Kleber Mendonça Filho, in one of the projection rooms of the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation's cinema nucleus, in Recife, a space he has coordinated for 18 years. Photo: Fred Jordan

Kleber Mendonça Filho is a filmmaker who imposes his creative force through narratives of enormous subjectivity. In real life, however, he is an objective subject. Speaking slowly and serenely, in the following interview he clearly exposes observations about cinema, his trajectory as a critic and behind the camera, and the socio-political reality of the country. After disconcerting public opinion with The sound around (2012), his first feature film, he now submits to the local scrutiny Aquarius, film starring Sonia Braga, interpreter of the protagonist, Clara.

Licensed to be shown in more than 60 countries, success at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was one of 20 selected to compete for the Palme d'Or, Aquarius won three Best Film awards at the Sydney Film Festival in Australia, the Transatlantyk Festival in Poland and the World Cinema Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Ironically, the arrival of a work so incensed around the world to the country's cinemas is surrounded by suspicion by the conservative part of Brazilian society that did not welcome the protest against Michel Temer's interim government (made final yesterday, 31.8. , with impeachment of Dilma Rouseff) made by the director from Pernambuco and the team of Aquarius at the world premiere of the feature at the Cannes Film Festival last May. At the time, there were those who asked on the internet for a boycott of the film. A paradox that, in the filmmaker's view, opens up how much the country is split.

The fact is: in addition to the political uproar over what happened in Cannes, those who let themselves be involved in the 140 minutes of exquisite narrative in Mendonça Filho's script will find Aquarius an exciting movie. if in The sound around and in the first short films, the director developed his plots from the nuclei of characters, in Aquarius he brings as a narrative asset a passionate and almost omnipresent protagonist.

When confronting the interests of real estate speculation, which intends to turn the apartment in which she lives into rubble, Clara looms large in defense of her free will and the memories built over decades in that space. Contrary to its opponents – greedy and unscrupulous men, for whom the preservation of individual and collective memory is not worth a penny –, it nurtures values ​​that cannot be measured by the vile metal. Passionate about music, she lives surrounded by thousands of LPs played loud and clear in a powerful analog system, a counterpoint to the void of the building which, protected by it, becomes a monument of resistance on the edge of the beach in Boa Viagem, in Recife.

Born in the capital of Pernambuco 47 years ago, the filmmaker lived in London for five years in the early 1980s. The son of divorced parents, he ended up on British soil alongside his brother and mother, historian Joselice Jucá. By regularly taking the boy to see films in large movie theaters in downtown Recife, Joselice, who died in 1995, had a direct influence on her son's passion for cinema. Author of works on André Rebouças and Joaquim Nabuco, she went to England to do her doctorate. Back in Brazil, as a teenager, Mendonça Filho decided to study Journalism at the Federal University of Pernambuco. Choose what, according to him, was the “closest station to the cinema”. As at that time there was still no academic course in Cinema in Recife, the profession of journalist could easily be converted into the occupation of film critic. In 1997, this was the position that the future filmmaker took on Journal of Commerce.

In addition to allowing access to numerous international festivals and bringing the journalist closer to some of his idols, the experience of working as a critic over 13 years made the Pernambuco-born filmmaker with keen sensitivity and rigorous self-analysis. Perhaps therein lies, for example, the dramatic precision in Aquarius.

Below, the best moments of the conversation with Kleber Mendonça Filho.

CULTURE!Brazilians – Has your career as a critic influenced your career as a director?
Kleber Mendonca Filho – I had contact with many films and made a childhood dream come true. My mother used to say that when I was a boy, I even said that I wanted to be a film critic, something that I don't recommend to anyone, but that, at the same time, is a beautiful way to get in touch with the world's culture and understand what it has to teach at all levels, not only in the commercial sense, but also from the point of view of authorial cinema. I am very grateful for the experience I had as a journalist and critic, as well as the trips I took and the number of people I met. It was a fantastic 13 years, but one that I had to give up, in 2010, exactly the week we started pre-production on The sound around, my first feature film.

Among other qualities, Aquarius draws attention for the density of the script and characters. How did you arrive at this result?
For me, good writing is very likely the result of training. Of course, there must be some kind of talent that defines who writes well and who writes poorly. There are great journalists and there are bad ones; there are amazing writers and mediocre writers – and history is there to show who they are. Writing is a mysterious field of thought. You show admiration for the script and I'm flattered that the text arouses that kind of reaction, but I can't quite explain why. Aquarius it has a good script, except for the fact that, for me, before a movie exists it has to hook people with words. And whenever I talk to friends about my scripts, I kind of get if they're talking about the script as if it were the movie itself. A good movie script needs to have a lot of suggestion power. I get a lot of scripts for evaluation, I usually read some of them before bed and there are those that immediately take me to bed and others that cause insomnia instead. There's a lot of script that is nothing more than a low pile of paper. In a good script, the drama, conflicts and situations need to be very clear, they need to have strength. Things that also determine good literature. I'm not saying that I make good literature, but before I shoot, I need to be proud to show someone what I've written.

Most of his films do not have protagonists, the situations unfold through several characters. In Aquarius, it changes. Clara is almost omnipresent…
I think this protagonism came from the moment I understood what kind of film I wanted to make. The sound around, for example, is an observational thriller. A film that generates anguish, suspense and tension, from a series of subjective observations of a conflict that develops at a distance, as if seen from a bedroom window. The same does not occur in Aquarius, which ended up becoming a classic hero movie – in this case, a heroine, Clara. When I thought about which works would be a reference for what I intended to do, I came to Italian films from the 1950s and 60s, where there are strong women, with a great cinematographic presence and a series of challenges and obstacles to face. When I understood that Aquarius it would be a film of resistance, in the classic sense, I took the path that led Clara to an end worthy of a great heroine, a woman who knows how to react, who knows how to defend herself.

From the observation of life in the urban environment, it is coherent to say that The sound around e Aquarius are similar?
I think the most prevalent theme in my films is what I call behavioral dysfunction. In The sound around, for example, the nephew and the uncle are having breakfast when the doorbell rings and the security guard appears with the intention of offering surveillance for them and for all the residents of the street. The reaction of both is to reject the offer. In our society, their refusal can be seen as a dysfunction of behavior. In Aquarius, the guys from the construction company arrive at Clara's apartment and decree that the space in which she has lived for decades is obsolete and they think that a good financial offer will be immediately accepted by her, because it does not cross their minds that Clara is someone who can think of different way. And her thinking differently is also a dysfunction of behavior.

The filmmaker in front of the Oceania Building, on Boa Viagem Beach, in Recife, Aquarius' main location. Photo: Fred Jordan

you hope that Aquarius arouse discussions as heated as those provoked by its predecessor?
Em The sound around this response was, in fact, quite strong. The film seems to have hit a nerve in society, because it has many observations about life in Brazil today. From the guy who offers a security service without being asked to the condo meeting where people pretend to be civil but behave like savages. I think people identified those truths in the film. Many of them even had to see themselves.

Psychoanalyst Christian Dunker claims that part of the Brazilian middle class and elite organize themselves in a structure he calls “condominium logic”. Do his films also deal with this?
I agree. And I say this because the simple fact that Clara wants to stay in peace in her house and doesn't want to be part of a new condominium turns her life into hell. Her right to say no, a little sarcastically but very politely, creates tension. Today, when you define and defend your position, it is unbelievable, because there seems to be no sensitivity in people for them to understand that, in each person's life, there are different positions. In the film, Clara says: “No, thank you very much, I have no interest in selling my apartment. I'm very calm here. Thank you for your visit”. For people like them, this is unacceptable. "Like this? Does she have an opinion?!” And they still argue: “I wouldn't let my mother or grandmother live here alone”. A point of view that is not only sexist, but completely retrograde. This is very strange. Her no could just be a no.

Speaking of the right to opinion, it is inevitable to address the protest you made at the Cannes Film Festival…
I consider it a discreet, simple and precise gesture. We were in the week in which Dilma was removed – in my view, somewhat illegally – and, moreover, days after the Ministry of Culture was extinguished. It was impossible to remain silent in a situation like this. As in a democracy there are no laws that prohibit a person from speaking exactly what he thinks, we demonstrated and the international press acted with great interest in trying to understand the meaning of that protest. On the occasion of the festival, major media outlets, such as The New York Times e Le Monde, were already aware of what is happening here and journalists saw the act as something powerful that a group of representative artists for Brazil decided to do in one of the largest spontaneous media events in the world. For me, the point, and I think this is what many people haven't been able to understand so far – because, for them, the personification of evil comes down, first, second and third, to the PT – is that I'm not PT, no I am and have never been a communist even as a teenager, but I have a very clear vision of what democracy is. Dilma was not doing a good government, I agree, but because of that, she was sabotaged from the first minute of her reelection. She was taken from the Planalto by an opposition that was not elected by the people and that had no legitimate reasons to take her there. What I stand for is the right to protect a democratic system won, the hard way, in 1989.

What predictions do you make for the country's future?
I try to be optimistic, but day after day the news leads us to believe that we have gone back a few years in our history. Putting together all the decisions of the interim government, it is difficult to say how many years or decades we have gone back. Michel Temer is in the period when things have not yet been defined (the interview took place at the end of July), but even so, it started the dismantling of the country, which is not very rational, because there are decisions that are partisan and ideological, and there are real results that will be identified in the immediate future. I tend to be pessimistic and sad about what we can live in the next few years. Breaking the idea of ​​democracy through a very cynical coup, such as the one currently underway, sets serious precedents. And look at that democracy in Brazil already had enough problems. We live in a country where, for example, there is a massacre of young black people and this reality is treated with the apathy of “this is how it is”. Choosing leaders through direct voting is a great achievement. Losing that is very serious, at the stage of development that we were in the history of Brazil.

Returning to the film, another striking aspect is the use of music as a narrative element. For example, the opening phrase of the song Today (Today/I bring in my body the marks of my time), by Taiguara, seems to speak directly about Clara…
In the history of cinema this is such a rich subject that we can talk about it and come to several conclusions. First, that music is like a time machine, in the same way as cinema itself. Taxi Driver, for example, is a fiction film, but it portrays New York in 1975 as faithfully or more faithfully than documentaries made about the city in the same period.

But in Aquarius the songs that permeate Clara's trajectory are songs and not an incidental track like that of Bernard Hermann in Taxi Driver...
Truth. the music in Taxi Driver (listen to the trail) is an absolutely classic appropriation. And, I must say, I have nothing against this decision, after all, when the gods of cinema decide that at a given moment in a film, a song has to come in and that song is by Bernard Hermann, that's magnificent. In Aquarius I wanted the meaning of each of the songs to be respected as much as possible. I say this because we are not talking about incidental and dramatic music, like Hermann's in Taxi Driver or that of John Williams in Shark. We're talking about when movies use songs that are part of popular culture, as is the case with those in Aquarius. There are many films that waste and disrespect this resource. Clara is a person who values ​​music, because it was even part of her professional life, as a journalist and writer. I was concerned not to use this feature as a narrative crutch for the character, something that happens in most films.

How was directing Sonia Braga?
A fantastic experience. But I admit that I was afraid she wouldn't accept the invitation, so much so that I went to New York to talk about the film in person. Dealing with actors on a movie set is always tense for me, let alone someone like Sonia. I say this because the pace and volume of work in the production of a feature film tends to be disruptive. This is part of film history. I was afraid that something might not work out between me and her. Fortunately, that didn't happen and today I have a great friend in Sonia. The first thing that, for me, signaled that everything could work out was the reaction she had to the script. We talked about it and Sonia seemed to be talking about the finished movie. She understood the political dimension and the human issue that existed in the character so intensely that today I can't say for sure who is Clara and who is Sonia.

Some critics have claimed that Recife has become the capital of Brazilian cinema. Do you have any good theories about this phenomenon?
I don't have a good explanation because I believe that culture is not exact like math. On the contrary. To me, it is organic like a bacterium, like a spreading microbe, an unpredictable organism. For thinking like that, if I was still a film critic when the movie wipe, from that little shit who keeps killing himself to learn to play the drums, was released, maybe he would have done a very bad-tempered review of the work, which a lot of people loved. I don't rule out the possibility of someone really achieving greatness by sacrificing themselves like that, but frankly… Culture can be the fruit of suffering from an inspiration or a feeling, but not from physical suffering. Even so, I have some theories about what happens in Recife. One of them is the fact that the city is far from the economic axis of the country. Something that over many years may have created a sense of independence of ideas. We had João Cabral de Melo Neto, the Recife Cinema Cycle of the 1920s, the Super 8 Cycle of the 1960s. In the early 1990s, the manguebit of Chico Science and Nação Zumbi, Mundo Livre S/A and a band series. For me, who was young when the movement came about, it was very inspiring, because I grew up in a city that had a mutt feeling. When I lived in England, I had the opportunity to see Prince, twice, and I defined that those were the best shows I've seen in my life. I had to review this, because, later, I was in Chico's shows that also made this list.

I would like to conclude by talking about his relationship with Emilie Lesclaux, his producer and companion…
When we started living together, in 2003, shortly afterward she asked to see what had already been recorded by the Critic (a documentary released only in 2008) and it was she who convinced me that there was a good film in that material. We had already worked together on Eletrodoméstica (short film, 2002), but this was our first major partnership. Emilie is my life partner, we have two children and she has gained a lot of respect inside and outside Brazil. This week, as a producer, she participated in the Latin American Film Festival in São Paulo. In Cannes, she was invited to speak at a panel on the participation of women in cinema. Emilie manages to make films possible in a very calm and respectful way with people, something that gives a certain home cinema air to our productions. We have a home office and sometimes they call saying: “I wanted to speak with the finance department of CinemaScópio…”. I really want to answer: “Just a minute, I'm going to transfer to the fourth floor”. A joke, of course, because all I have to do is reach out a foot and pass the phone to her. But, even being a small operation, with the work of Emilie the producer has generated excellent results. Aquarius is already sold to more than 60 countries, something incredible for a film made by a group of friends on the beach of Boa Viagem. The sound around also had an amazing career. This gives us a good feeling that we are on the right track and that things have been working out.

- Read interview with Sonia Braga
– Watch the official trailer for Aquarius

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