BERLIN — Produced by Primo Filmes in co-production with MPM Film, Tabuleiro Filmes and SP Cine, “Shine Your Eyes,” warmly received at Berlin, tells the story of Amadi (OC Ukeje), a Lagos musician who flies to Sao Paulo to track down his older brother Ikenna (Chukwudi Iwuji), who’s gone missing, and bring him back home.
As he immerses himself in a city of simmering life, following the scarce trail that his brother’s left behind, Amadi encounters a multitude of characters and, despite language barriers, starts seeing the possibility of a new life.
The debut fiction feature of Matias Mariani who had made the documentary ‘I Touched All Your Stuff,” “Shine Your Eyes” is a highlight of Brazil’s recent drive into diversity via its cinema. A movie that, by both celebrating the culture of its protagonists, the Igbo people, an ethnic group of South-Eastern Nigeria and the exuberant life of Sao Paulo, delivers a tale of two brothers which is striking in tone and aesthetic with a colorful palette of human interactions and multiple unsaid mysteries.
“Shine Your Eyes” is about identity but also cultural differences and finding a common ground, human connection, which the films captures really well,” says Panorama head Michael Stütz. He adds: “Mariani also manages to dive into a subculture African diaspora, talking about roots, where you come from, what is home, what does it mean, where can you find yourself?”
Variety talked to Mariani as his film. the kind that demands a second viewing, finishes up its screenings in the Berlinale’s Panorama section.
Your film feels very much like a matrioska that as it unfolds opens up issues and ideas about cultural identity, family dynamics, physic theories, among others. What was the genesis of the script?
A lot of it has to do with the experience of living abroad. I come from a very big and protective family. So when I moved to the U.S. it really felt a different existence, like the difference between you and the exterior are much clearer. You know who you are, where you stop and other people begin. I felt very lonely but at the same time very myself. On the other side was this attraction to Sao Paolo, where I was born. Which is a weird city, that people have even mythologized how ugly and savage it is. So when you say to someone that you miss Sao Paolo, it’s very hard to explain.
That’s when Maíra Bühler came in. We started doing research (about the Igbo culture) and giving Portuguese classes to a community in Sao Paolo. And it became less of an actual research and more of an interchange. You’re giving something and getting something in return. But I also remember coming back so doubtful, making a film about people that are so different from me. So a lot of the screenwriting process was making myself feel at peace with that idea and in that sense it was really important to have a lot of collaborators who made me feel comfortable in each area. I was more at ease working with actual contributors, scriptwriters who knew the story.
That same process of collaboration, one senses, feeds into the mise en scene. The film has a very clear visual style, portraying Sao Paolo via striking compositions. How did you try to find the right style for that?
I directed documentaries before but my actual 9 to 5 job is as a producer, so it might be one of the reasons why I approach collaboration in a different way than maybe people that come from a straight-up directing. I see a lot of directors that are protective, as if collaboration would somehow dilute their idea, would somehow make it less personal. For some reason, i have a lot off fears but this is not one, that really helped to let people really go into the script and into the images.
Leo Bittencourt, the DoP, is a close friend, the godfather of my child and was present throughout the whole process. So it’s hard to know where the idea began. I really didn’t need to write the city into the script too much because we would do that through mise en scene. He came with the idea of shooting in 4:3, I was very reluctant. I thought it felt gimmicky and I love Sao Paolo skylines which are very horizontal in nature. But he convinced to change the format of my phone and take pictures during a week and it felt amazing: The city opened up: How the 4:3 plays with the modernist architecture of Sao Paolo; how the lines appear much more in that format. But it came as well from talking with Chioma Thompson one of the script contributors. She understands a lot about Igbo mythology and religion. She gave me a book where I discovered that the mythological genesis of the universe in the Ibo religion is the idea of the square. So you had this concept that the world was a square originally and from there came the big bang, the breaking of that square. The square is perfection, the idea that things are in order. I felt this came into contrast with our idea of the celestial spheres, the sphere as a perfect figure. And talking to Fernando Timba, our art director, we decided to use the square as our shape and began figuring out how to visually break it.
Still today there’s this preconception of Latin American cinema as more bleak stories that handle social realism with a certain grit. In contrast, your film jumps from family drama, to horse racing equations, to magical realism, to moments of comedy, without losing some lightheartedness. How was the process of creating the film’s own tone.
As you say, that certain bleakness of Latin American cinema, that sense of urgency, we’re here to talk about social issues, so much pressing urgency to it. I totally get it and I understand why some Latin American cinema is like that and I respect it but at the same time I feel very disconnected, aesthetically and linguistically. That was something that I would constantly think about in this film. What’s the need for this film? How to explain to people why this film needs to be? As I was talking to Chukwudi, he said that to have characters who are not living from hand to mouth, who are not so much subject to the destiny of things because they are desperate, is in itself an act of subversion, specifically if you’re doing black characters. This is a heavy political, to give agency to characters like that. Of giving subjectivity, to create characters with rich inner roles. It’s heavily politica. That made me feel more at ease with the film – not being part of that tradition. Tone-wise I think it comes a lot from specific films, I wanted to emulate. “Into the White City,” by Alain Tanner; “C0de 46,” from Wintebottom, There was something about how they build their tone which is basically interpretation beyond simply aesthetics. And I knew I needed to find a tone because the actors were so diverse, OC who is a Hollywood actor and does much bigger roles in terms of gestures, then Chukwudi who is Shakespearian, thespian and then Indira who is more Brazilian theater which is very different from English theater. So there was a sense that if I did’t do anything, things would go all over the place.
Now, more than ever, that bleakness is very present in Latin America’s political and social climate. What is your perspective on what’s happening to Brazilian Cinema?
I’m glad you ask. I’ve been talking in interviews and I feel that I’m so pessimistic and I should give some sense of hope but that is not how I feel. We are in a very dark place. Art of course is not the worst, we have social economics, press freedoms, that have a stronger impact on people than cinema. And this is what people should focus on now. But talking about what I know, which is art, I think Bolsonaro is very intentionally closing down all the financial possibilities in filmmaking, theater, arts in general. There was a huge work community of thousands and thousands of people and now you’re in Rio or Sao Paulo and everyone is unemployed. There’s a sense of doom among people who have dedicated their whole life and suddenly from day to night things have stopped. And he did it because it was the main focus of opposition to him, something that he very much wanted and needed to silence in order to do all the other stuff he wanted to do. But is also about how he needs to tell stories that are more akin to what he is trying to do, that’s his main objective, to work his own narrative. People will continue to make cinema, that is without question, but the conditions in which it’s made will be set back, I think, for a long time. And it came exactly at the time where things were changing for Brazilian cinema, as a result its being taken care of by many politicians from both left and right. But I think this climate will reinforce those aesthetics that we’ve talked about, less subjectivity and more “savagery.”