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July 23, 2012 | by  | in Arts Film |
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That’s When Good Neighbours Become Good Friends: An Interview With Kleber Mendonca Filho

I meet Kleber Mendonça Filho, a Brazilian filmmaker currently receiving plaudits at festivals across the world for his debut feature-length film, Neighbouring Sounds, on a windy, rainy, downright terrible Wellington day. Finding shelter in a cafe, Filho replies to a question about the weather with what is quickly identified as a characteristic thoughtfulness. “I’m familiarised with different temperatures. A lot of Brazilians actually cherish cold weather; they actually look forward to rainy days because it’s exotic, it’s strange and it makes a difference.”

Filho has spent a lot of time thinking about the weather—his last film, 2009’s award-winning Recife Frio (Cold Tropics), was a science fiction piece investigating how cultures are informed by climate. “Essentially, we are tropical,” Filho explains. “The whole of Brazil is tropical.” It’s a cultural identity that’s given the film particular resonance in its home nation. “As somebody from New Zealand, I wonder if you’ll really feel what the film is about; the reactions in Brazil were so strong because Brazilians can relate. They’re very tropical and, for Brazilians, cold is actually a sign of sophistication. If you think about the Swedes or the British or the Germans, cold is boring and a sign of sophistication would be the sunshine, or buying yourself an expensive holiday in Jamaica.”

Like all of his fiction films, Recife Frio is set in Filho’s hometown, the coastal metropolis of Recife. This decision to use his stomping ground as his muse isn’t just one of expedience and familiarity, though, Filho says. “Once you understand that’s where you work and that’s where you shoot [and get past that], there are a lot of specific themes that interest me. One of them is urbanism—or the lack of it. […] Architecture is very photogenic, it photographs very well. There is an instant drama out of the way that people build stuff and it doesn’t really work, because it’s really designed to keep the exterior elements out; this whole thing with paranoia and security and the different social layers of Brazilian society.”

Such themes have long been features in Filho’s work, traceable back to his Argento- influenced 1997 short Caged In. From Green Vinyl’s modern-day Grimm fairytale about the consequences of a young girl’s curiosity, to Electrodomestica’s images of gates within gates and fences within fences, Filho has built a filmography out of giving form to these anxieties. These anxieties are reflected in Neighbouring Sounds’ primary narrative strand about the incursion of a private security firm into a Recife suburb, something drawn from his own experience. “These guys came over and offered their services, and everybody thought it was great, and me and my wife were the only ones going, ‘How? Why? What are your credentials?’” Filho explains. “They only had a vest and an attitude. Anybody could do that! But that gives an idea of how needy people are in terms of needing to feel safer.”

Neighbouring Sounds, much like Filho’s other films, evokes those anxieties through its visuals as well as the narrative. “Neighbouring Sounds is very wide,” Filho explains. “It’s not only a wide-screen film but the shots are very wide—because I really like to see the characters in relation to where they are, to the film space. In some of the shots they even look like little mice in those little mazes, and I like that, because that’s how a lot of us live in the big city. We are always following the maze, trying to get around and trying to find our way through the maze.”

Further twists in the presentation are achieved through the cinematography. “The thing with cinema is that, sometimes, you’re framing the shot and then you’ll look through the viewfinder and you’ll go, ‘No no no, just a little bit more to the left,’” Filho describes, “and [the DP will] go, ‘But, why?’ and then it’s ‘just a little bit more to the left,’ and then he looks through the viewfinder and he says, ‘that’s slightly off-centre, isn’t it?’ Exactly. So that creates a strange reaction from whoever’s watching the film. It’s a completely normal shot of a corridor or a hall; it’s still a corridor, but there’s something about the shot that’s slightly off.”

Thankfully, that sense of something being off hasn’t turned audiences off his films, with Neighbouring Sounds winning the FIPRESCI Prize at Rotterdam Film Festival. “Twenty years ago I dreamed of this. Now I realise that it’s happening and it’s a really good thing, but you have to be very humble, also. Each film is a different battle.”

Neighbouring Sounds is screening at The Paramount on August 4. 

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