Kleber Mendonça Filho is among the foremost contemporary cinematic chroniclers of home and hearth. Throughout his career, he’s explored the impact of neoliberalism in Brazil, often through the lens of his hometown, Recife. His first feature-length fiction film, Neighboring Sounds (2012), was shot partially in his own apartment complex. One plot thread, which concerns complaints and clashes over an endlessly barking dog, was written into the script based on a real incident in Mendonça Filho’s building. The dog even played itself, further blurring the line between fiction and autofiction.
In his new documentary, Pictures of Ghosts, Mendonça Filho adds to the story of the dog, which died not long after shooting completed. When Neighboring Sounds premiered on television, many people in the complex watched the broadcast. Once again, the barking filled the apartments. It’s a vivid illustration of the way media can moderate the interplay between history and memory. The new film’s title makes this plain, although it can be read in other ways as well. In a sense all pictures are of ghosts, since what they depict has already passed.
Sorting through home movies, archival photographs, and clips from his own work (Neighboring Sounds along with his earlier documentaries and shorts, plus 2018’s Aquarius), Mendonça Filho creates a time machine shuttling between different moments in Recife during his lifetime. Grainy footage from his youth in his family’s apartment cuts to home video images of the playful movies he made there as a child, then transitions to professional film he shot there as an adult, followed by contemporary digital footage of his young children in the same hallways. He deploys this simple but effective method of direct comparison between past and present throughout; for example, we see the Art Palácio, once a venerable movie palace where Mendonça Filho both saw films and worked, in its beautiful heyday and as it is now, boarded up, its paint peeling.
Such explorations of former movie houses consume much of the film’s running time. Pictures of Ghosts is concerned not just with how cinema makes memory tangible, but also how we historically have interacted with it. The Art Palácio is one of several theaters featured. Each is scrutinized not merely as a venue but as part of the community; Mendonça Filho found numerous images of the Veneza Theater because of its location on one end of a picturesque bridge where many people posed for snapshots over the decades. His reminisces are not all nostalgic, though; some are critical. The Art Palácio, for instance, was built under the auspices of the German film studio UFA when it was under direct Nazi control, though it never fulfilled its propagandistic function. Art both impacts and is impacted by politics — in almost every case of a now-shuttered theater, the culprit is a decaying infrastructure for Recife’s local culture, sacrificed over time to gentrification and tourism.
In one scene, the title of Pictures of Ghosts becomes startlingly literal. Mendonça Filho shows the viewer how, in the process of digitizing old video footage of the Moderno theater, bizarre warps manifested in the images. It’s a tangible demonstration of how memory can be distorted. Or maybe it’s evidence of the spirits of these places, now haunting the archive. In reconstructing the past, Mendonça Filho suggests there might not be much difference between a picture and a ghost.