Interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho on Observing Small-Scale Incidents in “Neighboring Sounds”

Kleber Mendonça Filho remembers the first time he was in America, he was driving his family up the California coast up to San Francisco when he stopped off in Santa Cruz to get some gas late at night.

“The whole place felt like we shouldn’t be there because the [cashier] inside the gas station was in like a cage and it felt really aggressive, like bad stuff happens in that place,” recalls Filho, an experience that reminds him of where his home country is today. “Brazil is probably the radical version of this because it’s this paralyzing fear that drives society. People live out their fear and because they are so paranoid, it ends up just looking very, very silly because the streets are empty at night because it’s supposed to be dangerous and it’s dangerous because the streets are empty.”

Filho is returning this week to California this week to the Cinefamily in Los Angeles with the film inspired by that paradox, “Neighboring Sounds,” a drama that finds its way into the cloistered contemporary state of Brazilian society of the haves and the have nots through the introduction of surveillance cameras into one neighborhood. Divided into three chapters, the narrative feature debut of the former film critic puts audiences on the edge of their seat by showing a community living on the edge as an aging patriarch who once presided over a sugar plantation gradually sells off the seaside property so it can be turned into housing with the entrenched social order only becoming more pronounced by the generation, the ongoing construction making the walls between them even more permanent.

Shortly before Filho boarded a flight from his hometown of Recife where in addition to filmmaking, he’s a programmer for the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, he took the time to talk about making the jump from shorts to a first feature, finding a great amount of tension in “small-scale incidents,” and the influence of “Two Lovers” director James Gray on “Neighboring Sounds”’ exquisitely restrained camerawork.

How did you decide to start on your first feature?

I had been making short films for some time and they had already addressed some ideas that ended up in “Neighboring Sounds,” but at the same time, “Neighboring Sounds” has a whole different side to what I had been doing before. When I was making short films, a lot of people [would ask] when would I finally make a feature film? I really took my time and I just waited for things to happen and one day I sat down and wrote the script, which was in 2008 and then the film came together quite fast.

The film came from many very personal experiences, the kind of thing that you talk to friends about – what bothers you or irritates you a little bit, and I put all these ideas together and wrote the script, which was a very pleasurable experience because it really felt like I was reading a book. I didn’t quite know where the thing was going and sometimes I just felt like going back home to keep writing. It was great because once I had the script, it was like I had the film.

When you’re intimately familiar with the community, that must make it easier to write, but after you’ve made the film, does it change your perspective on what you thought you knew about the place?

That’s a tough question to answer. I don’t think so because I wanted to use that community in the first place, but one thing I did realize during the process is some colleagues and even some friends believe that they only have a film if something extraordinary takes place. That goes from firing a gun to some car chase. The community I live in is a very normal, middle class Brazilian community, but I really believe wherever you see people living their lives, you will see something interesting. The human element is always very interesting. Sometimes you wake up one day and you’re not really into people like you were yesterday – I’m sure you know the feeling.

I do.

But then two days later, some people are so nice and beautiful, then two days later, you go back to this nasty kind of mood. You see people interacting and you see ugly things and beautiful things and that’s what I find really interesting. One of my friends said the script was full of “small-scale incidents” and I really liked that expression because small-scale incidents are mostly what life is all about. You get tense with the small-scale incident maybe in the same way you would as if you saw something spectacular happening — a breakup of a relationship, a heated argument between neighbors, maybe people talking and the conversation doesn’t really go the way you want the conversation to go.

I was really into developing the whole story using these, so in answer to your question, what made me want to do the film is the way I looked at this community. Now that the film is done and that the community itself has seen the film, they seem to understand the film and nobody came to me and said how unfair you were to this street. I think there’s quite a lot of respect for the point of view and as much as people realize that it’s, [as] the classic expression [goes], “it’s only a movie,” the film has seemed to have hit a nerve here in Brazil.

The camerawork is quite striking, from the opening tracking shot that escorts you into the building to how you often pull focus in interesting moments where most filmmakers would be content with the shot they’ve established. Is there any particular reason for how that style came about?

My favorite films seem to shot fairly wide, [which] doesn’t mean the film is widescreen. You can still make an academy ratio film and still shoot very wide, but I like to see where the characters are in relation to the room or to the street or to the bedroom. This is something I talked to my cinemaphotographers in the film, Fabricio Tadeu and Pedro Sotero [about] – we would save the closeups only for very special moments.

I think most modern films, both commercial films and personal films, they shoot too tight. Of course, I’m generalizing, but it seems to be the present fad and I like to shoot wide and to show places. [For instance], this is where this [neighborhood] meeting is taking place, so take a look around, you can see the kind of tiles and the kind of wall that the scene is happening against. Same thing with the streets, with the houses and apartments. It’s interesting because it’s so simple and obvious, but a lot of people seem to like this very much in the film. You need more time because if you have to shoot the whole street, you really need more time to clear the whole street, but for me, it’s very basic and very simple. Just shoot in a way the viewer understands where the action is taking place. On top of that, I thought it would be good for all the straight lines that we have in the film because the film takes place full of concrete, cement and walls.

Also, before I shot the film, I went back to James Gray’s “Two Lovers,” a very classic looking film with steadicam and very classic composition, but it took place in a very kind of normal environment, normal people and normal places, flats, apartment buildings. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re putting together your ideas. You look at a film and you go, maybe that’s exactly what I’m looking for. It was great to go back to that film – and a film that I actually like very much – and think, that’s the way I want to go.

“Neighboring Sounds” begins its one-week engagement at the Cinefamily today and will run through April 11th. Mendonça Filho will appear in person on Saturday, April 6th and a full list of times can be found here.

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