Neighboring Films: How Recife Became the Capital of Brazilian Independent Cinema

By Bruno Guaraná*

In the past couple of years, Recife, capital of the state of Pernambuco in Northeastern Brazil, has drawn attention from the national and international film making communities. This interest reached its apex with last year’s release and worldwide critical acclaim of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds  / O som ao redor (just made available for online streaming to Netflix’s American subscribers).

Although some reports have positioned Neighboring Sounds as an igniting factor in Recife’s scene, the film is in fact part of a large lineage of productions shot in the region in the past two decades. Recife's credits include other critically acclaimed features such as Perfumed Ball / Baile perfumado (Paulo Caldas and Lírio Ferreira, 1997), Mango Yellow / Amarelo manga (Cláudio Assis, 2002), and Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures / Cinema, aspirinas e urubus (Marcelo Gomes, 2005). Mendonça’s film, with its success and unmistakable depiction of Recife’s present environment, has helped put Recife on Brazil’s film production map.

Until recently, Recife was not on the film radar. The city makes a brief appearance in traditional Brazilian film historiography in the so-called "regional cycles" of the 1920s, which folded with the advent of sound and consequential increase in production costs that led to a re-centralization of the film production back to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In 1995, new tax exemption laws provided a long-awaited incentive for the national production, enabling the rebirth of Brazilian cinema and the slight widening of the production map.

2012 marked a breakthrough in the history of recent Brazilian cinema, and neatly indicates the growing decentralization of cultural production that began timidly in 1995. In addition to having a special screening of Neighboring Sounds, the Festival de Cinema de Brasília put Recife under its spotlight by featuring four recent films from the region in its competition’s line-up.

They’ll Come Back / Eles voltam (Marcelo Lordello) and Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica / Era uma vez eu, Verônica (Marcelo Gomes) received the prize for best fiction feature, while Daniel Aragão was awarded best director for his film Good Luck, Sweetheart / Boa sorte, meu amor. Gabriel Mascaro’s documentary, Housemaids / Doméstica, consisted of lending production equipment to middle-class teenagers to document their respective maids. The project was awarded a special prize to its characters and filmmakers.

If for the first years after the reemergence of Brazilian cinema the production in Recife was rather scattered and limited, the city now counts with a large web of film production companies. The city also boasts a number of active filmmakers whose approaches oscillate between a professional mode of production and a guerrilla, near-amateurish, style of filming. Within the Recife production —much like most Brazilian independent films— friends of friends commonly offer their time as extras, and lend furniture and vehicles for the shoot. Shoots, in turn, often run overtime, productions extrapolate their planned schedules, and producers need to deal with an overwhelming load of bureaucratic paperwork.

Yet, with all its impediments, the regional film production culture seems to have been established with a consistent practice, aided by a growing interest in exhibition, research, and critical reviews. The end results vary accordingly, and, as the Brasília film festival demonstrates, Recife has witnessed feature film production accompany its already-mature short film culture.

From the quiet documentary Raft / Balsa (Marcelo Pedroso) to the sensible docudrama Ebb and Flow / A onda traz, o vento leva (Gabriel Mascaro); from the handmade animation in Starry Day / Dia estrelado (Nara Normande) to the confrontational “quickies” made by the Vurto collective; from the comedic stop-motion horror Green Vinyl / Vinil verde (Kleber Mendonça Filho) to the award-winning experimental Wall / Muro (Tião); from the critique of beauty standards in Mens sana in corpore sano (Juliano Dornelles) to the collectively filmed critique of urbanism and gentrification in [projetotorresgêmeas], the variety of themes and approaches in short films made in Pernambuco in the past five years configures the cauldron of the Recife scene.

Three factors directly relate to the burgeoning film production scene in Recife: funding structures promoted by the municipal and state governments geared towards local film production and the decrease of costs with the advent of digital filmmaking; the proliferation of undergraduate-level film schools in Recife; and a generalized increased interest in film viewing (with cinéclubs and special programs), film criticism (with digital magazines and blogs), and filmmaking itself. Kléber Mendonça Filho appears as a key figure in this scenario. A film critic himself, and one of the few consistently active filmmakers of the earlier generation, Mendonça has helped reconfigure the city’s exhibition market by programming the most important local art film house, in addition to founding the Janela Internacional de Cinema do Recife.

The cinema made in Pernambuco, because of its current weight within the national cinema, breaks the traditional privileges of film production development in the Southeastern cities in Brazil, most importantly, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. What we witness in Recife is an apparent disregard for ample exhibition markets — as those aimed at by Globo Filmes — and a regionalism that makes its films immediately recognizable as Northeastern. These films demonstrate an effort to mark the local geography and culture, engendering what I like to call a “universal parochialism” that, while easily assimilated across cultures, is effectively soaked in locally flavored waters. While translating well across cultural borders, Recife films tend to remain intrinsically attached to the contemporary cultural, social and political atmosphere in which their production is inserted.

The political and economic climates in Recife could not be more propitious to the establishment of such a film culture. The growing economy of the region noticed since the Lula’s government is a felt reality in the urban centers, with an increasingly intense traffic, a wild real estate market, and a continuous process of construction (especially of residential high rises). The sounds neighboring Recife’s households don’t come only from the stacking of residents on top of one another, but mostly from the unavoidable noises of modernization and verticalization of the city.

It is from within this agitated atmosphere that Recife’s effervescent film scene emerges. The city’s social, economic, and political conjuncture has enabled an increase in the local film production, while also motivating the medium to question what Recife really needs and wants for its future.


*Bruno Guaraná is a filmmaker and a PhD candidate at NYU’s Cinema Studies Department.

This collaboration stems as a direct result from the Encrucijadas/Encruzilhadas Dialogues for Latin American Cinemas symposium that took place at New York University on April 19th and 20th.

Images (from top to bottom): Stills from Ebb and Flow by Gabriel Mascaro; Neighboring Sounds by Kleber Mendonça Filho; They'll Come Back by Marcelo Lordello; Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica by Marcelo Gomes; Good Luck, Sweetheart by Daniel Aragão; They'll Come Back by Marcelo Lordello; and Starry Day by Nara Normande.