Thursday, 13 May 2010

Interview: Fernando Meirelles

On the eve of his first retrospective outside of Brazil, I spoke to director Fernando Meirelles about the lasting legacy of his outstanding masterpiece, City of God...

I am sat in the office of Lúcia Nagib, a published academic authority on world cinema. Opposite me, from behind thick-lensed glasses, smiles the man whom she calls “one of the very best film directors in the world today.”

Fernando Meirelles is in Leeds to give a workshop to the university’s Spanish and Portuguese students before attending his own retrospective at the Bradford International Film Festival, but I find him surprisingly uncomfortable about the opportunity to reflect on his own work. “I try and look forward” he says, “I don’t look back, so I don’t watch my films after they’re released. Maybe when I’m 80 I’ll want to see what I’ve done, but not now.”

“When I shot City of God I was thinking about my Brazilian audience, and showing Brazil to the Brazilians – middle class Brazilians.”

Pushing him to name a favourite, it’s perhaps not surprising that he names City of God, his epic adaptation of Paulo Lins’ autobiographical account of life in Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious favela. Although it has enjoyed unprecedented worldwide popularity since its release in 2002, Meirelles appears just as proud with its domestic popularity amongst Brazilians (a rare accolade for a Brazilian film) as he is with its several Oscar nominations and long list of international awards.

“When I shot the film I was thinking about my Brazilian audience, and showing Brazil to the Brazilians – middle class Brazilians. I read the book and was so amazed to think that these stories were happening next to my house in São Paulo too. So I decided to make that film to help us understand the world which was so close to us. The worldwide success was an accident.”

The film’s influence can be seen in both 2005’s Tsotsi and its depiction of adolescent slum life in South Africa, and 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, the dizzying opening chase scene from which could almost have been lifted directly from Meirelles’ film (down to the very last petrified chicken). But the film has also made its influence felt in more pertinent terms than cinema stylistics.

At the beginning of the century, about one in five of Rio de Janeiro’s population lived (and continue to live) below the poverty line in one of the city’s 600-odd favelas, yet, Meirelles tells me, few people would have even known what a favela was. “To solve a problem the first thing you have to do is see the problem. So first there was the book, and then there was the film, and then television shows and other films all about favelas. Now, Brazil is getting better. There’s still the ‘official’ society and then this invisible society, but now [that the favelas are well-known issue, Rio] is getting much better.

“In the last four years they’ve been trying out what they call the ‘pacifier police’. Usually the police working in the favelas were just about confrontation – at least once every week they would invade to try and hunt the criminals. But now they realised that it’s much more effective to be on the inside rather than invading and parting the community.

“So, in one favela in the centre of Rio, they created a police station in the middle of the favela, which itself is something completely new. And instead of using a man they assigned a woman to control the area, unarmed. She started talking to people and getting the community involved, so that all the people who lived in the favela supported the police and not the criminals. And the project worked so well that now they are setting up these pacifier police stations all over Rio.

“There was a sort of invisibility to the favelas – we couldn’t see them. But with his book Paulo showed us. The drug dealers aren’t controlling the areas anymore – they’ve really been kicked out of the favelas. So the book really triggered a process that made change possible, and it’s working extremely well.” Meirelles’ speech, always very animated, now undulates with enthusiasm.

The process of shooting the film itself seemed to precede this emerging collaboration between the ‘official’ society and those marginalised in the favelas. From a cast which was comprised of children who were themselves from the City of God, Meirelles captured performances which were as close to reality as possible.

“I would ask them to improvise scenes that were already in the script. Then every day I would take notes of whatever they’d say and email them to the writer [Bráulio Mantovani] who would write them into the finished script. The reason [that the boys’ acting] is so good is because they are saying their own words.

“When we were filming all the scenes were rehearsed, but because the actors were not professional actors, instead of saying ‘walk here, stop here, then give this line’ they could walk wherever they wanted and really improvise. Then the camera would tell the story like a documentary.”

Meirelles’ technique of filming unstaged action isn’t surprising considering an early fascination with TV documentaries. “I’m always regretting that I’m not making a documentary. During the ‘80s I had a TV show in Brazil with some friends. It was mostly video journalism but it was normally fake news, and we would talk with real people about subjects that we’d just made up.” He shakes his head nostalgically and gives one of his ever-so-slightly goofy chuckles.
The show was called Olhar Eletrônico, or Electronic Eye, and it had an immediate effect in injecting a new satirical dynamism into Brazilian television. Its daring mixture of genres – faux-investigative reportage laced with quite slapstick comedy, to end up with irreverent satire – and innovative presentation is something that we see throughout all of Meirelles’ feature films since. 2001’s low-budget short Domésticas mixes deadpan comedy with candid talking head confessionals; 2008’s Blindness courted much criticism for its controversial use of blindness as an extended metaphor for humanity’s evil; City of God itself has a dark comic vein pulsing through the film that is sometimes, in the violent context, difficult to stomach.

Clearly well-rehearsed by now at defending the film’s frank representation of such an unforgiving existence, Meirelles is quick to remind me of what the film spares the viewer when I suggest the violence is gratuitous.

“I don’t think the film is gratuitous, at all. On the contrary, I think the film really softens the situation. I mean, we had us about six months of preparation before shooting the film in Rio, and by chance our production company offices were right by the City of God neighbourhood. So during that period I started to collect news from newspapers about what was happening inside the City of God. And in six months 64 boys were killed. In the film we see 20 or 30 boys. But in the reality of just six months it was much more. And the violence is not graphic. If you see any film on television, the violence is much more graphic than in City of God. You don’t see anyone getting shot and falling towards the camera. There is the presence of violence, and at the end of the film see a guy getting shot [in the chest] but it’s a wide shot. You see people dead, but we don’t see people being cut or killed, so the violence is really hidden in the film. And I think that when you hide something, you almost see more of it than when you show it. The mind fills the gap more vividly than the real image.

“Anyway” he continues, a grin creeping across his face, “I think it’s important to be challenging. I really like to be able to establish a dialogue with the audience. I don’t see the point in doing a film if it doesn’t do that, and if it doesn’t give an experience. Cinema is a bit of ritual for us today. We go to the cinema and then when we’re sat around a table later we’ll talk about the film.”
With its brash colours, growling soundtrack of Brazilian beats and brass, and Meirelles’ innovative use of quick-cutting, City of God is a film that is brimming with the presence of aggression, but resists going anywhere near the ultra-violence of many films.

This mastery of suggestion is something that is easy to trace to Meirelles’ early work. Since the ‘80s, Meirelles has been a highly regular presence on Brazilian TV, not only prolific in producing hugely successful comedies and dramas but also the thousands of commercials which he has filmed.

“Shooting commercials was really what taught me how to tell stories with images – it was my film school, and it was a very good film school to learn at. I mean, I’m an editor. I love to edit. That’s really when I feel I’m making the film – in the cutting room. On the set I’m just collecting materials.”

Our 20 minute interview has overrun to become an hour’s talk, and now Meirelles’ and Nagib’s nostalgic talk of life in São Paulo is making the ever-laidback Meirelles late for a Q&A in the Michael Sadler hall. I finish off by asking Meirelles if he has any other feature films in the pipeline. His reply is tentative. “I’m starting to prepare a film to be shot in America, in August, but I can’t say what because it’s not been officially announced yet. It’s about rock and roll, in California, in the ‘60s” he beams, before howling “Oh my God. I’ve told you too much!”
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