In Search of the New Brazil

The Brazilian film 'Aquarius' received rave reviews following its World Premiere at Cannes where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or, the Cannes Jury Prize, and the Cannes Grand Prix. Just as captivating for the world’s media, was the cast’s red-carpet protest about the ‘coup d’etat’ that ousted President Dilma from power. Several film makers then protested when the new government de-selected Aquarius to represent Brazil at the Oscars. As talented as he is controversial, Latinolife met up with director Kleber Mendonça Filho, who also picked up the Fénix Film Award for Best Direction, at London’s Hospital Club to talk film, politics...and his mother.
Corina J Poore

Relaxed and approachable from the moment you enter the room, it is easy to understand why Kleber Mendonça Filho’s films have concentrated on exploring the lives of people, how they interact  with each other and, of course, the consequences. They reflect a fine attention to detail, imbued with a distinctive warmth and deep understanding of the characters, and have strong personal element, as he sets his films in neighbourhoods that he himself grew up in.

Kleber Mendonça Filho began his career as a journalist and film critic, (Folha de Sào Paulo and Jornal de Commercio ), which led  to the creation of his own website, CinemaScópio.  Having been a film critic, he spent valuable time immersed in the films of his most beloved directors, including De Palma, Cimino, Sidney Lumet, John Carpenter, Eastwood and Dario Argento, to mention just a few.

With a number of shorts, documentaries and now two successful features under his belt, his work has opened up our eyes to how people live in Recife, a seaside town in the north east of Brazil, where he was born and raised.

His latest acclaimed film, ‘Aquarius’ deals with property ownership and speculation as a political tool, with the main character under siege from property developers who have no respect for the true value of things, only their price.

The main character, Clara, superbly played by Sonia Braga (Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Milagro Beanfield War, Dona Flor and her two Husbands), is the last remaining resident in a smart but ageing beachfront apartment building. When Diego (Humberto Carrão) turns up trying to persuade her to sell out so his development company can replace it with a soulless new block, Clara resists, and her resilience and fierce spirit shine through as she pledges to only depart in a coffin.

The film’s political undertones and the casts’ overt political views, have had consequences. ‘Aquarius’ was unable to represent Brazil at the Oscars, after the Ministry of Culture invited film critic Marcos Petrucelli, who was fervently critical of the casts’ Cannes protest and known for his twitter rampage against the film, to participate on the jury choosing the Oscar submission.

Politics aside, there is an emotional theme of being discarded and rejected due to age and imperfections - Clara’s collection of vinyl LPs and perhaps even Clara herself - to make way for the new, like the actual apartment building.

I asked Mendonça Filho how he felt about things discarded and replaced in this way:-

Kleber Mendonça Filho: I am fascinated by how the markets generate fake stories that will help them make more money; basically developing a narrative to prepare the ground for a new product. My brain has a radar for bullshitters. I am 48, so I lived through the whole compact disc CD revolution, which was led by an unbelievable amount of bullshit. Basically the music industry made out vinyl was bad quality, and here is a CD which is pure, digital, with magical sounds and for a while it worked. The vast majority bought into it … so many people got rid of their vinyl LPs and started buying CDs. Now, after 30 years, it turns out CDs have a kind of vitiligo, digital rot, and they don’t play anymore.  Of course, vinyl is now coming back because it has also always been a wonderful object to own, and the quality has always been great. So now the narrative is different, because now they decided they want to make money with vinyl again and vinyl is suddenly the best thing in the world!

It is all a question of narratives. So when they knock on Clara’s door, they have this whole story about security, a woman like you should not be living in a place like this, this place is old, it ‘s decadent. But it’s not, it’s a nice old building, the apartment is very cosy and comfortable, and I made a special point in the script to make sure that the art direction would understand that this is a great place, simple but great.  So just by looking at the place, you would disagree with what the construction people are trying to say. 

So, yes, I am disturbed with the whole idea of things being discarded, not because they deserve to be but because some people need them to be, for their own profit.

LL: Objects are imbued with significance in this film, there is the apartment itself, but also individual pieces, like the cabinet, every time the camera goes past it, you re-live the power of the flash-back scenes?

KM: It’s what you make of it. That is cinema! 

For me, when I was writing the script and I wrote about this piece of furniture, I actually described that it had to be a very unremarkable piece of furniture. If you had to sell it you would not even get £50 for it, so it’s not like it was an Egyptian … emerald-adorned piece… it’s just a very mediocre piece of furniture, but it had to have the presence of the monolith in 2001, you know. Every time you see the monolith in 2001, it is just there… of course, it has a very ominous design    it’s black… But that cabinet also had to carry the idea that it has been travelling through time in this family, and that, for whatever reason, it is still there.

People write about this film as if it is a political film about resistance, which it is, but I think of ‘Aquarius’ as a film about archives. Of course documents are usually seen as bits of paper in a folder, but documents for me are objects in general, you know, things that document history, like a chest, which is powerful.

LL: There has been a lot of reaction to the ‘political’ undertones.  I notice that you made a stand for Democracy at Cannes and on your facebook page, would you tell us about your feelings on this matter?

The protest we did in Cannes, was a protest that was done democratically by Brazilian citizens. We are not political leaders. I don’t want to be work in politics, but when you make a film, or if you’re a Rock star, a poet, or whatever, you gain some kind of exposure. Some people will ask you questions, and the way I am, I could never say: “Well, I’d rather not…comment “ I just say what’s on my mind. 

Our point was that Brazil, having come back from a 20 year Dictatorship, during the 60s, 70s and 80s, was doing quite well.  Not…well, democracy is never perfect, but many people felt that the very questionable set of events which led to the impeachment of Dilma Roussef, that democracy was being broken, and when democracy is broken it’s a frightening moment. Back then the dictatorship with guns and army trucks on the streets, now it’s dictatorship of information, which disguises itself to look like we are still in democracy but then things happen and you go… mmm, how did they do that? That is not something that should happen in a democracy.

LL: What is it with apartment buildings that you choose to use them as your backdrop? Is there a metaphor there?

KM: First of all, I am fascinated with architecture and usually when filmmakers say this, it means ‘good’ architecture but I actually believe that bad architecture generates a lot of conflict. In Aquarius, it is one piece of architecture surrounded by another kind of architecture, which is always trying to come in. But condos and buildings, they get people together and when you put people together you develop tensions and conflict and that is a human situation. The other thing is that I am fascinated by ‘lines’, you know, dividing lines, straight lines…

LL: Like the division between Clara’s well -to do- neighbourhood and her maid’s poorer area, when Clara goes to her maid’s home?

KM: Exactly! That’s probably the best example in the film because it is an imaginary line, which is very visible and it is even marked by the sewage outlet on the beach. I did not create that line.

LL: Sonia Braga is incredible as Clara, did you write the script with her in mind?

KM: NO, I did not, it’s strange when its obvious that she is made for the role. I had this ridiculous idea of making a film with some unknown woman that I would just magically find on the street or in some shopping mall, but after a while I understood that it was a terrible idea and I switched over to the idea of working with a professional actress, and she was number one on the list. I feel lucky. She was incredibly passionate about the project. We sent her a copy on a Tuesday, and she got back to us on Wednesday saying: “Please let me do this film!” And talking to her I could see that she understood every detail – it’s her generation. I wrote the film thinking a lot about my mother. My mother passed away at 54, and the film is very much a projection of who I think she would be when she was 65 or 70.

LL: That is a wonderful homage!

KM: Yes. It is and it was very moving when I showed the film … when we had the Brazilian premier in Recife, in a fantastic 1952 movie palace! It was incredible, a lot of my family went and they couldn’t believe that I had nailed my mother they way they remembered her.

So it is a very personal. I would never be able to write about a character that I don’t know. I always felt very comfortable writing Clara, it was very intimate. I could never write about something I don’t know, like some American astronaut, because I would have to do a lot of research, and even then it would still come out a bit iffy.

 LL: It is a modest budget film, but how did you raise the funding?

The same way those most independent films get funded. We have one co-production with Saïd Ben Saïd, who also worked on ‘Elle’ [with Isabelle Huppert].  There are script competitions and you submit a project and sometimes a bank, sometimes an oil company, or funding from the local government, will be available because Recife has become a very interesting film scene in Brazil. So putting all these bits of money together we made the film. 

Walter Salles was co-producer. He is  somebody I love very much, you know, he is a very good man and he was one of the first people who read the script, and he had a fantastic reaction to it and he basically said  “I want to help to make this film happen,” so he was always a big supporter of the project and sometimes, you know, that is what you need… you need the enthusiasm of people, they don’t even have to be Walter Salles, but someone who can tell you’re on the right  track.”

Aquario is being released in the UK on March 24th 2017.