Brazil's lost movie palaces find new life in 'Pictures of Ghosts': 'Cinema has a way of mythifying'

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The first time Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho (“Neighbouring Sounds”) visited L.A.'s historic Broadway Theater District, he plotted a return with a camera to record the dozen movie palaces there, built between 1910 and 1931. Instead, he went local, digging into his collection of self-shot VHS, Betacam and Hi8 tapes, as well as capturing new footage of his hometown of Recife, Brazil, now the star of “Pictures of Ghosts,” his poignant, deeply personal documentary. A huge hit in Brazil, it’s split up into three chapters, beginning with the modernist apartment featured prominently in his early work, then the once-elegant movie houses where he fell in love with moving pictures, and last, a meditation on the future of these neglected architectural gems. It's a project he's been thinking about since he was a teenager standing in a supermarket, suddenly realizing it was a former cinema. “I looked up and I could see the portholes for the projection,” said Filho. “And I realized how much it says about time, the industry and how society behaves.”

Read more: The 27 best movie theaters in Los Angeles

Did you always know that someday your old footage could be put to use? 

I always had it in the back of my mind. I was also aware at an early age that things you keep — a piece of paper, photographs, video — become more interesting as time passes. Time is usually generous. A picture of two friends this afternoon will be more meaningful in 15 years, because they’ll change physically. I consider myself an amateur archivist. I've done quite a good job with the tapes. I kept them in a vertical position in my office over the years. In 2002, I copied everything to MiniDV, because I was afraid that the VHS would go bad. Recently, I went back and re-digitized everything again from the original tapes. I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to re-discover the material.

There’s a sense of you finding your way in “Pictures.” Did it take a long time to figure out a structure?

We always feel lost making films at some point. This was a very tricky film, because it doesn't have a script. Sometimes I knew where I was going, then I’d find something and it’d take me to the right or the left. But once I thought about beginning the film with [my family’s] apartment, I thought that’d be strong. I thought, “I have a film.”

You’ve said that during the research phase, you discovered that every household has an archivist.

It’s true. But it isn’t always someone you expect. The obvious role would be played by a grandmother or grandfather, because they’re older. But sometimes the archivist is a 50-something aunt or a 24-year-old nephew who happens to love photographs. I wrote on my Instagram account that I was making a film and needed images of Recife in the past. I opened a special account on Gmail, and the pictures began to pour in. It was beautiful. It was like, "You have 16 new messages," and each message came with a picture.

Read more: The movies are back. But we’re still learning how to love going to theaters again

What images instantly sparked joy?

Pictures [where] people were just happy to be in front of cinemas, with the marquee or a poster or a line of people in the background. That was precisely what I needed. I’m fascinated looking at old pictures, because someone is standing there, but I'm actually zooming past the main character and looking at the street or at the lady with a dog or the cars in the background, because it says a lot about time and life in society.

Talk about Los Angeles from the perspective of a dedicated moviegoer.

As an outside observer, I think Los Angeles has amazing options to discover films. I've been to the AFI. Last night I was at the Egyptian. The Vista is reopening. I was at the New Beverly on Sunday to see “Touch of Evil.” I think it's only natural that a place like the Egyptian should be renovated every 30 years, because it's part of history. I think L.A. has the obligation to keep its heritage going.

What about as a film critic and festival programmer from elsewhere? 

What my American friends don't realize is when you come to the U.S., like I did for the first time 30 years ago on a holiday, it really felt like I’d been here. You’re bombarded with Hollywood images from an early age, they’re burned into your brain as a non-U.S. citizen. So when you come to L.A., you’re very much inside a physical vision of cinema. What I’m trying to say is that I was emotionally connected to L.A. even before I came here.

How did the residents of Recife respond to “Pictures”?

It’s funny: The crowds in the city think it plays better for them than for anybody else. But I was in France three weeks ago for the French release, and, of course, they get it. It’s like saying, “You’ll never understand ‘Chinatown’ because you’re not from L.A.” Cinema has a way of mythifying. Like, with [my second feature] “Aquarius,” we shot in a building about a mile and a half from where I used to live. Now, because of the film, the place has become a tourist site where people take selfies. Or Matthew Perry’s death now, people are taking flowers to the “Friends” [apartment] building in New York City, but it was just a facade. [The “Friends”] never lived there. But they lived there in imagination and fantasy.

Get the Envelope newsletter, sent three times a week during awards season, for exclusive reporting, insights and commentary.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.