Follow Us on Twitter

Blindness - Fernando Meirelles interview

Blindness

Interview by Rob Carnevale

FERNANDO Meirelles, the Brazilian director of City of God and The Constant Gardener, talks about his latest project Blindness, the controversy surrounding it and why Stevie Wonder was involved in one of the most expensive jokes he’s ever played.

He also relates how the film has become an overwhelming success in his own country even though American audiences turned their backs on it, and why author Jose Saramago was reduced to tears after seeing the film.

Q. When this came back to you after the success of your other movies, did it feel like kind of a reward for those successes?
Fernando Meirelles: You know, it had nothing to do with the success of my other movies because when [Jose] Saramago sold the rights to Niv Fichman, the Canadian, he didn’t know I was going to direct. They first developed the script and then they tried to think about the possible director. They said they thought about me first, but I don’t believe it. Saramago didn’t know I was going to do it. They just told him later.

Q. How disappointed were you not to get the rights initially?
Fernando Meirelles: I just moved on very quickly. There was another book that I was interested in, from the same publisher, which was City of God. So we talked about the other one and started negotiating about City of God. So, it wasn’t a big deal. At that point, I’d been doing commercials for nine years and I really wanted to move on because my life was very boring. So, I just bought City of God and started working on it.

Q. Did you talk to Saramago about the book?
Fernando Meirelles: Actually, after I signed on to the project I went to Lisbon to meet him and I had a lot of questions. We met for dinner and I thought he was going to answer them but he didn’t want to. He said: “It’s my book and this is your film, so let’s not mix them up…” I really wanted to know a lot of things but in the end I think he was right. If he’d told me something about specific characters or events in the film I would try to follow whatever he’d said and not what I was thinking. I would have been a bit divided. In the end, I was happy that he didn’t want to talk about his book.

Q. Did you mention any of your casting ideas, such as Julianne Moore?
Fernando Meirelles: No, not at that point. His idea for the doctor’s wife was Susan Sarandon, who was also on my list. But we wanted an actress who was a bit younger. We needed her to be 10 or 12 years younger. There were three things he asked us: one, that the film should be spoken in English, so it could be very international; he didn’t want the story to be set in a specific place, it should be very generic; and the dog with the tears, he said he wanted a big dog. So, we had a big dog but he hated it [laughs].

Q. Has he seen the film and does he like it?
Fernando Meirelles: He saw it right after Cannes. I took the film to Lisbon because he couldn’t come to Cannes. I showed him in a very bad cinema screen in Lisbon and when the film finished he wouldn’t say anything. He was sitting next to me and he wouldn’t talk! I was sure he hated the film and didn’t know how to tell me. But then the lights came on and he was crying. He said he was as happy to see the film as he was when he finished writing the book. Actually, my son was seated in front of us, so when the lights turned on he turned his little camera and then at night at the hotel he put this video on YouTube. So, if you go to YouTube and put in Saramago, Blindness and maybe my name, this is the first thing that pops up. There’s like 200,000 hits already. My son’s footage is more successful than mine! But it’s a very moving moment because I was so pathetically nervous next to him. I was sure he hated it. But then when he said he loved it, I kissed him. I don’t kiss people a lot. But I kissed his head because I was so moved.

Q. How did he feel the film worked compared to the book, because the book is more of an allegory and the film is more naturalistic?
Fernando Meirelles: He said he liked it. He said they were different, because they had to be as there were different sensibilities and different people telling the same story. But what he liked about it was that the spirit of the book was totally respected by the film. I came from Lisbon yesterday and the day before yesterday, we had dinner together and he presented the screening. I didn’t stay to see it but before I left I went by his house to say goodbye and he was so moved. He said: “Fernando, yesterday I watched it again and it’s a great film.” He talked about the violence in the film and he really loved the texture of the tension… Again, he was very, very happy, so that was good news for me. But, again, he didn’t like the dog. And that’s an important thing to me because I had read this interview and among all his characters that he’d written for this book, he was asked which was his favourite and he said: “I could kill all my characters but the dog of tears.” So, for him the dog was really important and that’s why it was the only character he had something to ask for. And I missed it!

Q. Did the criticism from blind groups in America take you by surprise?
Fernando Meirelles: It was not a surprise because when we were preparing the film and they read the story was going to be shot, they [The National Federation of the Blind] wrote to us and said they didn’t approve of the project and they’d only approve if we sent them the script so they could revise and correct it. They were very bossy. So, we politely answered that they could have their own opinion, etc, etc, but it was our film. So, as promised, before we released the film they told us they were going to demonstrate and they carried out demonstrations in front of 75 cinemas, which is quite a big thing. To be honest, they missed the point completely. They thought the film tells the audience that blind people can’t be adapted, that blind people can’t work because they’re stupid and aggressive and it has nothing to do with blind people. It’s about human nature. It’s about people just going blind and losing their humanity. It’s a totally different story.

Q. Did Stevie Wonder give you any feedback about it as you use one of his songs?
Fernando Meirelles: Well, that was actually a little joke that happened when we were shooting. We were waiting to shoot the scene where Gael [Garcia Bernal] was talking on the microphone to attract everyone’s attention. But before doing that, he had the microphone in his hand and so, for fun, started singing Stevie Wonder [I Just Called To Say I Love You]. I thought that was funny and maybe we could shoot it. I wasn’t sure I was going to use it but we were laughing a lot, so finally I decided to use the joke and we bought the rights. That was the most expensive joke in my life. They charged us $50,000! But we paid.

Q. You say the story in the book and the film is about human nature. So what does it say about the human nature of a group that protests against something before it’s been released?
Fernando Meirelles: Well, what we found out about this group is that this organisation don’t really work for blind people. It’s more like a PR organisation. They want to promote the idea that there is an organisation for blind people. Other organisations have training for blind people for adaptation or school. They don’t have that. It’s just a news agency and it’s about promoting the idea that blind people can adapt. That’s fair. But I think their decision to protest before seeing or hearing the film was really a mistake. Saramago’s reply was quite aggressive. He said something like, [with regards to human blindness] there’s some people who can see but are blind, and some blind people who are really blind but can see how stupid somebody can be.

Q. Is this the first film you’ve made that’s not been praised by the international press?
Fernando Meirelles: Everybody can have their opinion. We’ve had some good reviews. The Guardian here, and the LA Times gave us a good review. It was really divided. But it’s a difficult film. There’s people who love the book and those who can’t read it to the end. The good news is that the film in Brazil is doing really well. We did an investment to do 300,000 tickets because it is a hard film to sell. So, we did 95 prints and we thought we were going to do 300,000 tickets. The Constant Gardener did 500,000 in Brazil, but this is a harder film so we thought that maybe it would do less. But now the film is now going to go to 900,000 and we might make a million. And that’s with no investment. It’s all word of mouth. We released eight weeks ago with 95 prints and still have 95 prints going on because the cinemas are still packed. So, audiences are responding very well… in Mexico as well.

But in the US the film didn’t work at all. I don’t know why. They released it four weeks ago and now we have only 80 prints left. The American audience wasn’t interested in seeing the story. They opened very wide and on the first weekend, the audience didn’t show up. They saw the trailer, saw the posters and decided they didn’t want to see a depressing film. So, they didn’t go. If the film hadn’t been so successful in Brazil or Mexico I’d say it was a problem with the film. But I’d say it’s a cultural thing. Maybe the election is really creating a tension. In this financial crisis, people are losing their jobs, losing their houses and losing their investments. It’s not a good moment for dark stories… because in the same week that we released Blindness, Beverly Hills Chihuahua opened on the same day and was a big hit!

Q. The blindness camps sounded like an interesting part of the process, which you took part in as well. What did you discover about yourself while doing that, because it makes you confront one of every person’s worst nightmares?
Fernando Meirelles: You know, we had groups where we blindfolded people for hours and did different exercises. In every group, there was always two or three people who, at some point after two or three hours, would sit down and cry. They really, really couldn’t go on – but we wouldn’t let them take off the blindfold. Somebody would go there and say: “No, let’s keep going.” But for me, it was the opposite. It was so comfortable and so cosy. I remember I did it twice. The first time we did a lot of things and we were taken to a restaurant, we were served and we had to eat while blindfolded. After lunch, the guy said we could remove our blindfolds but I didn’t want to. I think I stayed with the blindfold for another eight minutes. It was so pleasant being with myself. It’s so good because when you’re talking to people you don’t see their faces. When I’m talking to you [now] I have expressions, I’m trying to engage you. But if you can’t see, it’s much more free. It’s so liberating.

Another thing I’ve found, which is so interesting, is that when you’re blindfolded and you’re talking to somebody the conversation goes to places that it would never go if you could see the other person’s reaction. You start talking about very intimate things. It’s such an interesting experience. I recommend maybe Sunday morning and spending the day in a blindfold. It’s really, really interesting.

  1. Quite apart from his incorrect characterization of our objections to his movie, Mr. Meirelles proves in this interview that he knows nothing about the National Federation of the Blind and what we do. We operate three model training centers in the United States that offer the best available rehabilitation training to help people adapt to blindness, and we are very involved in mentoring blind youth and encouraging them to participate in careers that are falsely thought to be closed to the blind. And those things are just the tip of the iceberg. In our sixty-eight years of existence, we have done more good for blind people than any single organization that claims to “work for the blind.” This is because we are an organization of blind people, and blind people are in the best position to know what blind people truly need. The biggest problem that blind people face is the public misconceptions and misunderstandings about blindness and blind people, so public education is a critically important part of our mission, but it is not true to say that we are simply a “PR organization.”

    Chris Danielsen    Nov 19    #
  2. Block quote
    Q. Did the criticism from blind groups in America take you by surprise?
    Fernando Meirelles: It was not a surprise because when we were preparing the film and they read the story was going to be shot, they [The National Federation
    of the Blind] wrote to us and said they didn’t approve of the project and they’d only approve if we sent them the script so they could revise and correct
    it. They were very bossy. So, we politely answered that they could have their own opinion, etc, etc, but it was our film. So, as promised, before we released
    the film they told us they were going to demonstrate and they carried out demonstrations in front of 75 cinemas, which is quite a big thing. To be honest,
    they missed the point completely. They thought the film tells the audience that blind people can’t be adapted, that blind people can’t work because they’re
    stupid and aggressive and it has nothing to do with blind people. It’s about human nature. It’s about people just going blind and losing their humanity.
    It’s a totally different story.

    Q. You say the story in the book and the film is about human nature. So what does it say about the human nature of a group that protests against something
    before it’s been released?
    Fernando Meirelles: Well, what we found out about this group is that this organisation don’t really work for blind people. It’s more like a PR organisation.
    They want to promote the idea that there is an organisation for blind people. Other organisations have training for blind people for adaptation or school.
    They don’t have that. It’s just a news agency and it’s about promoting the idea that blind people can adapt. That’s fair. But I think their decision to
    protest before seeing or hearing the film was really a mistake. Saramago’s reply was quite aggressive. He said something like, [with regards to human blindness]
    there’s some people who can see but are blind, and some blind people who are really blind but can see how stupid somebody can be.
    Block quote end

    FM’s portrayal of the National Federation of the Blind is totally off-base. In January 2004 the NFB opened the National Federation of the Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, MD, which is the first research and training facility for blind people developed and sponsored by blind people. The NFB, which is the largest organization of blind people in the US, also gives out free white canes, sponsors camps for blind kids, promotes Braille literacy, works to improve accessibility of web sites, technology and so on.

    The issue is not simply one of portraying blind people as helpless and in need of some sighted person to redeem them. The issue is that Saramago uses the metaphor of blindness to begin with. If the virus had caused whites to become black or straights to become gay, theaters would be burning.

    In the US, more than two-thirds of all working-age blind people are “un“employed. Even more troubling, less than ten percent of blind kids are taught to read Braille — the only tool offering blind people true literacy and the common link among most successful blind people. These conditions have persisted despite a revolution in technology which has made it possible for blind people to participate in all aspects of society more fully than ever before. Furthermore, legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have had little impact.

    Nonetheless there are blind lawyers, computer programmers, certified medical transcriptionists, Diesel mechanics, teachers, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and so on. We do our own cleaning, shopping and cooking, and we have a wealth of leisure activities from mountain climbing to knittting.

    Many of us believe that the reason that more progress has not been made is because of misunderstanding and fear among sighted people. A 1991 Louis Harris survey conducted for the National Organization on Disability found that, “The public views disabled people as fundamentally different than the rest of the population, feeling admiration and pity most often. Embarrassment, apathy and fear are also common.” In short, there is prejudice.

    At the Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind (PAD,NFB), we are aware that a strong media presence has helped other minorities become integrated into the society. There hasn’t been a new, blind American superstar in decades and, when asked to name a famous blind woman, most people can only think of Helen Keller. PAD supports blind entertainers through scholarships, mentoring and networking. Our “Sound in Sight” CD features 18 tracks by promising blind recording artists. The artists donated the tracks and all proceeds support the scholarship fund. Visit www.padnfb.org

    Changing public perception of blindness is also important because of the affect it has on the not-yet-blind. Generally, men don’t
    wake up as women, whites don’t suddenly turn black and straight people don’t just become gay. However, this is exactly what happens in most cases of blindness.
    Most blind people (about eighty percent) become blind as adults. If they have been taught by society that blindness sentences a person to a life of uselessness
    and dependence, they become those things in their own mind. Misconceptions about blindness are the biggest obstacles to rehabilitation.

    Symbolism in literature, language and cinema is a powerful tool to maintain prejudice. In language, many phrases such as “old wives’ tale” and “black as the devil,” are now considered offensive. Blind, however, continues to be a synonym for ignorant and oblivious.

    For the sake of advancing the sense of terror, Saramago has taken a group, with whom most people are uncomfortable, focused on the most unsettling period of their transition from sighted to blind and tossed many of them into a situation which would have been intolerable if they’d had their vision. That’s exploitation. Again, I return to the point that this representation of blindness is contributing to the bigotry and oppression of actual human beings. Human beings, who are more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, experience criminal violence and so on. Using blindness as a metaphor may someday be an acceptable choice, but with the unemployment rate of working-age blind people being approximately ten times that of the general society and with Braille, the only tool offering blind people true literacy taught to only ten percent of blind kids, this is not that time.

    Donna Hill    Nov 19    #
  3. The offensive part of this metaphor is that it plays on the fears and prejudices of the general public toward blind people. It is similar to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in that it played on the public's view that Africans were less human than others. As Darwin wrote that they should be eliminated from the earth by the more evolved races. It is clear that the Writer and the Director both care not a whit for the truth.

    David Hammel    Nov 25    #