Netflix’s existential “Shine Your Eyes” searches for a man who “inhabits the world of fiction”

Netflix's existential "Shine Your Eyes" searches for a man who "inhabits the world of fiction"

“Shine Your Eyes,” is an impressive, immersive, and existential drama by Brazilian filmmaker Matias Mariani. The film is the first narrative feature by the director, who made the phenomenal true crime documentary, “I Touched All Your Stuff,” (co-directed with Maíra Bühler). 

In the feature, Amadi (O.C. Ukeje) travels from Lagos to São Paulo to bring his older brother, Ikenna (Chukwudi Iwuji), back home. However, as Amadi discovers in São Paulo, Ikenna is not who he says he is. His brother has created a parallel identity as a professor and only child. What unfolds is a kind of mystery. Although Amadi meets various people who knew Ikenna, he bemoans, “The more I search, the more he disappears.”

“Shine Your Eyes” is dazzlingly filmed as Amadi searched for his brother in São Paulo. Mariani shoots scenes at oblique angles or from overhead that highlight the characters among the gorgeous geometric architecture and cityscape. These images magnify his presence as they also convey the isolation of immigrants, emphasized by the language barriers of Amadi being in an unfamiliar land. 

Mariani also investigates the way technology makes us close, yet also distant, and the pressures of family and family traditions. His film is also filled with music, from a classical concert and a karaoke performance to Amadi, a musician, vamping with some friends. 

Via Skype, Mariani spoke with Salon about his fantastic new film. 

This is your feature debut. What prompted you to shift gears away from documentary and create a fictional story as well as shift from working with Maíra to directing solo?

I’ve been working in film for 15-20 years, and most of my films have been as a producer. I have a tendency to really face creative work as something very communal and collaborative. That probably comes from producing where you’re contributing, but you don’t have to worry about your “voice.” The films I did with Maíra — the documentary and our shorts — we were very close in collaborating, and it felt natural. Maíra helped me come up with this story, but I felt it was something I’d like to film alone. I can’t say why. I enjoy collaborating, and I wish to do other films as a co-director. It’s not a documentary or fiction film thing. They can be collaborations. But the scriptwriting was very collaborative, and we [there were six screenwriters plus Mariani] would pitch ideas and situations in a writer’s room. That was very important.

I have never been a verité filmmaker. Werner Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration” is about why truth is deeper than cinema verité. I think fictional construction is at the root of our search for truthfulness. “I Touched All Your Stuff” is about the art of storytelling and how you create and believe your own stories. I don’t feel after “Shine Your Eyes” that I won’t go back to documentaries, I do have ideas, but they are more essay-like, which is what “Touched” was. 

When people think of documentaries, they think something happened, and they register that. But that’s not what “Touched” is about or “Shine Your Eyes,” because for me, that is not interesting to make. 

How did you conceive of Amadi, his quest, and the people he met?

The origins of the idea came to me when I moved to New York to study film at NYU. I didn’t know anyone, and I felt very lost in the beginning. I had a clear sense of being a foreigner. It was bad, but it was also unique — it gave me a sense of individuality and being a stranger in a strange land. That’s where the idea comes from. I missed São Paulo a lot, and I realized how attached I was to São Paulo, a city I found beautiful, which not many people do. I wanted to make a film about a foreigner in São Paulo, and Maíra and I researched groups moving to São Paulo. Africans were creating a community here.

So, we taught Portuguese at a community center for free to immigrants for six months. It wasn’t research in that we were looking for something from them, it was more a transactional nature, and we used that to establish the characters. We then went to Nigeria for a month, and the characters came to us throughout this process. I reflected on the feeling of being a foreigner. It has to do with the way you react to things in a new country. And if you a react in the way that people don’t expect, they know you are not from there. I wanted to see if I could make a film where Amadi’s reactions showed his character without having to go into his backstory. 

Your previous film, “I Touched All Your Stuff,” features a search for an individual through the records left on a computer and/or phone. “Shine Your Eyes” features a not dissimilar narrative device, as Amadi tracks Ikenna through his computer and phone. He discovers that Ikenna has told lies and created an imaginary identity to escape detection. Can you explain your fascination with this idea of hiding in plain sight?

That’s a very American expression, “hide in plain sight.” We don’t have that in Portuguese. It is similar to “Touched” with the search for someone’s footprints and reconstructing them through what’s behind. Ikenna left the cell phone and computer and picture in Miro’s (Paolo André) house. There’s a sense for me that these [traces] we leave behind can tell so much about us. The internet is a place where that happened, and that’s a political thing — that’s where the wealth of information comes. But I don’t want to get into that. I’m touched by small things, like finding the earrings of an ex-girlfriend when you are cleaning the house. I find that cinematic, and good for storytelling, which is why I structured the film this way. I really wanted to talk about fiction and this idea that Ikenna is a fictionalizer; he creates stories and a world where he is a successful mathematician. That fiction has a spurious origin, and it comes from the first time a human is told a lie. I like to think about that. And that’s why Ikenna inhabits the world of fiction. 

I’d like to get your thoughts on the use of space in the film. You shoot the city in such an incredible way. The grit is palpable. The way you frame shots overhead, on a bias, or as an almost abstract is remarkable. How did you conceive of the visual compositions, which are really all about showing the isolation of the characters?

Coming from documentary filmmaking, I felt I wanted to spend a long time studying and thinking. In the documentary world, you have little time to frame shots and make things the way you want. I thought it was important to think through locations and framing and I had a DP who was close — he’s the godfather of my kid — and we spent the whole time talking about shots. The idea was that the beginning of the film, it was as if the camera was how Amadi viewed things; this omnipotent camera watching him. One of the Igbo consultants, Chioma Thompson, talked about the Igbo mythology, which has the square as the original shape, and not the circle. That gave us ideas. We shot in Academy ratio and seeing how that [square frame] looked blew me away. Another thing that helped us was that I thought of most of the locations before I thought of the story. They were places I felt I needed to shoot something, so the story was in the service of the locations rather than the other way around. I had to include the concert hall, but I had to come up with an idea to shoot there. 

The film features various music, from a classical concert to scene with a DJ at a nightclub to a karaoke performance, to Amadi, a musician, vamping with some friends. Can you talk about the way you incorporated music and these different genres into the story? 

Highlife [music] was from the early ’60s, and it was the way Nigerians and Ghanaians used the Caribbean music, like calypso — it links South America and Africa. The major thing I wanted to think about in the film was language, and what we can communicate without words. Language means Amadi can share things with Emília (Indira Nascimento) without speaking the same language. I think music has that quality; you don’t need to know what the singer is saying to thoroughly enjoy the music. It’s a powerful, nonverbal form of communication. It can tell so much about you and what you play and hear. Amadi could communicate through that. 

Another thing I wanted to do was try to show São Paulo through this as well. For Brazilians, our music is our biggest cultural expression. It’s on people’s mind when they think of Brazil. They imagine it having a sound. I wanted to subvert that. São Paulo is a big subversion — it’s not beautiful, it’s not by the sea, and our music is also much more cosmopolitan. We have samba, but our relationship to music in São Paulo is different, so I think that it is interesting to use music to tell the story. 

What observations do you have about African immigrants in Brazil? I understand that there are racial (and gender) hierarchies and inequalities in Brazil. Your film touches on this to a degree in depicting this minority immigrant community, but it never quite emphasizes racism.  Although Amadi does comment São Paulo is a “white people’s city.” Can you talk about the African diaspora in São Paulo?

Brazil is extremely racist. We are one of the most racist countries. But for a long time, we pretended it didn’t exist, which is why the situation got so bad. We have this myth that we’re a mixed breed, and all different races, but the diversity in smaller in a fancy restaurant and if you go to a favela it’s the reverse. 

In my original draft, I had more situations with racism discussed more openly but when I worked with an Igbo scriptwriter, she gave me insights. For an African, if you are raised in a country that is ethnically more homogeneous skin-tone wise, and grow up where black is status quo, the relationship is different than if you are born or raised in Brazil. I was trying to find ways to address it — how proud Africans were in Brazil, and how that works as a shield against the more devious side of Brazilian culture. This is why we didn’t put anything too on the nose in the film. The concert hall shot shows that Amadi and Emília are the only two black people in the whole room. 

I knew that in order for this story to be told the way it should, I needed contributors with experiences that were closer to what the characters live through on screen. Francine Barbosa, for example, was one of our screenwriters who focused a lot on writing Emília, and she — being a black Brazilian woman — could bring a concreteness to the character I would never have been able to do by myself. I think that having a diverse crew, and especially having a lot of head of crews being black Brazilians, allowed the story to be enriched tremendously by different viewpoints and different life experiences.

The film pivots on Ikenna’s identity as the eldest son in his family and the responsibilities of that, responsibilities that Amadi does not want. What can you say about this element of African culture and how it dovetails or deviates from Brazilian culture? 

On a personal note, I come from a big family that has demands and expectations about what you do. I shaped Amadi and Ikenna’s relationship to the one I had with my brother who was more carefree and did not have the expectation and responsibility I did. Our relationship was defined by that — what people expect from you, and how to carve a space for yourself. 

With Igbos and Brazilians, Igbos have this thing about the older male child that they are the ones who care for parents when they grow old and provide for the family, so when I got to know those aspects of the culture, I thought it was very drama-oriented and be a good dimension to add to the story. Brazil has a strong family bond, but it’s less than the Igbos. Ikenna needs to go back since Amadi doesn’t want to shoulder the responsibility. That’s how I saw my relationship with my brother.

“Shine Your Eyes” provides some interesting clues for Amadi to follow, as Ikenna is obsessed with statistics, trying to find ways of predicting horseraces, for example. Can you talk about developing these metaphysical aspects of your story and the more existential concepts in the film?

The film is not about what it’s supposed to be about in a way. I’m a sci-fi nerd. I grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury. I got these books when I was 12 or 13 and I think it has to do with that — what speculative fiction does; it puts your mind on a certain realm, you question reality and what we see in our everyday lives. I’m also very interested in science. I went to school for biology, and physics was an area of interest. One of the scriptwriters was a physicist, and he helped me build the world that Ikenna would inhabit.

This idea of randomness — and that the universe is extremely random, but when we try to simulate that, we cannot. You cannot write a book, film or video game and export that randomness. It’s such a peculiar characteristic. It defines who we are, and it is sheer luck — or bad luck. I wanted to discuss that in “Shine Your Eyes.”

“Shine Your Eyes” is now available to stream on Netflix.

Shine Your Eyes (Cidade Pássaro) – TEASER from TABULEIRO on Vimeo.

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