With a keen eye for poverty, despair and the tortured state of mind they can engender, Brazilian film director Fernando Meirelles offers the world masterfully crafted tales about the darker side of globalization.
"I live in a developing country. I see the world and everything from a different perspective," he said in an interview Wednesday.
Meirelles was catapulted onto the world stage in 2003, after the release of "City of God," his award-winning portrayal of poverty, drugs and crime in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. He said he was surprised by the reaction to the low-budget film, which featured friends and extras recruited from the slums where he was filming.
"They were unknown actors; there was no good-looking boy, no sex scenes, no romance. Even the violence was not as gory or graphic as in big action films here," he said.
Meirelles, 49, was in town this week for a screening of his latest film, "The Constant Gardener," based on a book of the same name by British author John le Carre. The screening was sponsored by Amnesty International and Oxfam, and was followed by a question-and-answer session.
The film is about a British diplomat's tortuous journey to Nairobi, Berlin, London and Sudan to uncover the truth about the death of his wife, who is killed just as she is about to expose the world's largest pharmaceutical firms for testing a tuberculosis drug that is killing unsuspecting African patients.
"Disposable drugs for disposable people," a doctor tells the forlorn diplomat. "Pharmaceuticals are up there with the arms dealers."
Meirelles was drawn to the story because of the much-publicized real-life conflict between multinational drug companies and Third World countries trying to produce their own generic versions of AIDS medications.
Before making the film, which opens Aug. 26, Meirelles had started working on "Intolerance," a movie about globalization set in seven countries and involving six characters: a 16-year-old Brazilian genius, a Kenyan runner, a Chinese worker, a Filipino terrorist, an American educator and a young woman from the United Arab Emirates.
He was offered the chance to direct "The Constant Gardener," an independent British production with American funding, during a stop in London on his way to Brazil from Kenya.
Born and raised in Sao Paolo, Meirelles traveled extensively in the United States, Asia and other regions while his father, a prominent gastroenterologist, studied abroad, presented papers or took his family on vacations.
When Meirelles was 12, he received a Super-8 camera for a gift and began exploring techniques and tricks to play with perceptions of reality "just for fun." He would film his friends as they jumped, capturing them mid-leap, and then would choose a sequence of frames for his edited footage that made them look like as if were walking on air.
In high school, he began researching foreign films for his school Cine Club, a hobby that became a lifetime vocation.
Meirelles studied architecture in college, a field he still loves, but the only house he ever designed and built is his own in Sao Paolo. "It was during my days in university when I first thought about doing film to make a living," he said. For his academic thesis, which was about big cities and urban living, he departed from tradition and produced a video documentary.
"I love architecture because I like spaces, and I believe I am good at understanding spaces and knowing where I am," he said.
He and a crew of friends later founded the innovative film company Olhar Eletronico, which produced comic news shows and a popular children's series for Brazilian public television in 1989.
He later branched out into commercials. But after 10 years, he became bored, despite the material success and huge clientele he had built up. "I was not learning new things and I felt my life had stopped."
Paulo Lins's novel "City of God" shocked Meirelles with its description of despair in the favelas, the crowded slums festering under the noses of more privileged Brazilians.
Now his company, 02 Films, is the biggest production company in Brazil.
He would like to continue working on films with Brazilian themes, similar to the way Spanish director Pedro Almodovar produces Spanish films for international audiences "while keeping his roots." "I like the way he deals with his topics," Meirelles said, listing Almodovar's "All About My Mother" and "Talk To Her," two films set in Spain that deal with such issues as homosexuality, prostitution and friendship. "He does what he wants to do in his country, but for others."
Meirelles and his wife of 21 years have a 20-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. Meirelles said he had turned down "hundreds" of offers from Hollywood to direct big productions, saying he would miss his family during long periods away from home and because "the stories I want to tell are my stories, not studio stories."