Wednesday, 26 March 2014

BLINDNESS (Meirelles 2008): A Co-Production that Looks to the Destruction of the National on Multiple Levels

(Beware of Spoilers)

Officially cited as a co-production between Canada, Brazil and Japan, Blindness also credits an impressive seventeen production companies as contributing, following which the screen reads “a very independent picture”. While the film never explicitly states the name of a city as its setting, iconic yellow cabs and busy streets indicate New York (despite the filming location being Guelph, Ontario). Clearly, much can be said about transnational film production in the age of globalization in regards to this film. Even more so however, the film seems to speak to the inevitability of the destruction of the National within a Globalized world.

When a mysterious plague referred to as the “white sickness” steals the eyesight of all but one woman, replacing it with only white light, chaos ensues. Within this narrative, the destruction of nation is literal. At first the government tries to control the situation by forcing the infected into quarantine, but with the number of the sick rising at a frightening rate, the quarantined find their quarters overcrowded, lacking in resources, and overrun by a select few patients. This is not a treatment centre nor is it a care facility. The only employees are heavily armed guards whose only concern is keeping the sick locked up and far from them. Shown in an extremely negative light, the guards are guilty of opening fire on the crowd, disregarding their basic human rights, and ignoring their pleas for help. If as government officials they represent the national, the eventual disappearance of the guards implies a combination of insignificance and powerlessness. They try to assert power by force in the beginning but eventually have to give up, presumably because the state of the world is out of control. 

Meanwhile, life inside the isolation facility quickly deteriorates until it itself becomes a representation of what we would consider to be the Third World, that is, the crowded, dirty, space seems unlivable by First World standards. Within the building are separate wards which come to stand in for different cities in this newly formed society, with each electing a ward representative. However, it is not long until people begin to challenge this imbedded desire to recreate democratic social standards, and instead revert to chaotic and violent means of asserting dominance to ensure survival. This results in one ward’s takeover, physical assaults (including sexual), and “war”.

Upon escaping the quarantine building, though, the characters find that the outside world they know has ceased to exist. Hopeful, and led by the only woman who can see, one group enchantedly begins to build a new life; a fresh start with less rigid social standards. In a beautifully sensual scene, the group feels the rain on their skin for the first time since being locked away, and their genuine happiness emphasizes the water as a symbol of rebirth. In a particularly telling scene, they all return to the home of their leader, where the women strip down and shower together. This communal shower, though not sexual, indicates a definite break from Western culture. Furthermore, the joy the women experience in this scene suggests a desired freedom from what used to be. This move away from what was expresses a break from concepts of national identity in a very positive light. Whereas within the quarantine people recreated a Third World experience, in the safety of this house, there is an expectation to build a new, utopian, world. 

Outside, people ravage one another in the streets in a ‘survival of the fittest’ plight, but when the narrator assures us with his final words that they will all regain their sight and that “This time, they would really see”, there is an implication that what the group has created inside the house will spread once the madness calms.

Not only is the film challenging the idea of national identity through the destruction of the functionality of the state and the social rules it abides by, but also through the characters themselves. The presence of multiculturalism is always the first way to problematize national identity since it suggests that people live in ‘hyphened spaces’. In other words, within a given nation there is a makeup of peoples who ‘belong’ to more than one culture. This immediately undermines the idea that they are responsible solely to one set of national policies and/or cultural standards related to one particular nation, and may in fact negotiate two or more opposing national ‘identities’. Within the film, this is portrayed through the use of two languages and many accents, as well as through racial tensions. Interestingly, it is suggested that racism will likely disappear in a world without eyesight. This takes place in a scene where a white man makes a racial slur about a black man. He does so without knowing the friend he is speaking to is himself black. When reminded by this black man that he cannot be sure of anyone’s race without his eyes, the man responds “I can tell from the voice”. Of course, he is wrong; the man he is talking about is shown to not be black. 

Another way that cultural specificity is questioned in the film is with its ambiguous relationship to religion. The question of whether divine intervention has had a role in the ‘white sickness’ is left unanswered, but a strong argument can be made. First, there is the fact that the people are plagued by a white light as opposed to blackness, which is what medical blindness is defined as. Meanwhile, white light has explicit associations to religion. 

Second, there is the church scene. Here, the woman with sight enters a church and finds that all the statues of religious (Christian) figures have been blindfolded. Reminiscent of the one religious scene in Meirelles’s earlier film City of God, high and canted angles are used, but the topic is not returned to and so the audience is left not knowing the significance of it. The characters do briefly speculate about what it might mean, wondering if the priest did it because he knew this plague was coming. It seems to me though that the blindfolds can be interpreted two ways, either this was a warning message to the people, or an attempt to keep God from seeing what people are really capable of in chaos. However, both interpretations imply the existence of God, as well as a confirmation of Christianity itself as the ‘correct’ religion. By not actually answering the question of divine intervention however, the film does not explicitly approve of this line of thought. Moreover, because of the film’s hostility towards national identity, the question of Christianity becomes yet another indicator of how complex such an idea really is; Christianity may be the ‘official’ religion of America, but because of the ‘melting pot’ representation of America, even this has to be problematized.

Blindness has a strikingly circular narrative structure. The film opens with a man going blind in his car. In the final scene, it is this man who suddenly regains his sight. The group celebrates for him and for themselves with the new found expectation they they too will see again.  At this point, the narrator wonders about the future of the characters. But the real question is what will their world be like now that the social standards have been destroyed along with the imagined security of national rights? Until the plague, national citizenship (in a First World especially) would have implied safety through government intervention and class hierarchy (a hierarchy that has historically had a relationship to gender and race as well). However, the white sickness not only took away this sense of security, but also broke down the hierarchies by forcing them to function without distinction of skin color and class. In a way, the sickness made them equals. 

Those who tried to recreate hierarchal systems were figured as evil and punished. Thus, the ambiguous ending of the film is flirting with the idea that in order to create a utopia, like the one pointed to in the house,  there has to first be a destruction of any system that is run on hierarchies, such as of class and race. Nationality is of course one of the strongest systems of this sort. By destroying peoples faith in such a system, the white sickness provides the first step towards a new world. In relation to globalization, this is very significant because in breaking away from national systems there is also a complete dissolution of borders, creating an open, globalized, world. Therefore, Mierelles seems to argue with this film that the only way to function efficiently and happily in a globalized world, with equality, is to destroy the national and live only in the global.