Paul Baker/the Gauntlet

Blindness provides insight into humanity

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When Jose Saramago made his acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize in Literature, he recounted how, when it got very cold, his grandpa, a pig farmer, would grab his little piggies from outside and keep them in his bed to keep them warm. He didn't do this to be righteous, he did it out of common sense to keep them from dying.

This common sense, says Saramago, is what the world is lacking in a time where we are quite literally blinded from each other.

When actor, director and screenwriter Don McKellar read Saramago's novel Blindness nine years ago, he was struck by its focus on the threat to human dignity and the response of the main characters who fight for its preservation.

"I had the feeling that I was shocked by how far it was going, but, at the same time, I couldn't deny the truth to it, this sort of honesty of its observation of human behaviour," he explains. "[It] sort of surprised me because I usually think of myself as being much more optimistic, but I just couldn't deny that there was something believable about it."

The movie adaptation features Saramago's story about a blindness epidemic that hits a city-- any city-- and how a society disintegrates when its structure collapses and resources get scarce centering around an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo), his unaffected wife (Julianne Moore) and the makeshift family they acquire when confined to the asylum. Moore is the only character the audience is introduced to that can see and is forced into an outsider position where she struggles as the other's watchman.

"She's a hero, you know?" says McKellar. "She's not bred to be a hero. She doesn't think of herself that way at all. That's one of the cool things that I loved about the book is that the hero emerges out of a group of people. She's not established as being the hero at the beginning. She learns her responsibility and she learns she has that kind of inner strength that when she's called upon."

McKellar spent almost a decade trying to earn the rights to turn the novel into a movie as Saramago was against allowing the commercialization of his work. But after a visit from McKellar to his home in the Canary Islands, he agreed, imposing a few stipulations, including that it stayed out of the studio system. McKellar, who also acts in the film, ensures the film stayed largely independent-- despite the presence of big Hollywood names, including Danny Glover and Moore. The film's travels around the festival circuit have kept it true to Saramago's wishes, making stops from Cannes to Calgary.

Dr. Micheal Keren, a University of Calgary professor, uses the novel in his politics and literature class. Keren says he doesn't think the story is about some distant dystopian future, but a commentary on the world in which we live today.

"There was a point in the novel where someone says, 'We haven't become blind, we've always been blind,' " he explains. "I think that Saramago, being a very sharp-eyed Portuguese writer, looks at the ways in which we communicate with each other today. Or for example the ways which students at the University of Calgary communicate with each other. Take for example the fact that we are so preoccupied today with communicating through e-mail and Facebook and blogs and so on. It's a form of communication in which we don't see each other, in which we are mainly behind a screen. The whole idea of blindness reflects that to a large extent and I think Saramago asks himself, 'What are the political implications and what are the social implications, what are the human implications of a society that communicates without really looking at each other.' "

The implications of being linked to so many people change the consequences of relationships, Keren says. The commitment one feels to their peers is so weak that when things go bad, there aren't the bonds needed to distribute limited resources fairly. Society's loss of common sense that brings people together is lost when people aren't communicating in effective ways. Friendship, he says, turns into a general concept that's used but not internalized, allowing other forces in society to take over, such as the asylum TV monitors and later the evildoers who take control of the asylum's reserves.

"This vision of society as being a shell that could crack so easily really struck me," McKellar says. "It's the core of the film. You feel this descent and this sort of barbarism that is underneath this veil of civility that I just felt was important to hold on to. When you read the book you get to that feeling where-- it goes much farther in the book-- 'I just can't believe I'm reading this, I don't want to read this,' but it's sort of a crucial element that you want to preserve, that humans are resilient, that's sort of the hope of this book. Despite the extremes that it's going to, people can survive, people can persevere."

Director Fernando Meirelles manages to take this grim concept and translate it into a visually striking film, especially utitlizing white light transitions. The film does a good job transferring the novel's lack of paragraph breaks, causing the viewer to feel as if they're falling quickly into an abyss without having a chance to stop and think about how easy one transgression leads to the next.

Just like the novel is taking place anywhere and nowhere, Keren says there's no clear distinction either between the good guys and the bad guys-- despite the complete degradation of the society.

"I think he shows that evil can actually emerge out of a society just because the opportunity arises," he says. "I don't think that anyone in the novel is inherently good or inherently evil. You have the car thief, the good Samaritan who brings the first guy that goes blind home and steal his car. And Saramago tells us he doesn't steal his car because he's a big thief, but because the opportunity emerged I think the same is true about the evil-doers in the asylum, the opportunity just emerges and that's the point. When you don't have a society with a social structure with a social contract, with true friendship, with true commitment and compassion between people, the opportunity is going to emerge for evil-doers to take control."