I wrote briefly about Fernando Meirelles’ City of God several weeks ago, but the film has remained with me strongly since then, and I have found my thoughts returning to it again and again, particularly with respect to how the camera lens might represent a kind of critical distance that enables Rocket, the protagonist, to survive the Rio de Janeiro slum where he lives.
It is Rocket who narrates the film, so from the beginning the very structure of the story places him behind the camera as well as in front of it, allows him a vantage point from beyond the the events of the film, behind the lens of the film in a sense, from which to offer the order of a narrative. This sense of distance is reinforced by his narrative style, which seems to deliberate between many narrative possibilities, telling the audience that he must tell the story of this person before the story of another can be told, or returning to tell the same story but from a different perspective, all of which makes Rocket appear to be the agent of the film, located somewhere behind or beyond it, guiding and directing its images. Even the cinematography reinforces this effect, freezing into photograph-like still shots when Rocket introduces the characters, so that he seems not only to determine the images that will appear, but also to freeze them, like a photographer, forcing the audience to rest on a single frame rather than to continue uninterrupted through the imagined space of the film.
All of this cinematic apparatus reinforces the way that Rocket’s character interacts with the rest of the people who make up the slum where he lives, the City of God, a place ruled largely by gangsters and hoodlums and financed largely by drugs. Rocket remains always at a distance from this life, even when attempts to join it, and this distance is symbolized by his desire to be a photographer. Even before he actually has a camera, he still seems able to put his life at a critical distance in a way that the other characters are not. He is able to see his world through a lens for which the camera can only become a physical extension.
Even the other characters recognize that Rocket is different in this respect. When Little Ze, one of the gang leaders, is offered a camera in exchange for some drugs, he is about to refuse until he is reminded of Rocket’s love of photography, and he takes the camera as a gift for Rocket. Though Little Ze has no use for the camera himself, he recognizes that Rocket is able to use it in a way that he himself is not. Similarly, in a later scene, another drug lord wants pictures taken of his gang, but no one is able to work the camera, so he has Rocket come and take the pictures. Rocket has a knowledge of the camera that no one else has, just as he has a use for the camera that no one else has, the implication being, perhaps, that the others who live in the City of God do have some access to the critical distance represented by the camera but lack the ability or the knowledge to use it.
Eventually, it is Rocket’s camera that enables him to escape the City of God, as his pictures of the gang war are picked up accidentally by a newspaper, and he is then given the opportunity to be a photo-journalist, an opportunity on which he makes good. There are obvious practical reasons for this, of course, since his skills with a camera give him an advantage over many of the other characters who are skilled and trained only in poverty and violence. Even so, Rocket escapes the City of God as much because of what the camera represents as because of what it means as a practical skill. He survives because he is able to maintain a critical distance, a critical lens, between his life and himself. He is able to step back from the poverty and the violence enough to make meaning of it, to frame it in a picture, to narrate it in a story, and it is this ability that actually saves him.
It is my intuition that there is a real truth in this, a real truth in the idea that an ability to look at one’s own life with a certain critical distance, with a critical distance not separable from an artistic and narrative and meaning-making impulse, is crucial to surviving the evils of one’s world, whether that world be a Brazilian slum or a Canadian suburb. This critical distance will not guarantee a more accurate perspective on one’s world, of course, because it is always an act of creation and narration. Neither will it guarantee an easier or better life in one’s world, because it is always an act of resistance and critique. It will, however, I believe, I hope, as such things can be judged, offer the possibility of surviving what is evil in one’s world, and such survival is worth whatever cost it might entail.