Kleber Mendonça Filho: “I see demolition as a kind of murder”

The director of Aquarius talks about depicting older characters, out-of-control development and making films without guns

Dona Clara (Sônia Braga) is a retired, widowed music critic in her mid-60s, living in a small 1940s beachside on the Brazilian coastal town of Recife. Her ordered life is disrupted, however, when a real estate developer and his conniving grandson Diego (Humberto Carrão) try to demolish her building to create high-density flats. Soon alone in the apartment building, Clara is forced to contend with more and more unsettling attempts to dislodge her from her long-time home.

I have a theory that grandsons or grandchildren are more like their grandparents than their parents.

This is the story of Aquarius, the second feature film by Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho. Like his excellent debut Neighbouring Sounds (2012), Aquarius creates something intoxicating out of a story about real estate in Recife. Unlike the polychromic debut, however, Aquarius keeps itself tightly focused around its protagonist and her artefact-filled flat. The result is one of the finest films of the year: an unsettling yet gratifying tale of memory and pluck, aided by a performance of phenomenal dignity from Braga.

Before Aquarius’s UK release on 24 March, Jocks&Nerds caught up with Mendonça Filho in London.

What was the genesis of Aquarius?

It comes from the idea of demolition, which I find quite disturbing: I really see it as a kind of murder. And when you live in a city, you grow attached to the geography and how the city plays out. You know at some point there will be a house or a building, then one day you drive by and it's gone.

I started to hear stories about families who were put into the position of having to sell their places to be torn down and replaced, usually with something very ugly and very market-oriented. Interestingly, last night I had a drink with a friend at the Curzon Soho, and I found that there are plans that might end it. 

Yes, because of future plans for a Crossrail expansion...

Of course, it's a different situation: it's not a commercial project, as happens so often in Brazil. What happens in Brazil a lot is that there's a historical house from the late 19th or early 20th century, and because it's occupied they make this very tall tower behind the house, and they use the house as some kind of monument to what it used to be. The house is still there, but behind it there are 45 storeys.

I’m really into spaces – my first film, Neighbouring Sounds, was very much about private and public spaces. And I wanted a strong character, Clara, a women – I think women generate more tension than men in a chauvinistic environment – and I felt very comfortable about her because there was a lot of my mother in her. My mother passed away at 64, so I really see Clara as a projection of who she would have been at 65 or 70.

I remember the shots in Neighbouring Sounds of endless blocks behind the lower, older buildings. Both films are set your hometown, Recife. What draws you back there?

Basically because it’s where I live. I would make a film in another city or another country if I felt confident that I was able to bring something to that setting. But the city is a city that I know, and I feel like I know the secrets of the city. London is such an interesting, complex city with so many sights to it, many of which you wouldn’t know without dwelling here. And that’s how I feel about Recife.

I grew up in the area where we shot the film. I know that beach. I know that the building we use is the very last of its kind within a 10km stretch. So all of these things made me want to make the film. I thought that I would know how to photograph that area.

The building has become the object of bullying because it's different from everything else. It's horizontal to begin with – all the other buildings are vertical. And it doesn't have security, which I thought would also be interesting to help understand Clara. She's also old, and she doesn't have the state of mind where everything has to be protected by layers of security.

What were the challenges of shooting a film in such a small building?

I still haven't had the experience of shooting in a studio. And the films that we make in Recife are all location-based. Now of course this one brought challenges because the building is actually on a very busy road, which means you get a lot of noise for recording dialogue – that was the biggest challenge.

The other thing is that it's not a very big apartment. I mean, it's nice, and it's comfortable, but you can’t move walls. We had to hang a lot of the equipment out of the window with special scaffolding. Of course you get a lot of cables when making a film, a lot of electric cables and equipment. But it was very important to shoot the apartment in a particular way, because I wanted the viewer to look at that place and realise how absurd it is that somebody could call it old, decrepit and decadent. Which is basically what happens in the market: you have an iPhone, and there’s a social pressure for you to change it to the latest model, though your phone is perfectly good. And what’s what they’re trying to do in Aquarius.

The tech idea of planned obsolescence applied to buildings.

It happens often in Brazil. I'm 48, so I went through the whole CD/Vinyl thing in the 80s, and it happened again with 35mm film and digital. There was nothing wrong with vinyl, but they had to develop this story that vinyl was old and crackly, and that CD had this perfect, pure sound. And now vinyl is coming back, and it's actually a beautiful object. It sounds like vinyl, it doesn't sound like CD.

And I tried as much as I could to do Aquarius in 35mm, but the market did not allow me. Because most of the labs have closed in Brazil – we only have one left – and most of the technicians have retired. People say 'well, the machine's working but you might have a problem with developing footage.' So when you hear all these things, you start to feel that making the film in 35mm would have been eccentric. And I really see a parallel in terms of the whole thing with the building – it's just a market trying to push itself in.

Diego, the grandson of the developer, seems to have developed new, more discomforting strategies than his more old-fashioned grandfather.

I'm fascinated by family at its best and at its worst. It's funny because I have a theory that grandsons or grandchildren are more like their grandparents than their parents. I'm not saying it's accurate, but this is something that I tried in Neighbouring Sounds: the grandson was a bit of a thug like his grandfather was.

Now with Aquarius, the grandson is more modern educated in the United States, with the latest business strategies. I was really interested in this menacing, passive-aggressive behaviour, which is not illegal but incredibly unsettling. Of course, some people go across the line towards breaking the law, but I'm really interested in the more unsettling, 'this is not happening but it actually is happening' kind of approach. The devices Diego uses in the film – throwing a party on the floor above, for instance, or having a man walking around the building and doing things for no apparent reason – are legal but things that one should never do, because it makes others uncomfortable.

Do this sort of behaviour happen in Brazil often?

Travelling with the film, I found that it happens everywhere. It's like killing a plant. If you stop watering a plant, if you stop giving life to that organism, it dies. And it's just like that with a building – if you remove people from the building it will die.

Some conservative, right-wing critics in Brazil have written that Clara is a selfish woman because she's preventing this wonderful construction company from building something that would be a real community and give houses to a number of people. But they don't see the fact that this company is also killing a building, a community, to make that plan work.

I was into this idea of developing this passive-aggressive behaviour because it would never be my kind of thing to, say, have a car driving past machine-gunning the facade. And it's funny because some people came up to me and said 'it's interesting how it develops, because I thought she would be attacked, or a gun would be put her head.' And I said, 'no, that's not what I do.' I wanted to keep it small-scale and unpleasant and disturbing. I still haven't used a gun in my films, though it's such a cinematic convention. There's nothing wrong with it, but I still haven't done it.

My next film will be a Western in a way; it plays with genre conventions. I might finally use guns in it. But I never thought that Neighbouring Sounds and Aquarius would go that way. Sometimes when you have a menacing situation – and also because it's such a strong part of cinema as a convention – I think people get very tense when they think that something serious and harrowing can take place. But I think I am happy with menacing. 

Why did you make Clara a music critic?

Because I usually don't stray very far from my own expertise. I worked as a film critic for about 13 years, and I went through all the interesting, work-related incidents related to being an observer of culture. Some people feel threatened by the simple fact that you're an observer. And I thought that making her an observer of ideas, an intellectual, would be an interesting idea.

She has all these artefacts around the house, which we all do in our lives – books and records, a film poster of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon – and I like to litter the film with all these little elements. And of course they're all documents: the film is about artefacts. The apartment is a document, Clara herself is a document, all the little pieces lying around the house are documents. The wooden dresser is a very unremarkable piece of furniture, but it becomes remarkable because it's been travelling through time. And I think somebody could say that Clara is materialistic, but none of the objects are expensive. You wouldn't sell that dresser for £100, it's a very normal, mediocre object, It's more what we make of it rather than what it is.

Neighbouring Sounds contains largely new actors. How did you come to work with such an established figure as Sônia Braga?

It was the perfect experience, because a new thing that I did in this film is that I worked with someone that I did not know personally. And for me it's important that I know the person well, because I know how we will be working together. Maybe for some directors it's about shouting at someone, but that's not what I like to do.

Because Sônia is such an amazing face and such an interesting image of cinema, I decided to work with her. And afterwards, I got to know her, and I was very lucky because she's a wonderful person, and today we're friends. And she loves the film we made, and I love her in the film, and it was just a very happy experience. She usually says that everything was in the script, and what you saw in the film was written down in the script.

But Sônia bought this interesting image into the character. Sônia is the same age as the character: she's not trying to look 40. She's 66 now. And she brought her experience in life, back to her years in the 60s and 70s. And I really suspect a lot of that, because a lot of the music comes from Sônia's generation. And she felt completely at home doing the film. 

She's incredibly dignified, and feels entirely attuned to the character.

She reacted very strongly to the script. She accepted within 48 hours – an incredibly fast reaction. And I feel very lucky to have worked with her – now, I just feel like finding some other story that I would be able to fit her in, but a character like that is very hard to come by. And I think she has a full understanding of how tough it is to find a character like that. One thing that she loved from the beginning was that Clara would never be the granny type. She'd always be a woman who happened to be in her 60s. She wouldn't be hitting people over the head with an umbrella. 

In the opening sequence, the character of Aunt Lucia is extraordinary. She’s incredibly accomplished, but also acknowledges the importance of her desires.

You see so many films throughout your life, and you begin to identify a pattern of representation. Which really pisses me off, especially with women, gay people and some nationalities like Russians. In commercial films, the gay characters are still usually the comic relief, a sidekick. Older women are portrayed as non-sexual, non-threatening. And I have to admit I had that in mind - not only as a social statement, but also because I know older women who are not like that.

I'm also really fascinated by the way older people are not old any more. I have a friend whose 64, and he's a young person. And when I was a child, I would see a man of 50 and he would be very old, in the way he saw the world and the way he acted and dressed. I always felt that Clara would be a 60, 65-year old young woman.

Aquarius is out in UK cinemas on 24 March