4.30.2008

Blindsight- Climb Every Mountain?

At the Chicago premier of the 2006 documentary film Blindsight I was reminded of Werner Herzog's The Land of Silence and Darknes (1971), on the work of German deaf- blind activist Fini Straubinger. It's disheartening to note the lack of substantive documentaries on blindness to follow Herzog's first feature length production. And Herzog can still be recognized as one of the first directors outside of the disability rights movement to cast actual disabled people in his films (as opposed to coddled Hollywood directors/ actors cloying grabs for Oscar nominations with their touching portrayals of disabled people's lives- a.k.a. the "Blackface" of Ableism). So, just in time and in the spirit of the season, here's my take on the new documentary film.

Blind people are no strangers to strories of overcoming- something producer Sybil Robson- Orr and director Lucy Walker (Devil's Playground) are certainly conscious of in their treatment of extreme sports enthusiast Erik Weihenmayer's bold concept for the film. Responding to an invitation to speak at Braille Without Borders following his historic climb to the top of Mount Everest (Weihenmayer is the first blind man to claim that distinction), Erik encouraged a group of six blind teens from the school to join him on an expedition to climb a 23,000 foot peak. Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is its surplus of "firsts" competing for attention: Braille Without Borders is the first school for the blind in Tibet, where, prior to its founding by Sabriye Tenberken in 1998, blind children were shunned and denied access to education. The word "zhara," meaning blind idiot, is a common slur in the region despite the unusally high number of blind people living in Tibet.

Rejected by the German peace corps because of her blindness, Sabriye traveled on horseback to the outlying villages of Lhasa on her own to recruit students to attend school. In its short ten year history Braille Without Borders has expanded to include a massage therapy training program and a working farm in addition to offering traditional academics, Braille and Orientation and Mobility classes.. Many students undergo a process called "self- integration" wherein they enter the general school system. The school now operates under the leadership of BWB graduate Kyila, one of the students featured in the film.

It is against these dramatic backstories that the teens' thrilling climbing expedition unfolds. As the team begins training exercises each student is paired with an experienced mountaineering guide . Erik coaches the teens on alternative techniques like walking with two staffs on rugged terrain as opposed to the white canes normally used for mobility. Sabriye voices her concerns about common dangers such as altitude sickness but ultimately consents, hoping for a memorable learning experience for her students.

For me the most interesting passages in the film took place in the kids' homes where parents' reactions to the expedition subtly and succinctly reveal truths about family dynamics and the diverse attitudes towards blindness found in Tibetan culture. One father recounts the day that smoke from fish frying on the fire seemed to aggrevate his daughters' vision, adding that he knows that her vision had likely already been affected prior to the incident. Another parent casually jokes with his son that, of the 200 annually reported climbing accidents, "you'll be the one to fall off the mountain."

A couple of summers ago, I worked with blind teens at a training center in Colorado where rock climbing are popular confidence- and trust- building exercises. I carry a lavalier keychain to remind me of that summer in which I scaled a sheer cliff or two of my own- literally. Rock climbing is a great tactile sport when combined with good training in responsible alternative techniques. I can tell you that the ropes and harnesses supporting one's weight in case of a mistep (or grab) are reassuringly thick. It's a sport requiring teamwork, trust, guts and a respect for others' natural strengths and limits. It also challenges you to live in the moment in a way that few activities can.

That said, Blindsight is a film that examines hubris and acceptance in equal parts, and the personalities of Erik and Sabriye are well- suited to the task of examining our complex relationships to each. Tension plays out most vividly during the climb itself as the western- trained mountaineers and Sabriye debate the true measure of a successful expedition, brining to light the underlyuing cultural differences between the American adventurers and Tibetan teens. It's reasonable to add that blind people need not "climb every mountain" in order to acheive self- confidence, particularly in a country already having to contend with things like nationalist oppression, poverty and foreign influence.

Braille Without Borders is itself a western import, though ultimately a valuable one for the people of Tibet. According to the producer in a Q&A following the Chicago screening, the school now has to issue vision tests as its popularity has grown to entice sighted applicants.

Learn more about Braille Without Borders and how to support their efforts in Tibet and India. More information on the film can be found at blindsightthemovie.com.

4 comments:

Ruth said...

I read about this film a few weeks ago in an article that had a different slant. Thanks for your analysis of this and all the information you gathered - it really gave me a much better idea of the background of the film!

saraarts said...

Thank you for a terrific review! I have added this to my Netflix queue in case I don't get to see it anywhere else. :)

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