Fantastique Cinematheque: Kleber Mendonça Filho on preserving Brazilian movie-palace memories with Pictures of Ghosts

A photograph shown in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Pictures of Ghosts.
A photograph shown in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Pictures of Ghosts.

With his movie-palace documentary Pictures of Ghosts releasing in US theaters, Kleber Mendonça Filho shares cinema memories from his hometown Recife, Brazil—including watching Cronenberg’s The Fly in the ’80s—and why projectionists and programmers are so crucial to the medium’s survival.

It all began in the late ’80s with the VHS equipment I had hooked up to a small television… One of the very best screenings was when Do the Right Thing came out in Brazil on a great VHS copy, and I invited twenty people to watch the film because I was completely fascinated by it.

—⁠Kleber Mendonça Filho

Brazilian filmmaker (and Letterboxd member) Kleber Mendonça Filho’s latest is a moving ode to his hometown of Recife—not to mention the third most popular documentary of our 2023 Year in Review. Split into three chapters, Pictures of Ghosts follows Filho’s formative years in the family apartment that would come to feature in many of his works, including 2012’s Neighboring Sounds, passing through the city’s historical cinemas and concluding with a touching musing on movie-palace culture and the volatile nature of cities.

Pictures of Ghosts is made by a cinephile, for cinephiles, leading many Letterboxd members to reflect upon foundational experiences of filmgoing and key moments that have helped shape their love of cinema. Mariana writes that the film will be stored in her memory as “a celebration of cinema, of archive as an instrument of affection and the human effort to explain one’s feelings, the history of cities, the translation of emotion through art, whatever art it may be, in whatever way it may come,” while Tori says, “I have never been to Recife, but this film brought me such a strong sense of home… A love letter to cinema and Brazil.”

I met with Filho while he was in New York and I in London, a fact that lingered as we spoke about home, foreign perceptions of Brazilian cinema, a loving appreciation for curation and of curators, the importance of movie-palace culture and the mighty hand of time: at once healing and terrifying. Boa leitura!

Pictures of Ghosts did not have a script or a fixed format before you began working on it. I’m curious about how the film eventually found its way to its three-chapter structure.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: Much like with Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius, the chapters came in very late in the editing process. I had ideas for the film, but I never had a script. I just looked at the material, and every time I found something I liked, the film would move towards a new idea. Sometimes ideas come in—and that happens in all films—and it’s something you really love, but you have to build the basis for it to work. When we found Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis visiting Recife in 1962, I knew I had to weave it as a way of showing the city having a connection to the film industry, which then led me to discussing big studio distribution, which happened at the center of Recife.

It’s a chain reaction once you find an idea. That’s the beautiful thing of working with archives. At some point, I thought I should also go to the place where I used to live, which was an idea I had for another film. Then I realized that film was now this film, and once you realize that, it is quite liberating. I really wanted to make a film about that apartment because talking about it was very much like talking about movie palaces.

I feel like I am fighting an uphill battle because a lot of people say Pictures of Ghosts is an autobiographical work, but I don’t think it is. It is about places that I came to know, and I just happened to be your guide: the filmmaker making observations about the places I know and how cinema has reshaped—or reorganized—these spaces. I happen to say I live in this place and this is my mother and my brother, but I don’t think sharing such things makes the film autobiographical.

Once I left the apartment, I felt like it was the end of a chapter. That’s when I thought about a second chapter, and began wandering into the cinemas at the center of Recife. The original title of the film was Cinemas in the Centre of Recife, but none of my friends liked it. I was the only one pushing for it, so it became the title for part two. Eventually, I came up with Churches and Holy Ghosts for the third chapter and… Well, I think it makes sense somehow.

With Pictures of Ghosts, you are paying homage to some of your greatest cinematic references, many of whom you first saw at one of the cinemas we see in the film, like David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma. Has it felt like a creative full-circle moment to be back at the places where it all started?
Very, very much so. These days, wonderful film festivals and cinematheques show [John] Carpenter, De Palma, Cronenberg. I was very lucky to be a young teenager and a good cinephile in the ’80s and get to see these films in their first run during general release on a Wednesday afternoon at 3pm in a big movie palace. I saw The Fly, which to this day is one of my favorite films, with a packed audience on a Sunday afternoon. It was on for five weeks and it became a big commercial success. It’s amazing to think that Fox paid Cronenberg to make that film, and the result is incredibly commercial and moving.

So when I was shooting this film’s last sequence, I couldn’t help going back to many of those feelings of filmgoing around that time. While shooting, I had three production cars, a lot of equipment and cameras—basically the whole set up with actors, microphones and lights—and I’m thinking, ‘Shit, I am actually making a film in this place where I saw so many films.’ I know this might sound a little corny, but it’s actually beautiful, and I think that really helped me make that scene a little fantastique. I love how it turned out.

I wanted to say [the projectionists’] names in the film in the same way I mentioned Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. It’s a beautiful thing to mention the names of Geraldo Pinho and Alexandre Moura on the same level, because I think they are all important.

—⁠Kleber Mendonça Filho

I kept thinking about the physical intimacy of projection, of hands touching film, people in booths handling the same strips of film for months at a time. It is such an intimate relationship, and I am wondering if, through the process of making the film and reflecting upon it, you think this specific form of cinephilia is on its final legs?
In large-scale filmgoing, probably yes, but not if you happen to be lucky and live in places like London, Rio, Recife and New York City. It doesn’t even have to be a big city; you could be lucky and live in a small town and still have access to a beautiful place where a group of people are organizing screenings: programmers, who are actually the most amazing people in the whole industry.

This is not often recognized because filmmakers and producers get a lot of the attention, and critics also occupy a very interesting part of the food chain, but programmers are the most amazing people in the whole business, and it’s because of them that we still get to experience films the way we can. I am very optimistic in terms of keeping some of those places where we can still make discoveries. Recife certainly has at least five of these places, one of them being the São Luiz.

I would also like to mention that I recently had a great conversation with a critic, a very nice guy, who kept asking me why I kept mentioning the names of the projectionists when he had never heard of them and didn’t know who they were. I say, “Well, now you’ve heard of them.” I wanted to say their names in the film in the same way I mentioned Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. It’s a beautiful thing to mention the names of Geraldo Pinho and Alexandre Moura on the same level, because I think they are all important.

The interior of the São Luiz Cinema in Recife, Brazil.
The interior of the São Luiz Cinema in Recife, Brazil.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Pictures of Ghosts is its grasp of film as a shared space. Coming out of a cinema and talking to other people about what you have seen, the physicality of sharing in the post-screening excitement—and also piling people up in small corridors of your house to watch something together and share a moment through film. I find these displays to be very moving depictions of how collective and physical cinema can be as an art.
It’s very perceptive because I love to share films. I love to show films to people, and it’s something I still do as a day job as a programmer and have done for many years. It all began in the late ’80s with the VHS equipment I had hooked up to a small television. I would invite friends over every weekend to show them films. One of the very best screenings was when Do the Right Thing came out in Brazil on a great VHS copy, and I invited twenty people to watch the film because I was completely fascinated by it.

Then I began making my little primitive films and had friends over for screenings, of course. My mother was really open to having people around the house; she was quite a character, so I just kept making movies in the apartment. After a while, you end up with a house that has become a part of filmmaking somehow—a completely normal place turned into something else because of cinema. I thought this would be an interesting thing to explore with Pictures of Ghosts.

It’s lovely to be welcomed into your house and the spaces you share with your family and friends in Pictures of Ghosts, from seeing you as a teenager with your mother to entering parenthood yourself. It can also be quite melancholic. Did you find the process of looking back and investigating the passage of time through your own cinephilia to be emotionally challenging in any way?
It’s about understanding time. I had a Q&A where someone said you shouldn’t try to fight time because it is a battle you will always lose, and this is a sentiment I share. When you understand that time is part of who you are, you will probably become more open to making a film like this. Being afraid of time, and I think we all are in a way, should also be part of the film. When I am seen with a broken arm at ten years old and then a little later you can see my kids at five or six, you have a very strong notion of time, all captured there through film. But I don’t think the film is about that. It just becomes stronger because of it.

A Brazilian theater’s bilheteira, or box office.
A Brazilian theater’s bilheteira, or box office.

The last scene of Pictures of Ghosts brought me back to this notion of the gradual disappearance of places and witnessing the passage of time through spatial awareness. Was this ever an allegory you planned on building?
It’s hard to talk about that scene because I wanted to shoot it for a number of years. I was always going to end the film like that. When we finally set out to shoot the scene, I realized I did not have a dialogue ready, and I don’t think it’s fair to ask an actor to improvise an entire scene. So I sat down, wrote a short dialogue, and it just occurred to me that he would disappear. I really liked how it turned out. When you write something, you have a feeling that it is good, but you don’t really know what that means.

I was already thinking about movie palaces disappearing 30 years ago. Back in the ’90s, I was in a bus, sitting by the door, and this woman came in, asked if the bus went by the Cinema Rivoli, and the driver said it did. That was incredible because I knew the cinema had closed back in 1978, and we were now in 1992. These two people were talking about a place that didn’t exist anymore, but it still lived in their inner GPS.

This memory came back to me yesterday, and maybe that explains what the scene is. But also when you go through loss, the brain understands the loss but the body doesn’t. Maybe I’m psychoanalyzing it too much… I sat down, really liked what I wrote but didn’t know what it meant, and now I hear all kinds of interpretations. Some of them are silly, others really beautiful and poetic. I am open to suggestions.

Talking about beautiful and poetic… I first saw Pictures of Ghosts back in Cannes and thought about your speech at the festival’s jury press conference back in 2021, about the importance of preservation, the Brazilian Cinematheque and all that was happening politically in the country back then. Two years later, you return to Cannes right after the presidential elections that restored a sense of hope to many Brazilians. I’m wondering how it felt for you to be back in Cannes at that time.
Truly amazing, my god. When I was a jury member in Cannes, we were all concerned about what was being done to the Cinematheque. Imagine a bully taking a very precious piece of art, dangling it out of the building, looking at you with a smile and asking, “Should I drop it?” This is exactly what the government was doing to the Cinematheque at the time.

Then a month after I spoke at the Cannes press conference, one of the Cinematheque buildings burned down. It was one of the most despicable acts of arrogance and stupidity I’ve ever witnessed. One of so, so many. Now it’s a completely different situation, and it really feels like a sense of democracy has come back, a sense of citizenship and respect. For seven years, it really felt like if I said I’m an artist, it was a confrontation. For seven years, it sounded like I’m a crook. And today, I am an artist, and it’s fine. It has changed, and we have a long way to go until things are perfect. But in terms of culture, we are much better now.

“Cinema is the greatest entertainment.”
“Cinema is the greatest entertainment.”

At the moment, you are the greatest exponent of Brazilian cinema at a global level, and you are very vocal about Brazilian politics in international forums that can be quite elitist and Eurocentric. I am wondering how important it is for you to not only occupy these spaces but to use them as platforms for things that you believe in and influence your art so highly.
It’s tricky because I don’t want to be an activist, although I am. It just so happens that I am at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the jury, a question comes up about politics in Brazil, the Cinematheque is under threat, and I felt it was natural to ask people to pay attention to what was happening.

First and foremost, I enjoy talking about the films I make. I enjoy having dialogues and learning from what I hear. But I am also very focused on how someone from Europe or the United States looks at Brazil and the cultural clichés around it. I pick up on it often and immediately say I disagree with people. [Laughs] I constantly tell people that clichés are not an interesting way of looking at things. I’m usually very nice, but I can also tell people when I disagree with them. I just don’t like the idea of being the go-to guy for political activism because it’s not who I am. It would be bad for my stomach… I’d rather not have an ulcer.

Pictures of Ghosts’ screens in limited US theaters starting January 26, courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

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