“We’ve had to face some interesting moments of prejudice”: Bacurau directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles discuss their mysterious Western at Cannes 2019
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s latest film, Bacurau, sees him split a directing credit with Juliano Dornelles, his regular production designer. It’s a strange, disorientating film that morphs from a portrait of a rural community in northeastern Brazil into something more action-packed – a sci-fi Western with a socio-political bite. We interviewed the two directors after the film’s Cannes premiere, discussing the politics of Brazil, Udo Kier and the idea of Americans hunting people for sport.
What was the idea behind the title?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: “Bacurau” is local slang for the last bus, which [in the setting where we filmed] leaves at 1am. Which, of course, when you’re young, you would run to catch, and if you didn’t catch it you’d be in trouble. So [a scene involving that] was in one of the earlier versions of the script. But of course, Bacurau is also a bird, and it’s interesting because it’s always hiding…
Juliano Dornelles: It only comes out at night.
KMF: So it’s very much like the behaviour of the community itself. When the mayor comes, everybody disappears – when the strangers come, everyone disappears, like an animal into its hole.
JD: Some places call the bird “Nighthawk”. And they asked if we wanted to translate the title.
KMF: I asked our co-producer, and he said no, let’s use “Bacurau”. And I was like, really? All right, I like it. I was surprised that he thought it should be kept.
Was the film written before your previous movie?
KMF: Yes! Aquarius was supposed to be after Bacurau, but the script for Aquarius was quite phenomenal – I wrote it in six months, and it just said: “I’m ready, let’s go.” But we’d been working on Bacurau for almost ten years.
So it has nothing to do with the current situation in Brazil? Because people are making links.
JD: Making a two-hour film takes time…
KMF: We ended the shoot this time last year, and back then [President of Brazil Jair] Bolsonaro was not a possibility.
Where did this story originate, then? The idea of a local community under attack.
KMF: The desire to make a kick-ass adventure western – about power. And when you think of power, you think of the United States – the friendship we have, the love for films that we have, the power that Aquarius gave me in terms of being an internationally prestigious film. There are many great stories about how in Hollywood your next film will be bigger because your previous film did very well, and don’t fuck it up, otherwise you’ll go back to [the budget of] the second film. So this is not a big film by international standards, but for us, it’s big – two million dollars. Aquarius cost $900,000. And yes, the desire to make an unusual Western, a genre film. And it’s unavoidable that Brazil will come in – its tension, its crazy contradictions.
To what extent does your Brazilian background inform the story?
KMF: We come from the northeast of Brazil, and there is a cultural, regional, social divide between the northeast and the south of Brazil – where Rio is, with all the money. Which means that we’ve had to face some interesting moments of prejudice. And now that the film exists, intelligent, good people – people I know and like – ask us as journalists a question like, “What is it like to make a film about the northeast?”. It’s like going to a gay filmmaker and saying: “What is it like to make a film about gay people?”
So there’s a definite divide in perception between the north and south of Brazil?
KMF: Kind of. Pernambuco, where we come from, is a very strong state, culturally. Literature, film, and music, in particular. So the cultural scene has a lot of respect.
JD: And jealousy!
KMF: But outside of that – I can give you an example. I used to be a film critic, like yourself, for many years. And in 2000, I went to the Copacabana palace for a junket, for The Prince of Egypt, to interview [Disney chairman] Jeffrey Katzenberg and Jeff Goldblum. So I meet the press people from São Paulo, and they welcome me and say, “So you will need a translator, right?”. And I say, “No, I speak English.” “Oh, right, people from the northeast speaking English! That’s funny.” And I go, “What do you mean?” And immediately it’s, “Oh, I’m sorry, that’s a terrible joke, I’m so sorry…” So the film is also about that. When the two [south Brazilian] bikers arrive – those two characters are based on some of the histories I read about the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis.
While the film isn’t explicitly about Bolsonaro, it seems like you’re both suffering the effects of culture budgets being savaged.
What’s it like to be an artist in Brazil at this moment?
KMF: It’s still too early to tell, but I can give you a practical example. Normally, for this film, we would have funds to release the film in cinemas, and it doesn’t look like that will be the case. Announcements will be made, then there’ll be a huge public outcry, then two days later they’ll go back on it. It’s a huge fucking mess. Though I think cuts for education are going through.
JD: Everything is changing very fast…
KMF: But the culture cuts, I’m sure, will be kept. It was a campaign promise.
JD: Though projects that have already been signed – they say those will be kept.
And apparently you have to pay back half a million dollars?
KMF: That comes from the previous government.
But is that a revenge thing?
KMF: Of course. Because of the protest we did [in Cannes, on the red carpet for Aquarius]. They went back to the accounting, which had been filed long ago, for Neighbouring Sounds, and artificially produced a problem inside the new ministry of culture – which has been weaponised by the far-right – and gave a sentence, which is unprecedented within the history of Brazilian film funding. Particularly for a film that became a success, and that the same ministry of culture sent to the Oscars. So now they want us to give back the full sum of money invested in the film, plus inflation, which makes no sense whatsoever. It’s a system of bullying. And they plant stuff in the press, with their own journalists, in order to create a negative media view…
In order to silence you.
KMF: Which is not really working.
How did Udo Kier get involved?
JD: Udo is quite a character.
KMF: It was an amazing experience working with him. I first met him at a festival in Palm Springs, where he lives – a person I was talking to asked me if I’d like to meet him, and I said of course. He was wearing a purple suit, and he turned to me and said, “I was never [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder’s lover!”. It was the strangest introduction. He’s a very funny man, and I’m very moved by his work in the film.
JD: I always think about his eyes.
What were your cinematic reference points for the film?
KMF: I can never escape John Carpenter. And we were lucky to see him at the Quinzaine [Director’s Fortnight] on the day of the screening.
JD: We took a period of eight months to rush through the screenwriting process, and when we got stuck, we would stop and watch a film. So we watched a lot of Westerns. Maybe too many to remember…
KMF: An important film for us was by Sergio Corbucci, Compañeros, from 1971. We really liked it because it was very dirty, not like an American Western. It has bad manners, it’s rough, and we liked that atmosphere.
JD: One thing I liked very much was the idea of portraying the white man as the Indian, to change the positions of the Western.
KMF: Because, culturally speaking, most people here were taught by American cinema that the heroes are white and American, so you have a preconceived notion. And in this film, the Americans are photographed like classic heroes, but their actions are not very heroic. They’re actually committing atrocities.
JD: But we don’t treat the invaders as the classic Western strip Indians. We don’t see them from a distance – shouting and whistling. We go in close to them and hear what they have to say, so we don’t dehumanise them.
KMF: Though I’m still trying to understand how Americans react to this film. We’ve had some good reviews [from the American press], but if the film plays in, say, Washington DC, will they find it problematic? It’s all a question of presentation.
How did you come up with the idea of Americans hunting people for sport?
KMF: I find it absolutely possible that it might happen.
JD: We read an article about soldiers in Afghanistan who started to compete in shooting people. They weren’t fighting – they were just doing target practice.
KMF: And in the Congo, in the late 60s, with the Belgians… Bosnia, [Spanish conquistador Hernán] Cortés in Mexico, it’s a kind of atrocity that keeps repeating itself.
Though those happened in wars, whereas this takes a more corporate, globalised angle.
KMF: We specifically wrote the script to not give out too much information, to only give out hints about what could be happening. The [mystery of the earpieces the mercenaries wear] is something we liked – it’s inexpensive, we don’t have to cut to a studio in San Francisco or Oklahoma, but also… It doesn’t happen anymore, but in the 80s and 90s, German tourists flew out to Recife basically to be with very young girls – 12, 13 – and that was quite shocking, because you could see it on the beach. And I’m not saying this inspired the film, but it definitely came from personal experience from watching these kinds of things happen.
You’ve known each other for a long time…
JD: 15, 16 years…
What led you to co-direct?
JD: We’re friends – me as a production designer of his films, he produced and shot one of my films – and that’s it. We didn’t have a plan, it just happened. He was a film critic who I loved – I’m younger than him, and I used to read his reviews in the newspaper. He was very funny. He still is. And then I started to go to a cinema in Recife, and he was the programmer. We met and started to talk about films, and we both started to work in cinema, and he invited me to work with him. And that was that.
Photo: Ambra Vernuccio
Bacurau does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.