First Look: Kleber Mendonça Filho

by Dennis Lim

Listen to Kleber Mendonça Filho discuss his short films and his first feature, Neighboring Sounds, as part of last month's First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image.


Still from Green Vinyl by Kleber Mendonça Filho. Image courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image.



Kleber Mendonça Filho and Dennis Lim on Mendonça Filho's short films.

This podcast is presented in partnership with Museum of the Moving Image, where Kleber Mendonça Filho participated in a Q&A with Dennis Lim following a a retrospective of his short films during the Museum's First Look 2013 showcase on January 13, 2013.

Kleber Mendonça Filho I think I was just lucky to be able to make the film I wanted to make at the time I wanted to make it, and I had the means, even if some of them are very crude, very raw and small, and simple, technically. But I could make them, and that's what happened basically. They were done in completely different technical means, like The Little Cotton Girl, which in fact should have been screened with sub titles.

DL Yeah, maybe we should actually fill people in on what the subtitles said?

KMF Yeah, its basically explains this urban legend. When I was eight or nine years old, I used to go to this school and there was the legend of the little cotton girl, and she would appear in the restrooms in the school. She had cotton wool stuffed up her nose. Of course me and all the kids, and my friends, were terrified of the idea of seeing her during break time so we wouldn't pee in the school. We would wait hours just to pee at home because it was so terrifying.

So I did this Final Cut Pro workshop when I bought my first computer and then I met Daniel, and he's still one of my best friends, and we made the film together with one CDC camera. I was just lucky to be able to make different films, and they express different feelings I had at the time. Some of the ideas were strong enough for to go on and really finish them.

DL I think especially in this country, people think of short films often as calling cards: people make shorts and then they make features. Do you look at this as a distinct phase of your career? Do you expect to continue making short films? Do you not really see the distinction? The evolution is quite clear, the people who have seen Neighboring Sounds will see that a lot of themes are developed further in the feature.

KMF I think it's more natural and more . . . Anybody here can make a feature. Anybody here tonight can start making a feature, but it wouldn't be very natural if you think in terms of process. Making short films you can just make them in an easier way, in a more affordable way. But I do not think that short films are calling cards for features, this is something a lot of people say and think in Brazil, "So you made this just like a demo of what you can do?"

And I would say No, it just happened that Neighboring Sounds came after all these films. Yeah, I think it's natural that you make short films and then features, but I think each and every one of these films, for me, they are important films, you know, as films. I look at Electrodomestica. I don't think it's a short film, it's just a film, but society applies different values to what you do. This is something out of your control and you can't really. . . Suddenly I get more action, more response, and more respect, because I made a feature.

But for short films these were very . . . These went everywhere. They were shown in many different places. They are short films, but they did very well, especially because they're short films. But I think it has more to do with what society does to the film than my feeling towards these films.

DL You mention Electrodomestica, which I think is the one that has maybe the most similarities with Neighboring Sounds—very similar setting, a character whose . . . they have a similar relationship with their appliances. (laughter)

Can you talk a bit how the short originated and also how you thought of the feature? Some of the things in Neighboring Sounds—the way you shoot the architecture, the way you emphasize barriers—are all there very briefly, but definitely there in the short.

Where did Electrodomestica come from? What were you trying to do with that one?

KMF It came from . . . I think the spark right in the beginning was my family came to the U.S. on holiday in 1991 and on our way back at Miami International Airport, I saw a pyramid of stuff: microwave ovens, and VCRs, and fax machines. This is the stuff the Brazilian tourists were taking back with them, back to Brazil. I thought that it was really kind of absurd, that so much electronic stuff was being taken back to the country. And then two years later we had this financial package, which basically extinguished inflation, and that's when Brazilians really discovered the power of consumerism because we were stuck in this culture of inflation for many years, well, for two or three decades, in fact. And then people just began to buy, you know, and they were crazy buying all kinds of stuff for the home. And that's how the idea for Electrodomestica came. So, it's really about mechanics and electricity and consumerism. That's what that film is about. But when I started writing Neighboring Sounds, that character just without saying, "Excuse me", she just came into the script. And I felt it would be wise to leave her in the script, but at the same time make her different, make her more loving towards the kids. Less mechanical and more organic, and that's how I see her in Neighboring Sounds. She is the same character, but she's completely different.

DL I wanted to ask you about Neighboring Sounds as well, as Rachael mentioned earlier, the museum is showing it Saturday as apart of the Curator's Choice Series of the best films of last year. I think people here might've seen it, so feel free to ask questions in a bit, but I wanted to ask you to just talk a little bit about the reactions to Neighboring Sounds, especially in Brazil, where the film just opened not long ago. You actually showed the film around the world before having a local premiere, and I'm wondering what that was like? In some ways it's a very specific film, it's a film as local as you can get: it's shot in your home, in your street, your neighborhood. You premiered it abroad, you showed it everywhere, you got mostly very positive reactions I would say, and then you took it back to Brazil. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the reactions there and how they compared with international reactions.

KMF Well, yes, everything that happened to the film—we showed it for the first time February 1st—and everything that happened to the film was very surprising. As you said, I thought it was almost a procural kind of film, I just made it the best I could, and that's what all filmmakers do, and that doesn't mean anything. You can get bad reactions or good reactions, which are, you know, more rare. And the film got amazing reactions, and yes, I showed it many different places. Audiences seemed to appreciate the film, but they seem to be very afraid of the film. Everybody was tense watching the film. When I started showing it in Brazil, I realized the same thing happened with Brazilian audiences, but they seem to laugh more, and I always suspected the film had some moments which I thought were kind of funny, and they really picked up on that. The film suddenly became funnier and still very tense in Brazil.

But right now what happens is there's a lot of reaction to the film, like, why is it that the middle class isn't more a part of Brazilian cinema? And for me, that's a crazy discussion because all Brazilian filmmakers—all of them—come from bourgeois middle class. But apparently, most of them—I wouldn't say all of them—but most of them are pointing their cameras to other places which is something that people miss. And now with Neighboring Sounds there's a huge discussion going on, because it is a film that shows a very truthful account of life in Brazil and life today in Brazil. The film is doing really well right now, even though it's a reasonably small release. But there's a lot of reaction to this intimacy with our lives, which I think should be, you know, what most films should do. But for some reason it's not what we have right now.

DL To what extent is Neighboring Sounds or your other work,a reaction to what Brazilian cinema does and doesn't show‚ to what you perceive as the gaps in Brazilian cinema? Were you interested in making films about this milieu, or the setting, simply because it wasn't represented to a large degree?

KMF Yes, I think . . . I always says this: sometimes you're taking part in a discussion, like a, whatever. Sometimes you're just there, and people are talking and somebody says something, and you feel like putting your hand up, and saying, "It's not really like that. I have something to say."

And I think making films is very much like this. When I did Green Vinyl and Little Cotton Girl, I felt that as a viewer of Brazilian cinema, I wanted to see something that had to do with the fantastique. With ghosts, or something more towards horror. We just don't have that. We have the amazing work of José Mojica Marins's Coffin Joe from the '60s‚—amazing films—but he's always been some kind of outcast within Brazilian cinema because, you know, you just don't make those kind of films, "They're in bad taste."

In over the last 20 or 30 years, we haven't had the . . . I couldn't name one single film that dealt with science fiction, or horror, or suspense, or something like that. Some of my short films are like, I have something to say. Maybe we can make a film of science fiction, of the absurd, and that's Cold Tropics, Green Vinyl, and The Little Cotton Girl. And the other stuff, it's very obvious: making films about life. The way we live it in Brazilian society, and that's Electrodomestica and Neighboring Sounds. At the same time, Green Vinyl and The Little Cotton Girl, they belong to the fantastique, but there's a lot of reality in there because I think it makes it more powerful. I don't think I would make a film in a Transylvanian castle somewhere. I'd rather make a film about ghosts in this museum, maybe. Because it would be more interesting. You know, shooting it in some castle somewhere

DL Let's open it up for some questions about either the films that we've just seen, or Neighboring Sounds, or anything else.

Audience Member (Question inaudible)

KMF Oh, that one Cold Tropics was very much guerilla-style filmmaking. Two years and nine months shooting the film. And we only shot the film on rainy days. And they're really hard to come by in Recife because from the script stage, I banned the possibility of shooting with sanctuary, because it goes against the very nature of the Recife image, especially . . . Recife is sold everywhere because it's like sunshine land. So I would have to go the other way, and show it in a way that's like . . . if they were going to show a publicity video or film, and it begins to rain, they cancel the shooting and they have to wait for the proper sunshine. So we did the opposite because no one had seen Recife like that before. So it took a long time and a lot of patience, and it's the kind of film that you can only make when you have a one-track mind. You have to really go after the film and get it. And it took us a long time. Very small crew. Three people. Me and two other people.

DL You said that that one had shown less than the others, or less widely than the other films.

KMF Cold Tropics? Yeah, that's a really interesting film. It did play in some good international film festivals, but it's mostly a Brazilian hit, because I think the whole idea of the film doesn't really translate outside Brazil. Because, of course, here in New York you know all about feeling cold. The cold is just not part of Brazilian reality, especially in northeastern Brazil. The cold is something . . . just to give you an idea, even in São Paulo, the people like to brag that they actually have cold. That's the first thing. But when it's winter time in São Paulo, which is July and August and June, they actually drive up to the mountains to feel really sophisticated and to feel cold. Which is like the Swedes going to Spain in Summer, because it's warm. It's just the other way around. So that's the whole idea behind Refice Frio and I don't think it translates to . . . I showed it in Rotterdam and this lady took it as a . . . she thought it was a documentary. She thought it was a real documentary about something that she missed. She never . . . this is serious! At the end of the Q&A, she said, "I never knew that this took place." I said, "What took place?" "The climate change in the place where you live." "Well, I'm sorry, it's a mockumentary, it's science fiction." So they just don't get it, and I think a Brazilian understands it. It's in our DNA. We are tropical people. That's why I think it didn't really play. When it did play, I think a lot of the humor was lost because people just don't understand what it feels like not to feel cold. Our coldest in winter, in Recife, is about 74 degrees fahrenheit. This is a cold evening in Recife.

DL I don't know, I think the satirical, mockumentary thing does translate very well, and I noticed the Monty Python acknowledgement at the end. So I'm assuming that was an influence.

KMF I just love them. But I think I stopped doing this. I'm not sure it's such a good idea to thank all your heroes at the end of the film. I think it puts people too much in the right direction in terms of what you should get out of the film. So I avoided that in Neighboring Sounds, and it's very funny because in the first four or five months of Neighboring Sounds, I was very tight-lipped about my references, and then I started to relax more, and started to talk about John Carpenter. But I didn't do that in Neighboring Sounds, and all my films have Special Thanks to the ghosts of cinema past who came to the film, just out of the blue.

DL More questions?

Audience Member (Question inaudible)

DL Just to repeat, I think your question was about what Kleber was saying about Brazilian cinema and whether there was a movement against the dominant images.

KMF Well, the first evidence is the complete lack of films that deal with the fantastique. That's the first evidence, they just don't exist. The few films I have seen, they're like student projects. And I'm not against student films, but the ones that don't work, they're just student projects. The good ones, they stop being student projects and become films, which happen to have been made in school. But one thing that I could tell you is when I did Green Vinyl, which was very well-received, it went to the Quinzaine in Cannes, the Director's Fortnight. But still, some very . . . older critics, they dismissed it as some kind of joke. They couldn't really see the film that I made. It was basically a joke, because, of course, it's not realistic, and it's all about mutilation, and it doesn't make any sense. So that was the reaction that I felt. But then, my next film was Electrodoméstica, and the same critics now took it seriously, because it was realistic. So I really felt the kind of prejudice against this kind of cinema, and it comes from a certain circle of the all-powerful people of Brazilian cinema, and the jury members in some festivals, which I heard later that they just dismissed the film as some kind of trashy whatever, because it dealt with horror and suspense, and that's not really the kind of thing we're looking for. But the first evidence really is the complete absence of films like that. In fact, the last one we had was José Mojica Marins's last film, which premiered in Venice. I can't remember the title now. His last film is a proper horror film, because it has always been dismissed. But we just don't make these films.

Neighboring Sounds, and I actually drew a line when I was writing the script, and I drew a line and said, "This is going to feel, if it works right, it's going to feel a little bit like you're watching a horror film, but it's never going to cross the line." There are no real ghosts in the film. I think there are a lot of ghosts in Neighboring Sounds, but no one can actually point and say, "That's a real ghost." And this is something that I wanted to try out and I think atmosphere, sometimes, is stronger than the proper idea, where you say, "That is a ghost." You, know, of course, Apichatpong does wonderful things with ghosts in some of his latest films, and I'd like to go back and do a film with proper ghosts, like The Little Cotton Girl. But not in Neighboring Sounds, that's a different kind of approach.

DL You do have a couple of dream/nightmare sequences in Neighboring Sounds.

KMF But that's a dream, so you can do anything. But that's my biggest excuse, it's almost like I'm cheating. And you've just exposed my cheat. Yes, the nightmare sequences are all-out horror film material, but I can always say it's a dream.

Audience Member (Question inaudible)

KMF That's another detail that might get lost in translation. In Cold Tropics, the narrator, the television presenter, he's Argentinian, so he speaks Spanish. In the beginning, I always wanted to have a foreign observer. I spent my teenage years in England, and there was a wonderful television show, called Do They Mean Us? It was basically this guy from the BBC and he would present bits and pieces from world television, but always discussing or showing England. And it was very funny because it's like if I'm talking to Dennis, he's a friend, I'm talking to him. But if I'm talking about Dennis to somebody else, and Dennis did something that I didn't like, I would talk about Dennis in a very surly or maybe sarcastic or maybe even in a negative way, but he's not listening. But then he finds a way of listening to my conversation with somebody else, and that was the idea of this television show in England. So I wanted to have a foreign observer of Brazil, of Brazilian culture, saying the kind of thing that maybe Brazilians shouldn't here. Especially because he's Argentinian, and we have this thing with Argentinians. It's like the French and the British, or maybe the Canadians and the Americans. And yeah, have a Canadian program discussing the United States. I think Michael Moore did that in Fahrenheit 9/11. So that was the idea of having this Argentinian guy, talking about Brazil in a way that Brazilians probably wouldn't like. So that was the main idea.

And about Recife, for industrial reasons, Rio and São Paulo, they've always been the center of film production, up until the ’90s. In Recife, if we wanted to make a proper film in 35mm, we would have to bring cameras and film. We didn't have any film labs. We still don't. And sound equipment and light and everything. It was very expensive, and that restricted film production locally. But with the digital revolution at the end of the ’90s, and more strongly over the last ten years, local production became free. And with the funds and with the success of local films, now Recife actually has the strongest film scene. Not commercial film scene, but auteur-driven, personal films. We have a new one coming out in Rotterdam this month, it's called They Come Back, a very beautiful film. And throughout 2012, we had a lot of good or interesting films coming out of Recife. And now that everything's gone digital, we have no more obstacles in terms of production. So we make from very small films to expensive films. Yeah, you can calibrate films and mix films in Recife now in ways you couldn't do, even seven years ago. So it has to do with technology.

Audience Member (Question inaudible)

KMF I think class tension is everywhere. It's actually something that I found out. Well, it's not that I found out. But going to so many places with Neighboring Sounds, it's interesting to have an Australian come up to me and discuss class tension, or somebody in Denmark, in Copenhagen, also discussing class tension. It's very much part of Brazilian society, because, well, we had slavery and it was abolished in 1888, but Brazilian society did nothing to welcome the new citizens of Brazil, at the time. And we still suffer a lot of the effects of that. And class tension is something that makes Brazilian society tick. And it's amazing that it's portrayed in such an absent-minded way in Brazilian soap operas and a lot of Brazilian films. It's like your uneducated and black, so you should know you're place, and this is the hero, and he or she has blue eyes, and they look like they come from Stockholm. And that's basically the image we still have in Brazilian television. So in my films I just try to do the obvious, which is that class tension is everywhere, and this is something people are responding and reacting to in neighboring cities and towns. But for me, it's obvious because it's part of our lives. That's why and how it comes into my films, because I think it's obvious. It should always be addressed, and it is absurd. The sequence with the maid's room in Cold Tropics, that is still very much discussed. It was a short film, but it was a hot topic for discussion. When everybody in Brazil, basically from the middle class and bourgeois, they have a maid and they have a maid's room. But they didn't realize that it was an extension of slave quarters. Everybody should know, but they seem to have learned from the film. Which was absurd, it doesn't make any sense.

DL You are often described in the press as a former critic. You gave up criticism to make Neighboring Sounds. Was that the only reason you gave it up? I mean, you were an active critic, writing weekly while you made all these films. And also had a full-time job as a programmer, which you still do. So can you talk a bit about those activities and how they relate to your filmmaking practice? Just being involved in criticism and programming, as well.

KMF I think I just like cinema, and ended up working in different ways with film. And I started writing professionally in '97. And I quit in March 2010, because I had to go into preproduction for Neighboring Sounds. And I was already very tired of writing, because by then I had become a professional opinion machine. I would write about most films, which is actually something that I miss, because today, I only go and watch the films that I want to watch, as a normal person, rather than as a professional film critic.

DL Isn't that a good thing?

KMF It is, but then at the same time, I miss a lot of the films that I had to watch professionally. And then you make wonderful discoveries, when you have to watch The 40-Year-Old Virgin, for example. Which is a film and that I would have never have gone and seen at the time. And I discovered a film that really surprised me, in many ways. The Judd Apatow film. And today I just don't watch . . . I only watch the films that I really want to watch. And I even took out my press thing which allowed me to watch the films for free. I don't have that anymore. And so the other thing I found is that I'm not going to the cinema anymore, but I can watch on HD television. And then I record the films, and I sit down, and I'm going to watch Transformers 3 now. And after ten minutes, I say, "I don't have to watch this." And then I'm just not watching the films anymore, because I give up after ten minutes, 15 minutes, sometimes half an hour. Because I have other things to do, and when I was a critic I had to watch the films. I would never leave the screenings as a film critic. And this is something that I actually miss. But I was very tired, and today I'm happier because I don't have to write all the time. It's great when you write when you want to, but not for a daily newspaper.

DL I should point out that you actually made a film about criticism, a documentary. So you do actually have great interest in the practice. The history and the purpose of criticism.

KMF Yeah, because I think film criticism is really about sharing cinema. And I think that's when you're most successful as a film critic. It's not when you write a negative . . . well, in fact, you can write a negative review and still make somebody curious about the film. That's a really interesting situation. But sharing your love for film is probably the best thing about film criticism. And unfortunately, film criticism has become—or maybe it always was like this. If we go back to the 1940s and read the magazines or newspapers back then, or maybe it was the same thing. We like to say that it has become a two thumbs up, one thumb down kind of a . . . almost like a weekend consultant of where you should put your money. And that's really kind of depressing. I never wrote something like, "Save your money, stay at home, avoid this." I really don't like that kind of approach to film criticism. You should always share cinema through film criticism. And that's something that's beautiful in criticism.

DL And just lastly, what about continuing to program. What do you get out of that, and why are you still?

KMF It's the same thing. It's sharing film. Sharing the idea of cinema. This is something that I still do and I really, really enjoy. People coming to see a film that if it wasn't for your work, they wouldn't see that film. But maybe this is something that you should see. And to see people discovering that film, making the discovery, it's really . . . it's very similar to film criticism, because you are using whatever power to have to bring an idea of cinema. And today the industry brings always the same kinds of film. So curators and programmers are very, very important. And film critics are very important. To show that the world is much bigger and more interesting than that. So that's why I think . . . maybe it's a little bit of a utopia, but if you think in terms of small-scale, having an impact on people, I think it's well worth the trouble and the effort that you put into that kind of work. It's something that I love to do.

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