Oscar Directors: Meirelles, Fernando–City of God, The Constant Gardener

The first American film of Fernando Meirelles, the Oscar-nominated director of “City of God,” is “The Constant Gardener,” a romantic thriller adapted by Jeffrey Caine from John le Carr’s novel, filmed on location in Berlin, London, Nairobi and other parts of Kenya.

The international filmmaking team includes producer Simon Channing Williams (“Secrets & Lies”), director of photography Csar Charlone (Oscar nominee for “City of God”), editor Claire Simpson (Oscar winner for “Platoon”), and production designer Mark Tildesley (“28 Days Later”).

In a remote area of Northern Kenya, the region’s most dedicated activist, Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) is brutally murdered. Tessa’s travelling companion, a local doctor, appears to have fled the scene, and the evidence points to a crime of passion. Members of the British High Commission assume that Tessa’s widower, the mild-mannered diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), will leave the matter to their discretion. However, haunted by remorse and jarred by rumors of his wife’s infidelities, Justin plunges into a dangerous odyssey that turns out to be a crash course about an international conspiracy involving the pharmaceutical industry

Motivation to do the Film

The chance to take on some of the pharmaceutical industry was only one of three elements that made me want to direct The Constant Gardener. Another was the chance–and choice–to shoot in Kenya. It is also a very original love story. A man who marries a younger woman, and it’s after she dies that he truly falls in love with her and goes looking for her. It’s a beautiful tale, with a touch of the existential to it.

Justin’s Character (played by Ralph Fiennes)

At first glance, Justin appears very passive. He’s a civilized British gentleman, a polite diplomat who lives by a code. He doesn’t fully know what Tessa does; sometimes he would like to interfere, but he doesn’t, not because he’s weak but because he has an agreement with her, and he lives by that code as well. We were all interested in exploring just why Tessa was interested in Justin. She needs an anchor and Justin keeps her sane; he’s so controlled, and she’s so passionate.

Preparation for the Film

Im from Brazil, and over the past several years, we have been making generic pharmaceuticals, and if you try to make cheap versions of patented medicines, you very quickly learn a lot about the unbelievable power of the drug industry lobby. Ive been reading about this for the past few years–on Oxfam’s website, for example–and I realized that making a film is a good opportunity to prod them. The Constant Gardener is not so much political but, as a person from a developing country, I understand what happens in one. So I felt I could represent the Kenyans’ interests in the movie.

I studied Brian Woods’ and Michael Simkin’s U.K. Channel 4 program “Dying for Drugs” as documentary evidence on the practices of some pharmaceutical companies in the developing world. Most of the research had already been done by le Carr and is in the book. What isn’t in the book was provided by some well-informed medical contacts and fed to me in small spoonfuls as directed. It’s all very well to say, as no doubt some will, Big Pharma is too obvious a target.’ But evils need to be publicized and to go on being publicized as long as they exist, which is forever.

Pharmaceutical Companies

Activists accuse some Big Pharma companies of ignoring innovation to develop barely distinguishable “me-too” drugs based on proven “blockbusters,” focusing their efforts on what ails the rich Western market–heart disease, baldness and geriatric impotence–while slighting and outright ignoring the unprofitable, rampant diseases of the developing world. These countries are being ravaged by AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria (the last-named affecting approximately 500 million people a year and, by some estimates, killing a child every 20 seconds).

While these nascent nations bear an outsize burden of disease, they account for only a tiny fraction of Big Pharma’s profits. When all other arguments fail, some spokespeople for the pharmaceutical industry remind that theirs is not a philanthropic enterprise, and that their greatest responsibility is to their shareholders. This is a point on which the companies and their critics agree; the industry has made hundreds of billions of dollars; in 2002, total sales reached an estimated $430 billion.

Brazil Vs. Africa

Beginning in 1997, Brazil has been able to successfully reduce its death toll from AIDS by half, defying the pharmaceutical manufacturers and ignoring the threat of trade sanctions to provide low-cost anti-retroviral drugs. The country also fielded an
aggressive prevention campaign. Despite the progressive model Brazil has instituted, the efforts in my native country have not been replicated worldwide.

It’s hard to believe, but I think that Kibera is actually worse than the favelas of Rio where we filmed City of God and the TV series, City of Men. Csar Charlone and I had spent a lot of time in the favelas, and Kibera was still a shock for us. I can’t even imagine what the British crew thought. The poverty was sobering. As it turned out, many of Kenya’s crewmembers had never even been to Kibera, and were equally taken aback.

The Novel’s Criticism

The novel’s criticism of the British diplomatic corps did not prevent the current, real-life High Commissioner, Edward Clay, from offering his support to us. Edward helped us in many ways. Our actors were able to meet people from the High Commission, and went to their houses to see how they live. We had a lunch in London with diplomats working in Kenya. Our feeling, talking to them and being in their offices, was that the High Commission these days is like any other business. It looks like Unilever or Shell; it’s really about doing business, and making opportunities for business. Although it’s been 42 years since British rule in Kenya ended, there’s still a tie that binds now mostly for different reasons.

Third World Perspective

From the outset, my perspective was different from the novel’s. John le Carr wrote a story about a developing country and big business from the point of view of a person from the First World. When I read the book, I put myself in the other position. I saw myself in Africa, with the big companies coming in. In some respects, Caine’s script tells the story through Kenyan eyes and, as a person from the Third World, I identified more with the Kenyans than with the British.

The Third World perspective also ensured that, in addition to the hundreds of extras employed, a large proportion of the cast would be African (the film features Kenyan nationals in nearly three dozen speaking roles). The British crew was joined by 70 Kenyan crewmembers, represented across all departments, in addition to drivers, caterers, location hire staff, and labourers.

Kenya as a Character

Kenya is almost the third principal character in the movie. We originally considered shooting the Kenyan scenes in South Africa, where there is a thriving film industry and a more established infrastructure. The idea was to go to Kenya to see where the book was set and then go down to South Africa. But within 24 hours of our arrival, we knew that we didn’t want to move from Kenya at all. Of course, there were serious problems in terms of insurance, in terms of the perception that Kenya was a very dangerous place to be, which we found not to be the case. We fought long and hard; it was very clear from the outset that Kenya was where we should be.

The Film’s Look

We were very concerned that the film looked real. With my friend and collaborator of many years, cinematographer Csar Charlone, we were trying to show the truth, to be as faithful as we could be, using real locations and natural light. If a mortuary was lit with fluorescents, we went with fluorescent lighting. It was very important to us not to choose locations because they were more filmic or more beautiful.

As we got deeper into the project, it was as if we were dealing with two different realities, two different worlds. There was Justin’s old world, where he came from, with the British High Commission. As he finds out more about Tessa, she becomes his door into a new world, the real Africa that he had been unable or unwilling to see. We determined that Justin’s world (England) would in cool greens, while Tessa’s world (Africa) would be in warm reds.

The Play Within the Film

I saw a short film made by the SAFE (Sponsored Arts for Education) group, and asked Reding to turn it into a play for inclusion in the movie. The play scenes were filmed live before hundreds of Kibera residents, with Rachel Weisz and Hubert Kound, in-character as Tessa Quayle and Dr. Arnold Bluhm, also in the audience.

A lot of people are very reluctant even to say the word AIDS.’ If you can do a big enough show and really entertain them, if you can even make them laugh, then you can get them to talk about it. Wherever weve done the show, it starts a huge debate, with people discussing the use of condoms and so on. AIDS in Africa is a disaster on an unimaginable scale. Drugs are becoming more available now, and the people need to understand how and why to take them.

This educational approach to the crisis is crucial. Rumors spread quickly in a tight-knit community such as Kibera, and the stigma of AIDS can lead people to neither avail themselves of treatment nor make the efforts to prevent the virus from spreading. An indigenous organization, AMREF (African Medical Research Foundation), now has the capacity to distribute anti-retroviral drugs free of charge to all HIV-positive Kibera residents through a neighbourhood clinic.

Giving Back to Africa

We were determined from the outset to give something back to Kibera. In addition to providing jobs for as many locals as could be accommodated, the construction crew created a play area and soccer playing area, reinforced the roof of a dilapidated church, and built a bridge across a wide sewer to enable emergency vehicles to access residents living at the bottom of a ravine. We built the bridge, and later put a 10,000-liter fresh water tank next door to it. Our tank will provide water for free to everybody. We also built a ramp up to the railway line, in a similar position to one we used for the camera as a substitute for a crane shot, which will particularly help the elderly and the handicapped.


Fernando Meirelles was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for “City of God.” The feature adaptation of Paulo Lins’ novel “Cidade de Deus,” co-produced by Walter Salles’ Video Filmes, also received nominations for Adapted Screenplay (Brulio Mantovani), Cinematography (Csar Charlone), and Editing (Daniel Rezende). The film won more than 50 awards around the world.

Born in Brazil, Meirelles attended university there, graduating with a degree in architecture. While at school, he made his first experimental productions, using U-Matic equipment, which won prizes at various independent video festivals. With the same group of friends, he founded the innovative studio Olhar Eletrnico (Electronic Glance), bringing new life to Brazilian TV in the 1980s. For a decade, he produced a variety of programs for stations. In 1989, Meirelles created and directed the popular children’s series “R-Tim-Bum,” for Brazilian Public TV. The 190-episode series received the Gold Medal from the New York Film and Television Festival.

Meirelles then began directing commercials and promotional videos. His independent studio, O2 Filmes, became the largest in Brazil and over a 10-year period received the most prestigious national and international prizes, including five Cannes Lions, several Clios, and nine Professional of the Year awards. In 1997, Meirelles directed his first feature, “O Menino Maluquinho” (“Wacky, Wacky Boy”), with Fabrizia Pinto. In 2000, he directed the “Palace II” (“Golden Gate”) episode of the TV series Brava Gente Brasileira as a “rehearsal” for City of God. “Palace II” was re-edited as a short, and received the Best Short prize in the Panorama Section of the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.

In 2000, he also directed his second feature, “Domesticas” (Maids), with director Nando Olival, which was selected for competition at Rotterdam. Following the success of City of God, O2 Filmes teamed with Globo Television to produce five episodes annually of the follow-up television series “Cidade dos Homens” (“City of Men”). Meirelles produces all of the show’s episodes and also directed several of them. He is now developing a new film, Intolerance, and producing films from first-time Brazilian directors.