Set against the background of Nigeria’s vibrant Igbo community in downtown São Paulo, Matías Mariani’s “Shine Your Eyes” has been acquired by Netflix, which will launch the film on July 29.
The global licensing deal was closed with Netflix Africa, which is likely keen to leverage the star power of lead O.C. Ukeje, whose career has bridged international titles (“Half of a Yellow Sun,” with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton) and multi-prized Nigerian movies (“Two Brides and a Baby,” “Confusion Na Wa”).
In Brazil, “Shine Your Eyes” is scheduled for theatrical release in November, COVID-19 allowing, from leading independent film distributor Vitrine Filmes, before it is made available on Netflix.
Mariani’s fiction feature debut, “Shine Your Eyes,” world premiered to wide acclaim at February’s Berlinale, in its main Panorama sidebar.
The Netflix deal is a big coup for Paris-based sales agent MPM Premium and Mariani himself, a producer on Heitor Dhalia’s seminal 2007 Sundance-selected “Drained” and “Adrift,” which played Cannes Un Certain Regard in 2009, and screenwriter on Julia Murat’s “Pendular,” a 2017 Berlinale Fipresci Award winner.
Netflix’s acquisition comes at a time when a near total freeze on state funding for Brazilian cinema imposed by Jair Bolsonaro’s government from last year, and compounded by rampant COVID-19 contagion, has converted global streaming platforms into one of the only major sources of film revenue in the country.
Consolidating Mariani’s reputation as a talent to track in Brazil, Netflix’s acquisition also informs a wider strategy of ramping up involvement in Brazilian movies that address Brazil’s Black community.
In 2018, just 4% of funding applications for Brazil’s Fundo Sectorial do Audiovisual came from Black filmmakers. This year, the two biggest Brazilian movies at Berlin — competition entry “All the Dead Ones” and “Shine Your Eyes” — both focus on Brazil’s majority Black population, as Brazilian cinema and TV drives into diversity.
“Shine Your Eyes” transcends its setting and features Black protagonists who reflect on the weight of cultural tradition, family dynamics and identity.
Its dreamlike psychological thriller format is set in motion when Amadi (Ukeje), a musician from Lagos in his 30s, flies to São Paulo to find his older brother Ikenna (Royal Shakespearian actor Chukwudi Iwuji), who has gone missing. Amadi soon discovers that Ikenna was not the distinguished mathematician he makes himself out to be online.
While Ikenna searches for a sense to the universe, Amadi tries to forge his own identity as he grates at the tradition of the Nigerian Igbo community of the first born taking responsibility for a whole family, which will become his burden if his brother is dead. Amadi also senses the possibility of reinventing himself in São Paulo through an increasingly warm relationship with Emília, Ikenna’s Brazilian ex-girlfriend.
Both Ukeje and Iwuji are Igbos. Aided by Igbo co-screenwriter Chika Anadu, “Shine Your Eyes” paints a portrait of São Paulo’s Black community that is never patronizing nor one of social-issue-driven abject poverty.
“Chukwudi [Iwuji] 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,” Mariani said in an extended interview with Variety at Berlin. “This is heavily political, giving agency to characters like that, [and] giving subjectivity, creating characters with rich inner lives.”
“Shine Your Eyes” is produced by Brazil’s Primo Filmes, and co-produced by France’s MPM Film, Brazil’s Tabuleiro Files and São Paulo’s Spcine, with the support of France’s CNC and Cinema du Monde program,