Volume 76, Number 4 | June 14 - 20 2006

Village People

Photo by Nimi Getter

Ralph Fiennes and filmmaker Robert Edwards on the set of his film, “Land of the Blind,” which opens at AMC Loews Village 7 on Friday.

Filmmaker Robert Edwards’ Double Vision

By Bonnie Rosenstock

When Robert Edwards wrote the movie script for “Land of the Blind” in early 2001, the world as we now know it occupied a very different landscape. What Edwards envisioned as a universal discourse on revolutionary ideals gone awry, religious fanaticism, terrorism and the power of memory has proven to be visionary and as timely as tomorrow’s headlines.The movie is deliberately set in an unnamed place and time.An idealistic soldier named Joe (Ralph Fiennes in a compelling performance) strikes up a relationship with a political prisoner named Thorne (the excellent Donald Sutherland).Through their illicit conversations in the maximum security prison where Thorne, a renowned poet, is held in solitary confinement and tortured, the average Joe begins to question the brutal dictatorship which grips his country. When Thorne is released, Joe conspires in the bloody coup d’etat that puts Thorne in power. But when Thorne creates a regime of equal brutality, Joe does some soul-searching that will put him at odds with his former idol. The film, which had its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, is slated to open in New York on June 16 in limited release (AMC Loews Village 7 at 3rd Avenue and 11th Street and AMC Empire 25 at 234 W. 42nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue) –much to Edwards’ dismay. He had hoped to convince the distributor to wait until autumn, past the summer blockbuster season, in order to give this politically provocative film a fighting chance. So Edwards, 42, a former military man who now calls the Lower East Side home, is mounting his own self-styled “grassroots guerilla campaign” to save “Land of the Blind” from “running for a week in New York City with no advertising and no press, and then vanishing like Jimmy Hoffa.”

There is a lot of symbolism in the film, starting with the title, “In the Land of the Blind the one-eyed man is king.” Who is the “one-eyed man”?

There isn’t one character. I wanted to play with the issues of blindness, sight and vision. There was a scene where we talked about that expression. It had to do with the sadistic prison guard and a changing set of glass eyes, but it bit the dust. The deleted scenes will be on the DVD.

Elephants appear at propitious moments.What do they represent?

It’s more interesting if the audience can bring its own interpretation to it. There’s the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant [also called the elephant in the dark]. It’s also the symbol of memory. There’s the African saying, “When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.” The elephant electrocution is real footage. The lore is that Edison and Westinghouse were feuding over whether AC or DC would be the current of choice. Edison electrocuted the elephant to prove that Westinghouse’s AC was dangerous. Some people who have seen the film take it as a reference to the Republican Party, which wasn’t my intention.

As a first-time director who wanted control over the film, how did you get financing?

My wife [Ferne Pearlstein] and I have been documentary filmmakers for [about] twelve years. A friend of mine who read this script suggested I submit it to the Nicholl Competition, a screenwriting competition sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I was a finalist and got flown to LA, and all of a sudden people were interested. I said it wasn’t for sale. I wanted to make it myself. Finally, in the fall of 2004 I got a call that a Frenchmen in London, Phillippe Martinez, wanted to make it immediately. I flew to London the next day, and we started pre-production that afternoon. I didn’t come back for fourteen months, except to move. My wife packed up the apartment on Elizabeth Street and sublet it. The condition of the financing was that it all be done in the UK and with mostly British actors. Technically, it’s a British film. Donald [Sutherland] is Canadian, which is Commonwealth. We shot it all in London, except for the seaside palace which was in Brighton.

Ralph Fiennes is a major talent. How did you get him to agree to do the film?

In the summer of 2002, I sent Ralph the script, he read it, liked it, we hit it off, and he said he wanted to do it. Even with him attached, it still took two and a half years to get the money together. I’ve got to hand it to Ralph. He took a chance on me. He was very involved, calling all the time to fit it into his schedule. He did the movie for almost no money by his standards. I owe him a lot. He is no Hollywood bullshit.

I have to admit that I was devastated that a poet could turn out to be so corrupted by power. I don’t expect artists to behave that way.

I’m glad you were surprised. Ideally, it makes it more tragic when he loses control of the revolution and his ideals run completely amok. I wanted an actor that had a heroic quality, and Donald has it in spades, which I hope misleads the audience into not seeing right away what was going to happen. My references are the philosopher-king, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Pavel, Alfred Jarry’s play “Pere Ubu,” and of course, Orwell because that looms so large over this whole discussion of totalitarianism.

Your film had its world premiere at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam in January and was the opening night film at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in London. How do Europeans view your film as compared to Americans?

Americans tend to see it very pointedly about Bush and the current administration because we are very parochial. In Europe they tend to see different parallels. Robert Mugabe [the despotic president of Zimbabwe] comes up a lot, Northern Ireland, Soviet Russia, Castro’s Cuba. I was worried when I wrote it that the American audience was automatically going to think this is a Banana Republic. I didn’t know that our own country was going to turn into a Banana Republic in the meantime. At the time the current political troubles weren’t on the front page. Bush had just been elected. People were upset, but Iraq and Afghanistan hadn’t happened yet. I wanted to make a comment about religious fundamentalism and its connection to totalitarianism and fascism. I wasn’t trying to talk about Islam. It was meant to be a fable-like piece and have a universal resonance, not the pointed timely commentary on the US. But circumstances conspired to change the way it is perceived. That’s fine with me.

How do you like living on the Lower East Side?

I’m an Army brat, so I don’t have a hometown. I was born in an Army hospital in Germany, went to ten different schools, was in the Army for six and a half years as an infantry officer and then an intelligence officer. I was in the First Gulf War with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq. My father was in Vietnam twice. The military was my whole world till I was 28. I drifted around, did a variety of things and eventually landed in documentary film school in Stanford. I have lived in New York for seven years, longer than anywhere. This is my adopted hometown. I am very happy and settled here. Like a lot of New Yorkers, transplanted or otherwise, 9/11 is burned in my memory. It was surreal to stand on my rooftop in Chinatown and watch Air Force F-16s flying combat air patrol over Manhattan. The last time I had seen that was in Iraq.

With your military background, how did you wind up making this kind of film?

I always tell people that professional soldiers get a bad rap because they are unfairly stereotyped as archconservative, narrow-minded and martinet. It’s not true. Professional soldiers tend to be very sober, very clear-eyed and very pragmatic about politics and international affairs. They’re sent to these far-flung places to execute policies which are very often poorly thought out and dreamed up by people back in Washington, most of whom have no first-hand experience of the wider world or combat.

The ending seemed a bit enigmatic. Is Joe in prison imagining he’s out? Is he out of prison imagining he’s in? Has he gone mad? What did you want to convey?

I’m not saying. What fun is it if I tell you what it means? It’s like the elephant in the dark.

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