Interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho, ‘Neighbouring Sounds’

Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho is the discovery of the year. His feature debut, Neighbouring Sounds (2012), is a provocative chronicle of urban angst played out against an intriguing narrative of social change. The film’s remarkable sound design – reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) – is both ominous and propulsive, pulling viewers along. It’s a film with a strong sense of place, with the director’s breathtaking use of scope creating a unique visual approach where the architecture is as important to the sense of growing unease as the actions of the characters. Craig Williams asked Filho about social division in Brazil, the insidious nature of fear and his former life as a film critic.

Craig Williams: In Neighbouring Sounds, architecture seems to reinforce and amplify social divisions and paranoia. How important was it for you to capture this?

Kleber Mendonça Filho: I love architecture, it goes with filmmaking like bacon and eggs. Bad architecture is particularly interesting to use; it generates tension, it’s comical in nature and very photogenic. Bad architecture is when bad ideas become the norm in order to cut costs or just out of sheer bad taste; it’s nonsensical. It’s all around, and I see it every day. Sometimes, you feel like you are a little mouse in some lab, or like a character in a film by Tati.

CW: There’s a real sense of dread hanging over the film. Every action seems pre-emptory – the guards, the alarms etc. How much of the perceived threat is real?

KMF: The funny thing about fear is that it is real even if it is unreal and makes no sense, if you have the wrong idea about why you are afraid. There is somebody creeping up from behind you in a dark, deserted street, you are terrified to turn around, but it is just a dry leaf blown by the wind behind you. It doesn’t matter, you were frightened. A society that lives in fear has to deal with being afraid of the dark and learning not to freak out at the sight of your own shadow.

CW: How did you come up with Neighbouring Sounds’ unique sound design?

KMF: I have nothing against music scores, but I didn’t want to use a traditional music score because when you watch people doing things in a film, it’s more mysterious and tense without any music telling you how to react. This is a film very much about observation so a lot of the film passes without “film music”, but there are outbursts of music played by characters in certain scenes. I soon realised that I would have to work three times harder to make the soundtrack really work; it was almost like making a second film.

CW: Is the film partly an attempt to understand what social division means in the post-Lula Brazilian society? 

KMF: Maybe that’s where the film comes from, now that I can look at the film after making it, but the question sounds too cerebral in terms of me setting out to make that film back in 2009. I never thought about that, but I did think about elements which, together, would arrive at something like that. Lula did bring something new to the Brazilian mix, and I do think he brought about some very interesting changes.

CW: You shot Neighbouring Sounds in widescreen and on 35mm. How key was this to the film’s aesthetic?

KMF: The use of walls, corridors, façades in the film are backdrops to human interaction so shooting very wide, in my mind, would help me with so many straight lines which are everywhere in the film. And, yes, often there are clear divisions in the middle of the wide 2.39:1 frame, like in the scene where João and Sofia flee the living room and we see the maid in the kitchen.

CW: The film expands on a short you did set in the 90s called Electrodomestica, shot in the same area. What has changed in the meantime?

KMF: The short film was set in the 90s, but made in 2004. In the 90s, middle class people all seemed to drive Fiat Unos. We now have more buildings, the servants of those middle class people now drive better cars than Unos and their employers now drive bigger and more arrogant cars, SUV style. We now have huge towers as well.

CW: You used to be a film critic. How does that affect the way you approach filmmaking?

KMF: It’s hard to say. I was lucky to actually get paid to watch 300 films a year and travel to interesting places. I was a professional film critic, but I have always loved watching films and talking about them. So, I really think young people today have great tools before them to discover films and to make their own. All they have to do is learn to go on a life-saving diet in terms of Hollywood. Hollywood films are only a small part of the big picture – of a good and generous view of cinema – and, unfortunately, Hollywood films are what most people only ever watch, even young aspiring filmmakers. And that’s depressing.

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Craig Williams