By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz December 5, 2013 at 3:30PM
Neighboring Sounds, Brazil's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : The Cinema Guild. International Sales Agent: FiGa Films
With a unique and innovative cinematic voice Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho has garnered international acclaimed for his debut feature Neighboring Sounds. Evocative and intricately written the film compiles several stories of people living in an affluent community, in
which the sounds and silences are as important as the characters themselves. His film has been selected as the Brazilian submission to compete for the
Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it is definitely one the most interesting works of the year. The director talked to us extensively about
the origin of the concept, the crucial role of the sound design, and the intriguing dream sequences in the film.
Carlos Aguilar: Your film explores seemingly simple occurrences, yet it is definitely complex. Could you talk about the concept and how the stories came to be?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: Well I had been making short films before making this first feature. I made 6 or 7 shorts over the last decade, when you watch some of them you might understand where Neighboring Sounds comes from. Basically it started off as an exercise in writing, and I had some notes on situations, on people, people living their lives, and common situations that take place everyday. Things I witnessed, things I observed, and stories I heard about. I thought that it would be interesting to dramatize these situations and still make something that would make sense cinematically. A lot of the situations in the film are very simple and very mundane, but if I shot them in a classical style in a more cinema style, whatever that means, it would be appealing to me anyway.
I think that’s how the basic idea for Neighboring Sounds came about. Something very trivial but dramatized in a more, almost classic, 1970s style. Going back to some of the films that I always liked from the 70s, some of the films that I grew up with, some films that take their time to establish a place, a location, a setting. Some of the films that actually make you look at a character and try to figure out what he/she is doing. I think that was the basic desire to make this film.
Aguilar: Obviously the sound design for the film is very particular, could you talk about the process of creating it and how it relates to the voyeuristic quality of the images?
Mendonça Filho: One thing I didn’t want for this film was like in other cases where you watch a film and it has sounds, but it seems to have sound for the sole reason that it won’t be silent. Sound is just there to make sure you understand that it is not a silent film. But in other films sound has a more prominent role in the way it tells the story. I think it modern society as a whole, but definitively in Brazil, spaces are so well divided and there are so many barriers, and so many divisions, so many lines and so many borderlines, basically telling you that you should be here but not here. This is my space and this is your space, and this is expressed very dramatically in architecture, we have a very kind of aggressive, almost medieval concept for architecture, which is basically keeping people out. So you get high walls, fences, and electric fences, and divisions like that.
But sound doesn’t really respect any of that, sound goes through walls, and over security fences, and it becomes an almost physical presence. I think that was one of the ideas for sound, making sound something that is physical. The dog barking for example, it’s right inside Bea’s place, in fact it’s right inside her head. The nightmare sequence is another example; it just becomes this unreal and hyperrealist series of noises of people coming into the house. The other thing is that I really didn’t want to use dramatic music, so sound became almost like music but without giving too much away. It is just a series of noises placed in what I thought would be the right moment, and that in a way acts like music but is not really music, is basically just sound.
Aguilar: Often Brazilian films focus on the favelas and the struggles of the lower class. Your film shows a different side of Brazilian society and it exposes certain of a class issues, was did something you decided to explore when writing the film?
Mendonça Filho: It was, because I don’t really have the personal experience of a favela. I really respect the communities of the favelas. I think they are extremely complex and rich environments but I haven’t really had the personal training of living or having had an experience there, so I wouldn’t have the confidence to make something that would be honest. I might even be wrong, but I usually work with personal experiences, and that’s the personal experience I have, of that particular class and that particular environment, the one you see in the film. In fact that’s where I lived, that’s my neighborhood. I’ve been photographing that place for many years since I was in college. I kind of knew where to put the camera. I had my favorite angles, even before I made the film. Not only physically, in terms of the locations themselves, but also some of the human interaction and the tension. The stuff that happens in the film a lot of it comes from personal observations. I’ve seen a lot of Brazilian films and most times I kind of react negatively, because of the way I think they portray places they don’t really know or care about. This is something that I specifically tried to avoid in my film.
Aguilar: Added to the sound design that creates a certain intriguing atmosphere, there are several surreal sequences in the film. One of them is a waterfall of blood, which has been talked about extensively. Why did you decide to include these in a very realistic film overall?
Mendonça Filho: Basically you can do anything in a film. I could have place a spaceship in the middle of that street [Laughs], but I just didn’t think it would be the right film to add a spaceship to. You can do anything, and I love to talk about this because is so organic to the process. When I was writing the film there were moments when I got tired. When I got to about half the script I couldn’t really stand being on that street anymore. Sometimes you are working and you feel like walking out into the terrace, stretching, looking out and feeling the night air on your face. It felt very much like that, and I felt we had to leave the street for some time. That’s when the idea for the trip to the family property in the countryside came about, which makes complete sense because that’s how young people deal with their family’s heritage. Once a month or once in six months they drive to their family’s property to spend the weekend. The idea came about because I couldn’t stand being on that street any longer, I felt suffocated, and I suspected the viewer would be suffocated the same way I was.
The other thing, when I was writing the script it came naturally that some situations were based on fear. When you write a scene where somebody is afraid of something you instantly go to decades of genre cinema: horror, suspense, and thrillers. Those are very cinematic genres, when you shoot a close-up of someone and you can see fear in the person’s face, or anticipation, or some kind of anxiety, it’s a very cinematic image. Those things came naturally to the film. There is a very trivial scene where the security guys are asleep, it’s late, and a mysterious car drives by. Nothing really happens in the scene, but the way it was shot creates a very anxious moment because you don’t know what’s happening or who is inside. It is a very realistic film but sometimes it goes that way.
There are two sequences that are nightmares, one of them is very clear. The girl has a nightmare of people coming into the house. Since it’s a nightmare I can do basically anything, she could turn into an elephant in the middle of the scene. It’s complete freedom. The other one, the one you mentioned, in my mind is a dream, but it is not clear because it was an odd feel to it. It is still kind of realistic, it would make sense for João to go there. They are at the waterfall and the blood thing takes place, I thought it would be a strong image. We managed to do it with the right trickery and I kept it in the film. I still think it makes sense. Without trying to explain too much, a lot about this film has to do with history, and the impact of history on the way we live now. Of course that image is very suggestive about the effects of history and the past.
Aguilar: There is a great array of people in the film, different family dynamics. Is there a reason why you chose to go that route rather than concentrating on one group?
Mendonça Filho: One good thing about a good book or a good film, or maybe even a song, I’m not a musician but I love to listen to music, is the range that each piece is able to give you. Like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen, 1975, that song is so epic. It goes in so many different places, it’s and opera and it is heavy metal, and it’s so crazy as it goes every which way. I kind of like films like that. I think Neighboring Sounds is a film about people, the more people I had the more pleasure I got out of the experience of making the film and handling those different characters.
Everyday we walk out onto the street and we see different people, you meet good looking people, overweight people, Black people, Asians, and you can be friends with all of them or you can even dislike them all, that’s life. I thought if I had different samples of different people in my film it would be truthful about living in the world today. The characters are part of different families, even the security guy, he had a family, something happened to his family but he still very much feels like he is part of a family. In a way it is also a film about family.
Aguilar: Your film is representing Brazil at the Academy Awards. Is there any pressure or expectations that come with this honor?
I’m here doing my job and still working for the film even after a year since it started showing. It is a film that has constantly surprised me , and I’m
actually enjoying this process. There is pressure back home, but I try to minimize it anyway I can, and I understand that this is a very complex process.
But I’m here for the ride and I’m trying tot do my best, like I’m here talking to you now [Laughs].