From Brazil to the injustice of Africa

Fernando Meirelles uses his Academy Award nomination to finance another edgy, ambitious project

Steven Snyder

Many words could be used to describe the brilliant and humble filmmaker Fernando Meirelles – words such as courageous, inventive, subversive and kinetic.

One word you won’t find in the list is “timid.”

He rose to international acclaim with his explosive 2002 epic “City of God,” a film about the gang culture of Rio de Janeiro. The film earned Meirelles a delayed Academy Award nomination for best director and the giddy praises of such critics as Roger Ebert, who called it one of the best films people would ever see. This month, Meirelles returns to movie screens with the equally passionate and provocative “The Constant Gardener,” proving he is anything but a one-hit wonder.

A native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Meirelles brazenly admits he has no connections with or interests in the Hollywood system.

“I don’t really care about all that,” he said in a recent interview with The Minnesota Daily. “Even the nomination for the Academy Award – if I was concerned about creating a career in Hollywood, that would be one thing. But I just want to tell the stories I want to tell.”

Meirelles said the nomination helped him fund and distribute his projects, but he doesn’t always need the resources of a big-budget affair. Financed by Focus Features, which Meirelles praised for giving him complete artistic freedom, Meirelles said he could have actually made “The Constant Gardener” with less equipment and a smaller budget. In fact, he said, working with a studio has its downside. Focus’ insurance prevented him from filming part of the film in Sudan, as he intended.

“I could never have filmed ‘City of God’ the way we did if a major studio was involved,” he said.

Though he had to make some sacrifices, “The Constant Gardener,” based on a novel by John Le Carre, was a considerable effort for the storyteller. Traversing multiple continents and featuring extensive footage filmed on-site in Kenya, the movie is more than a love story between Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, who star as a married couple. It is also a murder mystery, a documentation of African struggles and a rather pointed attack on the Western world of pharmaceutical industries.

In Brazil, Meirelles said, the government pays for 100 percent of its citizens’ AIDS medication. A few years back, however, the country found itself under extreme trade pressures from Western governments when it decided to produce generic AIDS medications after pharmaceutical companies refused to cut their costs.

In “The Constant Gardener,” these companies are not only depicted as profiteers, but murderers, testing out unsafe drugs on a desperate, unsuspecting African population. When Weisz gets too close to this truth, her character’s life is threatened.

Meirelles said he was attracted to the subject matter and the perspective he could bring to the project.

“It’s very different to see first-world Europe when you’re there and where you’re (on the) outside Ö the script was written in London but then I decided to do the film and started changing the script,” he said. “I think I told the same story but seen from the outside because I identify myself more with Kenya than with London.”

It is hardly surprising that Meirelles decided to change the perspective of the film; making changes so scripts and end products match his exact vision seems to be the mantra of his filmmaking philosophy.

One notable directing aspect of this vision, which he said his actors enjoy, is that he approaches scenes holistically.

“When I’m shooting the scenes I never actually break the scenes,” he said. “Usually people set up the camera, then set the light and the actor performs for the camera. Then you change camera position, take a 15-minute break, and I don’t do it like this; I run the scene from the top to the end.”

This accounts for the handheld look of his film and the numerous cuts that don’t exactly line up, because the actors are allowed to move around rather than hitting a predefined mark. “The Constant Gardener,” unlike a mainstream film, doesn’t have a feel of continuity. This results in a work that seems more jagged, unpolished and realistic.

Next on his agenda, Meirelles said, he plans to do a film on globalization – tentatively called “Intolerance” or, as he put it, ” ‘Intolerance, the Sequel’ ” – and if past history is any indication, it will be yet another energized deviation from the uninspired weekly routine of Hollywood fodder.

Most refreshing about meeting Meirelles is how defiant he is in avoiding the Hollywood system altogether, and how confident he is that his films don’t need to follow past formulas.

“What kind of movie is this?” he asked in complete seriousness. “Is it a thriller? Because it’s not a very good thriller. Is it a romance? I mean, what is it – I still don’t think I know.”