Seeing the darkness
Deep introspection informs Fernando Meirelles’s latest vision, writes Susan Chenery
IT was amid the clamour, the flattering attention, the red carpets and canapes — all the exciting things that a successful film can bring — that Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles unaccountably hit a wall of depression and cracked up. His artful thriller The Constant Gardener had been the toast of the Venice film festival, he was the coolest guy in town, but he just couldn’t get out of bed and he didn’t know why.
‘‘ Everything was good in my life,’’ he says. ‘‘ My family was healthy, the relationship with my wife and kids was good, the film was good. I started making lists and could only conclude that my life was really perfect.
‘‘ But I was just so sad and depressed. I had never had this kind of feeling because I am a very optimistic person. I had always been able to do successful work and had never had any problems, but I had to stop and say, ‘ Wow, what is happening?’ I decided to take 2006 off and thought I would never do another film because the commotion was just too much. So I started therapy and gave myself time to look into it. I had never given myself time to go so deep.’’
This period of dark introspection would lead him to his latest film, Blindness . Based on the powerful novel by Jose Saramago, it is the story of what happens when an epidemic of white blindness strikes a city in wave after panicking wave. Trying to contain it, the authorities lock the afflicted into a mental asylum where all the rules of civilisation break down. A struggle for survival breaks out in a world of blind terror, ruled by sightless thugs.
The story resonated for Meirelles, whose own successful life had abruptly fallen apart and who had discovered the fragility of things.
‘‘ I thought it was quite similar to my story,’’ he says. ‘‘ Here is a society that is quite organised, then suddenly something happens and everything collapses. This film is like myself, in how much do we have to suffer to be able to face ourselves. There are really parts inside of us that we don’t want to see, our dark areas. When we talk about blindness there is also blindness regarding ourselves. We are very sophisticated but also very fragile. Something happens and it is gone, like a tsunami.
‘‘ I was coming out of the same kind of hard experience. Finding myself, I began to do this film. It was very mixed up, the process.’’
This is not the first time Meirelles
has ventured into unforgiving territory. His daring breakout film City of God, which he financed, was an electrifying, intoxicating journey into the slums of Rio de Janeiro: gang warfare told from the point of view of the slum children who grow into crime overlords. Filmed in the ghetto using an army of non-professionals, it was described by one critic as an ‘‘ almost military raid on this dangerous territory . . . something that combines filmmaking with oral history’’.
Meirelles, 53, comes from a middle-class family in Sao Paulo and initially studied architecture. He worked in television for many years because there was no money to finance films in Brazil until recently.
He insists that despite the hard-hitting subjects of his films ( The Constant Gardener is about corrupt pharmaceutical companies in Africa), it is not his intention to moralise. He is more an observer of humankind, saying that ‘‘ we need to learn how to see, to see ourselves, to see others, to see the planet that we are burning’’.
The tricky part of making a film about blind people from their perspective is that their stories need to be told authentically, but in a visual medium. ‘‘ When you do a film, everything is related to point of view, to vision,’’ the director says. ‘‘ When you have two characters in a dialogue, emotion is expressed by the way people look at each other, through the eyes. Especially in the cut, the edit. You usually cut when someone looks over. Film is all about point of view and in this film there is none.’’
To get into the mood, he conducted exercises in being blind that don’t sound like a whole lot of fun: ‘‘ You learn a lot of things, the sound and all the sensibility. For me it was comfortable to stay four or five hours blindfolded, walking. But what was interesting in all those exercises was that each person reacts in a very different way. I remember the sound guy after an hour blindfolded sat down, started crying and cried for 40 minutes. Some people got very irritated and sensitive and didn’t want anyone to help them across the road.
‘‘ For me it was comfortable, calm, relaxed. I really recommend it: to put on a blindfold and stay for hours, a really interesting experience. In a group, if you are chatting, you put on the blindfold and suddenly the conversation changes. Maybe because you don’t see the reactions of the others, you start talking about subjects that you wouldn’t normally talk about.’’
He has created moving pictures from the work of some powerful writers: The Constant Gardener was adapted from John le Carre’s novel; City of God from author Paulo Lins, and Blindness from the book by Nobel winner Saramago. None had been overly keen for their books to be made into films but all, Meirelles says, were very supportive.
‘‘ The interesting thing about the book Blindness is that when you first read it, it is very dramatic, very violent, but after you read it six or seven times, each time I read it there was more sarcasm and humour.
‘‘ When you adapt a book lots of things are lost, it is more the spirit of the book.’’
The spirit of Meirelles’s film is unrelentingly grim. But despite his cinematic view of humanity in peril, he still has faith in people.
‘‘ The way that society really disintegrates, that is what would happen,’’ he says. ‘‘ All those violent instincts and primitive behaviours would come out. But some people would find their humanity back, and in the film they were able to build a family.
‘‘ I trust the human being. We have this power, this energy. It is maybe a bit cliched, but [ with] love, if you know to love, you can build things.’’
Blindness opens on Thursday.
Blind leading the blind: A scene from the Fernando Meirelles feature Blindness , which was inspired by the Brazilian director’s bout of depression in 2006
Look within: Meirelles at Cannes last year