The Distance of the Lens

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.

  1. d,

    This is a very interesting article. I will need to hunt Amery up when I get a chance. While I would not go so far as to reject the idea of reconciliation as comprehensively as he does, he is very right that it is most people use it in a very glib and unthoughtful way. In order fore real reconciliation to occur, at least in my mind, the perpetrators must truly own their responsibility for their crimes, must voluntarily take it on themselves in whole. Of course, we would need a great deal more time to talk about this properly.

  2. John Jantunen said:


    I would like to agree with you more than I do but the film is, quite intentionally, framed, also, by the scene with the chicken and it is the chicken, as much as the camera (and I’m inclined to say more-so) that comes to represent Rocket. He is desperately afraid, always, and feels hunted. The camera, for him, is not such much a means of distancing himself from his life but of trying to give meaning to it, like gang affiliation is for Carrot and the dream of owning a farm is for Benny. Like the chicken, Rocket escapes the frying pan through good luck and fast feet but never, I think, loses the fear that he is being chased. Critical distance, I’m afraid to say, is reserved for those who have the luxury of not always having to look over their shoulder to see who might be pointing a gun their way. In regards to the narrative style of which you speak, that’s the way memory works; not to distance one from one’s past but because the disaparate events that make up one’s life only have meaning in relation to all the others, and that means they tend to jumble together as one’s mind struggles to re-arrange them into a pattern that, once again, creates meaning for oneself and, if it’s a film, for the viewer. Anyway, tis 11 and I must be off.


  3. d said:


    I agree and then I do not agree.

    How can one ‘own the responsibility’ of killing another person? How can one ‘take it on themselves in whole’? One cannot. I remember the classic Talmudic statement that to kill someone is to destroy an entire world, because when you kill someone you kill all of their possible descendants, all of the moments they could have participated in or influenced. One cannot own the responsibility of destroying a world. It is beyond the potential of any human being.

    In any case, I agree that ‘City of God’ is an incredible film.

  4. John,

    Yes, the obvious and dominant metaphor for Rocket is the chicken. I would not disagree. But Rocket distinguishes himself from the chicken by doing more than merely running. When he and the chicken are both caught between the two rival forces, the chicken can only keep running, but Rocket runs only far enough to get a good shot and even follows after the battle in order to photograph more of what is happening. The camera and the meaning-making perspective it symbolizes are what enables him, not to stop running, but to do more than run.

  5. d,

    I agree. It is never possible to take on one’s responsibility for a crime entirely, even a simple crime, never mind crimes like torture and murder (though I would be wary of a responsibility that spoke of the might-have-been, even if I recognize the reasons that it might want to speak in this way). It would have been better for me to say that reconciliation requires the perpetrators to be continually taking the responsibility for their crimes onto themselves without end, even though it will have no end, just as their victims must endure the memory and the consequences of these crimes without end. Reconciliation requires, not that perpetrators and victims somehow forget the crime, but that the perpetrators make themselves as subject to their crimes as their victims are, not in the sense of having endured the crime themselves, but in the sense of recognizing and living with its consequences. The perpetrators, in other words, must choose to identify with their victims, not for a moment, not for a time, but without end. Reconciliation does not occur when victims forgive their perpetrators, though this is necessary also, I believe, however scandalous it may seem. Reconciliation can occur only when the perpetrators choose to align themselves with their victims and become victims of their own crimes also, when they allow themselves to identify as far as they are able with the horror of what they have done and to make this the beginning of a consolation and a mercy to those they have wounded. If reconciliation has truly taken place, therefore, it will be recognized by the perpetrators, not only confessing to their crimes, but choosing to serve their victims, and this is why much of what we glibly call reconciliation is nothing of the sort.

  6. John Jantunen said:

    And what he enables himself to do is not to put himself at a distance, critical or otherwise, but to insert himself more fully into his environment. One could say, up until this scene, he had, in fact placed himself at a distance, as you suggested, and that the climax comes when he recognises that hovering on the margins, watching, is just as dangerous as assuming an active role (and really more so since he just pissed off a lot of crooked cops), the difference being that once he chooses to actively engage, unlike the chicken, he takes command of the role he is to play in the ongoing narrative that is his city. That is, he creates and I, for one, always see the act of creation as a means of narrowing the distance between oneself and people and places that populate the world in which one lives.

  7. John,

    We will probably need a few cups of coffee and an hour or two to go over this, but I did not mean to imply that there in an inactivity of a lack of agency in the critical distance created by the lense. Quite the opposite, the acts of making meaning, of narrating a story, of framing an image, are all deeply concerned with actively asserting a kind of agency in the world.

    However, though there is a sense in which the act of creation and the object that is created might narrow the distance between the artist and the world, I would maintain very strongly that the act of creation always arises out of the artist’s distance from the world, whether this distance is critical or otherwise, and that this distance is never trivial, but is always a fundamental alienation of the artist from the world.

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