March 28, 2012

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov

Neighboring Sounds

Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds opens with contextless black-and-white stills implying a history of subjugation: villagers interviewed by tailored officials, laborers hoeing a field. "Slavery is very much present in our everyday life in Brazil," Filho noted Saturday night after a New Directors/New Films screening. He's a critic and director making his fiction feature debut after a series of shorts and a feature mockumentary. Part of the inspiration, he said, came from a bad job where the boss treated workers like sugar cane plantation laborers. Unspoken but fraught class tensions are the subject, examined in an often oblique fashion.

The balcony view from the condo managed by João (Gustavo Jahn) is spectacular, all blue skies and massive buildings. It's not exactly Do the Right Thing, but João has Mookie's awkwardly hunched, walk-no-faster-than-required gait. When asked if he likes his job, he frankly replies "I hate it," and the reason's clear. Not just a broker but an temperature taker of neighborhood goodwill, João's daily routine accords equal importance to showing prospective residents apartments and roaming the block, maintaining good terms with remaining non-tower neighbors without pushing them too hard about who might be robbing his latest hook-up's car.

Neighboring Sounds

Cars regularly have their CD players jacked on this street (Filho's own). Early in the film, a two-person private security guard team shows up and offers to sit and watch the street all night for a reasonable fee. With the Trayvon Martin saga lingering in mind, this may seem like an invitation to vigilante violence, but rest assured Neighborhood Sounds' intentions are non-didactic and far less obvious. The closest anyone gets to overtly saying something horrible comes at a condo meeting, when the tenants' privileged expectations come into full ugly view. The night guard is sleeping on the job, and they have the surreptitiously captured video camera footage to prove it. João protests the doorman's been there for years, is three years from retirement and generally doesn't deserve unceremonious termination. Essentially, he's arguing that the new masters of a neighborhood that's been decimated to accommodate them should try a little harder to respect the remaining locals, but no dice.

Filho's cinephilic nods are the opposite of Quentin Tarantino's wholesale pillaging. He acknowledges restaging-as-homage with a Jackie Brown poster, but his own tributes are more oblique. After a leisurely immersion in condo life, a countryside sequence introduces the first scares, upending the usual cliché of rural life being more soothing than urban routine. João and his fiancé Sofia (Irma Brown) pass by a school named after "João Carpenterio" (aka John Carpenter, an admitted inspiration) and check out a former movie theater overrun with tall grass, soundtracked by screams from Plan 9 from Outer Space. This would-be idyll's capped off with a refreshing immersion under a waterfall, which turns blood red with no explanation. Later, visions of marauders stealing everything from an apartment complex are revealed as a dream, while a key killing isn't shown at all.

Like Nicolas Klotz's Low Life, horror tropes underpin this portrait of a deeply unequal society that can't openly articulate its divisions. But most of Neighboring Sounds is basically just hanging out with neighborhood residents going about their daily lives: glaring at barking dogs, going for nighttime swims in the nearby ocean, drinking coffee and swapping romantic tales. Over two hours, the shift from slow-paced, relaxed immersion in apartment life to something angrier is barely perceptible.

The Ambassador

I truly despised Mads Brügger's The Red Chapel. The footage of North Korea was neat, but all the reflexively self-questioning narration about whether Brügger was being an asshole in his numerous pretenses added up to "yes." Matters weren't helped by the grey-green visual ugliness, which couldn't be explained merely by the logistics of using concealed cameras. In The Ambassador, the inexplicably drab shades of The Red Chapel are gone. Director of photography Johan Stahl Winthereik has taken that putrid filter off and shoots in luscious color.

An hour of The Ambassador would suffice to demonstrate Brügger's unobjectionable thesis, that disorganized third world countries with no hierarchy act "as a magnet on white men with hidden agendas." Brügger proves this by paying for diplomatic status for the Central Republic of Africa—a barely functional state ruled by shifting dictatorial fiat—and trying to get his hands on some blood diamonds. Before that, he declares he's done with the world of penny-pinching journalism: from now on, he's going to "travel the world with a suitcase full of diamonds."

The Ambassador

Cynically, one might propose that Brügger’s documentary demonstrates how hard it is to get accredited as a representative by cash-strapped African states for the sole purpose of exploitation. (They need the lump-sum payment; the white men want the jewelry.) He spends most of the film trying to get shady functionary Willem Tijssen to hook him up with the appropriate paperwork, only to have his efforts frustrated time and again. While waiting for his diplomatic papers, Brügger puffs on his cigarette holder and spouts racist garbage against the Chinese to endear himself to his CAR negotiators, who fear their former European exploiters will be replaced by inscrutable Asians. He clearly enjoys his Sacha Baron Cohen moments of provocation, none more so than when he starts babbling to a gem merchant about how Hitler had many funny moments.

Forty minutes of increasing tedium come after that, repeating the same futile negotiations over and over. Still, it's hard to entirely condemn a project clearly undertaken at great personal risk. It's worth noting that Brügger has seriously angered Tijssen, whose LinkedIn is about as overtly corrupt as they come, and who's spent a great deal of time and trouble going around the internet proclaiming The Ambassador to be a "f*ckumnetary" (his asterisk). That’s not really the case. No matter how pokey his film can get, Brügger meets the reporting standard recently articulated by Teju Cole in his much-circulated essay on "The White Savior-Industrial Complex," looking beyond the obvious pathos-laden problems of conflict diamonds to detail problems "of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order."

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Posted by ahillis at March 28, 2012 10:18 AM