Interview: BACURAU Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Flipping the idea of first world hegemony on its head, a Brazilian Western sci-fi genre mashup Bacurau is a campy, violent, funny, angry, energetic and carthartic film that is extremely enjoyable for both genre fans and politically minded. It is also perhaps the best film to watch in the time of world-wide pandemic as we begin to turn our attention to the safety of us but our loved ones and the solidarity with our neighbhors and community. That we are all in this together.
Bacurau is playing in Film at Lincoln Center and IFC Center in New York. Opens today in Los Angeles and national roll out will follow. Please visit Kino Lorber website for details.
I described this film in my review as batshit crazy. It was the most fun I had in movies in years. I was lucky enough to meet the film's co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius) and Juliano Dornelles when they were in town for the theatrical release of the film here in New York. Our long interview topics ranges from the fate of the Brazilian film industry, genre conventions, Parasite to James Bond.
Filho and Dornelles are an interesting pair. Filho, more reserved and articulate, Dornelles, younger, animated and full of laughs and energy often finished each other's sentenses. It was the one of the most stimulating interview I've ever conducted. So without further a do:
Screen Anarchy: Let’s go back to 2016 for a moment. The reason I am bringing up 2016 is that that was the year I saw your film Neighboring Sounds. Aquarius was coming out a little later that year. Then I saw Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: You understand that Gabriel is also from where I came from.
Recife. Yes, I had a pleasure of talking to Gabriel when he was here presenting his film.
Divine Love (Mascaro's new film)?
No, for Neon Bull. So I got the basic idea of what was happening back then in Brazil. So you have this great wealth of these new Brazilian films coming out. The Brazilian film industry is booming, especially in formerly neglected regions, such as Pernambuco and other Northern regions. There are filmmakers such as yourself, Gabriel Mascaro, Adirley Queiros, making interesting stuff all over. But things have changed since then. And it was only four years ago. Now Lula (and his Workers’ Party) is not in charge anymore. We had that disastrous fire in the Amazon. And we have this raging racist Bolsonaro in charge…. I guess my question is has there been a big change in Brazilian film industry in those four years?
Juliano Dornelles: Yes and we are about to see the consequences of those changes. For example, last year, we had the best year in Brazilian film history, maybe?
JD: Probably the best three years of our film history, to say the least. But Bacurau has been the project that was in development in many years, even before all that. My wife is a costume designer. And she was invited to work in 5 feature films last year. Now three of them are canceled and two of them delayed. So she spent one whole year without working on a film. This is a sign that things are slowing down.
KMF: It is very interesting to understand that in 2016, there was a soft coup d'etat in Brazil. There was a powergrab. The power was taken away from the usual democratic means, using a fake excuse that doesn’t have the legs, by any measure, to stand on. The power was taken from the politicians who were more progressive side of politics, from the Workers’ Party. Basically because of the opposition was so angry and frustrated that they have been losing every democratic election. So when that happened, and I am talking specifically about the culture, the first thing they did, when they grabbed the power, was to, extinguish the Ministry of Culture. It was basically saying, ‘We hate you artists. Because "you are all drug addicts--"
JD: “Drug addicts, homosexuals--”
KMF: "...and pedophiles. You think you are smarter than us?” That was the first thing they did.
JD: They did it with GLEE.
KMF: yeah, they did it with pleasure. And then, after that, two month later, they decided to bring it back. And their new measures start to sabotage the artistic community. Which basically meant they effectively extinguished the national film agency, they were making it increasingly impossible for us to make films. I mean it’s always been difficult- even democratic times, just like any government agency, things are comically bureaucratic. And it is bureaucratic because in a society where corruption is endemic, you need a lot of papers to make sure everything is supposedly done right. And now today the agency still exists, but it’s…nothing really works. It’s very slow. then suddenly you are surprised that something did work, then there are 500 projects which are backlogged.
JD: Slow, disorganized and random. Sometimes something happens but it doesn’t mean nothing because many other projects are in the same situations…. so we are completely in the dark.
KMF: And of course there are recommendations that any new project will need to be ideologically aligned with the government. I mean, this is absolutely unconstitutional. We have a constitution which says this kind of things can’t be happening that it is illegal. So if you are some angelic filmmaker and I don’t know if there is one that exists, then you will have a much better chance to get something made.
JD: There was a situation when they took over the cinemateque (Cinemateca Brazilera) and of course they fired a lot of people who were conservation specialists, those technicians who does archiving and preservation of films and they are not working there anymore and replaced by these guys we don’t know who they are. They are telling us to organize, for example, a military film festival.
My God, that’s crazy.
JD: So that’s the reality in Brazil right now.
KMF: They are telling us that some film technologies are obsolete, so not to worry…
JD: So what’s happening right now is that people like us, directors are talking to each other and take films out of the cinemateca and hold them ourselves in our houses!
KMF: Because we are not exactly sure what is happening at cinemateca. We can’t take our chances with our films.
JD: This reminds me the scene in Tim Burton’s Batman where Joker paints smiley faces all over these paintings in the museum. Like a…
KMF: He saying that it’s more like Francis Bacon.(laughs)
You said that this project was long time coming, even before Bolsonaro took over. I noticed that it’s a lot angrier than Neighboring Sounds or Aquarius. (to JD) Is that your contribution?
JD: Uh, no it’s because we both were much more angry. Of course the film is a homage to genre cinema of the seventies from the US, Italy and Australia. But this comes from both of us. We’ve been thinking about this kind of thing for a long time. But this anger you saw in the film, it’s just a state of mind that we were at the time when we finished our final draft. Yes, it was when illegitimate government was already in. Michel Temer took over from Dilma (Rousseff of the Workers’ Party) and we were observing this growing fascism.
KMF: Yes. Three films are quite different in tone: Neighboring Sounds is more diffused and ethereal, because it was more stable time. Stable but not perfect.
KMF: Tense, like all other societies. You can make Neighboring Sounds in Sweden, you know what I mean. Then in Aquarius, I raised the tone. I wrote things in Aquarius that I wouldn’t have written in Neighboring Sounds, even to my dismay.
KMF: Because it was happening. People were screaming at each other and pointing fingers. Sometimes I watch films and think, how could you not pay attention to what was happening. In my films I’ve been quite conscious of expressing the energy of the moment. I think it’s very important.
It seems, as you mentioned, to be global sentiment. I know you just hung out with Bong Joonho in London the other day. It seem that there is kind of class consciousness in global level.
KMF: I think the way things turned out the last 20 years, I mean Les Miserables also is one. Parasite of course.
KMF: I don’t know what Joker is trying to tell me though. I was very into the film but the end, I don’t know what it’s trying to tell me, to be honest. Parasite, Les Miserable I understand.
JD: Bacurau? (laughs)
KMF: Yes. It sends the clear message. I mean if you are cutting a character’s head off, it is quite obvious what the movie is telling us. But it’s nothing new. It comes from the past.
KMF: It happens in Brazilian streets every time when there is violence, today. We are not only talking about the 70s or French Revolution. We are talking about dramatic expressions of political anger.
I’ve been talking to some directors over the years about using genre cinema as means of free expression. Does it apply to you in this case?
JD: Of course. It’s funny because there are many people I love and I work with in my career in Recife, trying to make films without any catharses. I just couldn’t understand what would be the point of making something if it doesn’t have that kind of release?
KMF: But genre for me is a piece of clothing that I find a little outrageous to wear it and I’m just waiting for the right time. (laughs) I mean I made Neighboring Sounds which I love but I couldn’t land a spaceship in the middle of the street in that film. It would not have been the right film for that. It would’ve fucked the whole thing up because it was about the street I was living in and about tensions and relationships among those people. Aquarius was about this wonderful, sometimes overbearing 65 year old woman and she lives in this place. So no room for a slasher or… at least in my mind anyway…or ghosts…. well there are ghosts in it.
KMF: In Bacurau, all right, now we have room for Western, we can have some Splatter, we can have some Thriller, some special effects…it was very liberating.
JD: Most importantly. We wanted to have it. We wanted to make a film like that! It was a perfect timing.
KMF: …and now I can use that special piece of clothing that will feel just right to wear it.
Speaking of a powerful woman, played here again, by the great Sonia Braga. Is there any Brazilian myth or folk tale about a Matriarchal society that you based Bacurau on?
JD: No. I don’t know where it comes from. We talk a lot about matriarchy now in the past 5 years or so. Kleber has his wonderful mother and I have mine. But we always have these women in our lives whom we love very much and respect. And we think they have a great influence on our lives and work. We can imagine that there are different ways of life with different codes and conducts that are different from us.
KMF: I don’t think it’s that far-fetched or utopian. I think it’s completely possible.
JD: Exactly. The beautiful thing is that if you look closer to many places in Brazil, you will find these small isolated, organically formed communities- in favelas and such, self-sustaining places. And because they don’t have much, there is a sense of solidarity. But they are completely aware of what’s going on in the world at the same time.
JD: Exactly. We have been to Cuba with Bacurau and what I've heard from those people was completely mindblowing because they are so lucid…lucid? They understand everything that’s happening in the world. They are not as isolated as other people make them out to be. They are very aware. We needed the first (flicks his fingers) spark. We were tired of seeing the country people being portrayed on TV, in the news and documentaries as simpletons. So that was the first spark to make Bacurau - let’s make a film about real, complex and beautiful and strange and sometimes bad people, you know? They are not distinguishable even. They are always portrayed as simple people. Or funny, exotic, cute… this is simply wrong…I don’t know I lost my train of thought.
KMF: There are hundreds and thousands of women in all over the world and Brazil raise their kids alone because their fathers are absent. It happens in all social classes, but if you look at communities, in poor communities in favelas, it happens a lot and it’s heartbreaking.
JD: It is important to mention that Brazil is a very patriarchal Country and it’s been always like that. But there was a story on this one village maybe a little bigger than the place we shot our film. We went for a research to find a such a place and we found this little place with the town square, very dignified and well taken care of. And in the middle of it, there was a statue. So we went closer to see whose statue it was. And it was not a statue of a politician or landowner. It was a woman and she was a teacher. So the character actually existed already.
KMF: It was very moving.
JD: You know what I mean? So it’s a reality. Maybe not predominant but still a reality.
KMF: I think it’s more touching to make a dystopian film where women are strong but men are not despicable. Men are part of the equation but women are very strong. Then we have horrible men, then we have good men, then we have trans people, then we have unstable women…for me that’s the best version of the world.
Tell me about Silvero Pereira, who plays Lungo who is very charismatic. I know he is quite a famous figure in LGBTQ community. How did you bring him into this project?
KMF: It was a suggestion of Marcelo Caito.
JD: Marcelo Caito is a very talented director and producer. He is a militant from the LGBT community. Even before Bacurau, he was a very important person in LGBT community. He had this play about drag queens.
KMF: About violence against drag queens. Very tough play.
JD; You saw the play. You tell us about it. Because I haven’t seen the play yet.
KMF: It was beautiful. We were editing the film and he invited us to see the play. It was also like 4 minute walk from where I was editing. So I just walked there to see it.
JD: I wasn’t there that day so I couldn’t go.
KMF: So I was looking at him on the monitor in the editing room then I see him as a drag queen, it was such an amazing experience. But the play is very hostile. It’s very political and it demands respect. Of course I knew who he was, but seeing him in the play, everything was clearer. I could understand Lunga even more. The energy that he put into the film was very genuine.
JD: We went to this dinner to meet him, just to talk to him, not like business like. Just to flirt. Like a blind date. (laughs) We were at the table and you see the way he walks and the way he looks at you – you know that powerful look that make you uncomfortable. But he doesn’t hide his feminine side. But he is also badass. So he was exactly how we wrote the character of Lunga. So we didn’t have to think or adjust too much. I remember we went outside the restaurant and Kleber, you said to Silvero, “ I think you have a face of someone who can kill somebody.” (laughs) Just like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood or Sean Connery. It’s perfect!
KMF: For me the that’s the difference between Sean Connery and Roger Moore. Because Sean Connery looks like he can kill somebody. (laughs) I enjoy Roger Moore as Bond. But he doesn’t have that kind of face.
Did you have Sonia Braga in mind when you wrote the part of Domingas?
KMF: Secretly without telling her, not even telling Julian about it. Because when you write with an actor/actress in mind, it’s just like you are editing a film with the piece of music you really like but you don’t have rights cleared and you don’t have money to pay for the rights and you grow attached to the music… But yeah I had some dream of me that she be interested in it. But at the same time it was a bit dangerous and she said that herself the other day. That it is dangerous to think about this film because how am I gonna merge or arrange all these incredible faces because it’s a very regional film, there are locals, Americans, non-professionals, professionals…is it gonna work, I mean…. Because Sonia has such an amazing face but of course she was incredibly intelligent and made all the decisions on costumes and make up and her willingness to play, it is not fair to say without make up because there is make up, but not the kind of-
JD: Not the ‘diva’ make up.
KMF: Yes. the normal person make up. (laughs)
JD: I just think Sonia is a very smart intelligent woman because it demonstrates that she is into making interesting films. She just came off playing the character of a hero: the film was about her and the camera was pointing toward her 100 percent of the time. It’s amazing that she came with us since the beginning and stayed with us on location, even when she wasn’t needed on set, she was there to just live in the environment and to know the people. She is very disciplined.
KMF: And she is still in touch with everybody including extras and locals.
Wow. That’s amazing. So what’s going to happen? What’s going to happen to the Brazilian cinema that I love?
KMF: What was happening was we were getting a lot of diversity. And I hope young people will make films any way they can. Which is the way I started making films when I first started. Then I’d show films to our friends.
JD: We didn’t start making film in school. We didn’t study cinema.
KMF: We just bought cameras and we started making films. I spent 15 years in that mold which was a bit too much.
JD: Yeah I agree.
KMF: Then I was beginning to get fed up with….Then we got some funding and that’s when I started doing things a little more professionally, people getting paid and all. That you know this is work.
JD: One important thing is that Brazil in that 15 years were very different. We achieved a lot in Lula years – the kind of decentralization of funding for cinema because it was very concentrated in the South East.
KMF: Neighboring Sound was the direct result of this.
JD: for a guy like him, in the 90s, there was no money. Back then it was only 35mm films that was considered legit. He was making films on VHS or BetaCam.
KMF: But because of hierarchy, any terrible films shot on 35mm would get a lot of play, because that was ‘cinema’. I did have some good stuff on video but that would never see the light of day.
JD: My generation is a little different. We started with the digital cameras. So we could edit our films in our PCs. It changed a lot. So more people were doing it in the beginning of 2000s.
KMF: And then the funding became more decentralized.
JD: And we started to organize as a group, supporting each other and such.
KMF: In Pernambuco there are lot of cultural organizations now and they are still very much in place. And our film got selected by Cannes got us a lot of exposure. And we had a chance to talk with the governor for an hour. This was a major event.
What I want to say to the younger filmmakers is that I hope the situation now is inspirational to go and do something. We have a lot of technology available to do things cheaply.
It’s always the case with the countries with economic hardship or austerity measures, be it Portugal, Greece where great film movement flourish, no? More challenge and scarce the better?
JD: But this is very important. There are 300,000 film industry professionals. What are they gonna do? Netflix can’t absorb all of them.
KMF; The government is intentionally making them unemployed. It’s a terrible situation. The film industry is not a hobby.
JD: We are bigger than pharmaceutical industry in Brazil. It’s not small at all. We have a pharmacy in every corner. Just to give you an example. What are we gonna do?
KMF: We are working on that. (laughs)
It’s been a pleasure talking with you guys.
JD: Pleasure was all ours.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com