Brazilian Director Kleber Mendonça Filho Is Escaping From Dystopia Into Older Films

Kleber Mendonça Filho at home in Recife
Kleber Mendonça Filho at his home in Recife, Brazil. Photo: Kleber Mendonça Filho

We just had to cancel [an event at New York’s Lincoln Center]. It was very sad, but of course understandable. I came back [to Brazil] two days earlier than planned. I felt very exposed, because I was in New York City, and then I was in a big international airport. But I’ve been home for eight days now and no symptoms. I feel healthy and let’s hope that it remains that way.

I’m based in the northeast of Brazil, a city called Recife — about 2 million people. I live in an apartment in one of the central areas and can see a lot of the city from my window. It’s very quiet. There’s no law enforcement on the streets asking people, “Why are you here?” but there is a lot of information about why and how you should stay home. But like everything in Brazil, I can already see a class divide. The upper classes have more information and know what to do with it, and the lower classes, because of problems in access to goods and infrastructure, have more difficulty following what has to be done. The way that some governments are dealing with this, particularly the Brazilian government, it’s astonishing and maddening because all ideas of common sense are thrown out the window.

It feels like we have a biological crisis, which is the coronavirus, and then we have a human disaster, which is caused by a politician on top of that. Bolsonaro — he was still insisting on Saturday that a little cold wouldn’t get him down. That’s basically what he said. I saw Brazilian ventilators were being sent to Italy, which under normal circumstances would be fine, but Brazil is about to get hit by this thing in the next few weeks! I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen in this country. It’s like a comic-book-villain kind of situation that we’re observing here and it’s quite insane.

When everybody is on lockdown and you have the president of a country live on Facebook — that’s another sci-fi-ish aspect of things — promising that tomorrow he’s going out, he’s leaving his quarantine because he basically wants to hug people. That was last Sunday. So he goes out and shakes hands with about 300 people. And then you’ll find that his entourage that went to the U.S., they’re all getting sick. They’re all testing positive for coronavirus.

Since [my film] Bacurau was screened in Cannes last year, people began to trip out on so many of the ideas in the film. [Bacurau, which takes place in the near future, is about an eclectic rural community in northern Brazil that’s exploited by a crooked local politician and attacked by a group of bloodthirsty tourists.] The association with the cynicism going on in Brazil is very clear. Because of what’s happening with coronavirus and with everybody isolated, the film is being discovered in another very interesting way. I can tell you that because I keep looking at Twitter. It’s called an “ego search.” Being isolated, watching a dystopian Western, and then the mayor comes to town and everybody disappears. People are saying that [the movie is] a prediction.

I’m fascinated by just observing what a piece of culture does to culture itself. The film keeps being discovered by new people. In Brazil, it was phenomenal the way that people associated the film with current affairs and a certain climate in the country. But then some American observers began to discuss the Trump era and the whole history of the United States with guns and Vietnam, even the wall in Mexico. And Australians discussed the past with indigenous populations. As I keep saying, Bacurau is actually based on history, all different kinds of human history, from wars and violence and corruption. So there’s really nothing new.

[My wife Emilie Lesclaux and I] have two 6-year-olds, and our kids have two working parents. We spend a lot of time together, but not the quantity of time that we have been — and I actually believe that this is a very good thing. We’ve been watching a film every day at 5:30 p.m., which is something that I always wanted to do. It’s me sitting down and watching with them and answering questions, because they’re always asking questions during the film. We saw the Pink Panther cartoons from the ’60s and ’70s, which is something that I grew up watching. I showed them The Kid by Chaplin on Saturday, and they were very impressed.

Yesterday, I showed them The Wizard of Oz, and they were intrigued/frightened because it’s really a weird film. We saw some Rihanna music videos, that was good. If you let things run free, Netflix becomes a very bad babysitter. Maybe it’s the algorithm — [children] always end up watching the same crap. Then they think that because they’re always presenting the same crap, that that is the good stuff — and that is a problem that has to be fixed. Now they’re beginning to talk about discs, which is a good thing.

Most nights we have a second film screening for the adults, usually older films. We have a projector and it’s very high definition, and although it’s digital, it’s almost like you have your own cinema. I see people on Twitter or Facebook or even friends saying that they have a list of post-apocalyptic titles, and I just do not understand why you would watch, I don’t know, The Happening or Dawn of the Dead. We’re going the opposite direction. We saw this amazing, brilliant film by [Ernst] Lubitsch — Angel, with Marlene Dietrich — and for an hour and a half, we were completely in another dimension. We forgot about everything. It had nothing to do with any of the current affairs. It’s a love story, it takes place in Paris and London in 1937.

The bad thing — and I hope to fix this, me and Emilie [also a filmmaker] — is that we have to find a way of working around the kids and actually getting work done. I have a lot of scripts to read. I have a script that I’m writing, I have ideas as a film programmer and a lot of emails to answer — mostly to friends, asking friends around the world, “How are you?” I haven’t been very productive over the last week, but this morning I began to do something. And now I’m talking to you, and I’ll file this under work, so I’ll feel happy.

More From This Series

See All
How Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho Is Coping in Dystopia