CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 18. . . .May 2, 2008
Martin Duckworth (Writer & Director). Germaine Ying Gee Wong (Producer). Sally Bochner (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2006.
52 min., 4 sec., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 9106 001.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Julie Chychota.
Acting Blind follows the cast of the theatrical production Dancing to Beethoven from their initial rehearsals to the night of the final performance at the Place des Arts in Montreal. As drama coach Stephen Snow conducts eight actors through Sam Gesser's script, veteran director Martin Duckworth captures the action both on stage and off. In the process, viewers experience a double vision of sorts since the actors portraying the blind characters are, for the most part, themselves vision-impaired or blind.
The documentary parallels the play in that both are driven less by plot than by character. For instance, a Scrabble game, the inspiration for the script of Dancing to Beethoven, is the apparatus that draws the characters together. Yet the game is only important insofar as it reveals how the characters play off each other, negotiating interpersonal relationships, given their different and sometimes conflicting personalities. Similarly, the drama is the mechanism behind Acting Blind, although the documentary's purpose is not to re-present the play as an intact unit, but rather to juxtapose multiple accounts of vision loss. The actors, like the characters they play, are complex and multi-faceted.
In portraying the actors not only during rehearsals, but also at school, home, work, and leisure, Acting Blind discreetly draws out the diversity within the group in terms of gender, age, and type of blindness or vision loss. The cast comprises four females and four males: Amanda, Sandra, Patrycja, Sheryl, Clank, Alan, Robert, and Griffith. A fifth male, Norman, steps in as the eleventh-hour replacement for Alan. The individuals range in age from pre-teen Amanda to Griffith, the sole professional actor, whose age presumably is close to that of the grandfather figure he plays. In addition, except for Sheryl (a caption identifies her as "Amanda's sighted mother"), all of the actors have experienced different types of blindness or vision loss. Amanda was born with retinopathy of prematurity, whereas Sandra, a social worker and mother of three, was only diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (cones and rods disease) shortly after she returned to university. Diabetic retinopathy struck Alan, a former opera singer, pilot, and fur merchant, as well as philosopher Clank; Clank lost his vision gradually, about twenty years ago, in contrast to Alan, who lost his recently and very suddenly. The remaining four are partially sighted, but legally blind nonetheless: Patrycja, an artist, retains peripheral vision, although she now paints as opposed to weaving tapestries; meanwhile, Griffith, Norman, and the teenaged Robert appear to cope with severe myopia, although the film skips over details.
As it follows the actors through their day-to-day routines, the camera familiarizes its audience with a variety of assistive technologies available to blind and vision-impaired individuals. On one end of the spectrum are the simpler devices, such as Clank's white cane and Griffith's magnifying glass. On the other end are Amanda's note-taker machine, the large screen and closed circuit camera Robert uses, and the text-to-speech software that Sandra and Alan employ. In this way, the documentary illustrates how adaptive measures enable individuals with blindness to extend themselves further into their world.
It is not clear how this particular cast was assembled, that is, whether a call for auditions went out or if the actors were handpicked for the roles. It becomes obvious, however, that the actors welcome the play, whether as a distraction or an opportunity. Clank, for instance, remarks that he usually does not meet other blind people unless he runs into them in the street. For Alan, the play signifies "something to do other than learn about being blind." Patrycja, accustomed to working in solitude, regards the drama as a means to exercise her abilities to cooperate and collaborate. Robert finds that rehearsals and memorization displace negative thoughts and depression. Griffith, who began acting at 14 years of age, confides that he feels most alive on-stage. In any event, as these individuals work towards the common goal of staging Dancing to Beethoven over the course of a few short weeks, they cohere as a group.
Neither romanticizing nor patronizing the individuals it records, the film instead reveals them to be ordinary people, with vices and virtues alike, who also happen to be blind. They go grocery shopping, deal with family crises, shoot baskets, tackle assignments, and practice Tai Chi; moreover, they possess emotions and opinions. So Alan, for instance, who beautifully sings arias, admits to feeling angry and suicidal upon losing his vision; nevertheless, he still tries to act "normal." The philosophical and disputative Clank contends that what is normal for the sighted is not normal for the blind. He appears to have come to terms with his blindness, but expresses regret that he did not make the most of his sight even as it was deteriorating. Patrycja makes a convincing Janice, but she confides that she began "growing into" the character only after she detected a creative aspect to her. There is even a skirmish on the set as Sandra and Robert side against Clank for accusing them of stepping out of character in-between scenes. Consequently, the documentary demonstrates that these individuals are informed and shaped by their disabilities, yet are certainly not defined by them.
This 52-minute color film is suitable for either recreational or classroom viewing, although audiences should be advised that there are four moments when the play addresses mature situations. The first occurs when Clank's character, Paul, makes sexual innuendos; a second when Patrycja's character, Janice, recounts an assault on the bus; and the third and fourth when Patrycja and Sandra rehearse with their son and daughter, respectively, lines that fall beyond the children's comprehension. Still, these moments should not cause too great a disruption since they pass by quickly.
Acting Blind's predominantly linear development lacks the innovative visual energy of, say, Between: Living in the Hyphen; then again, a fast-paced, non-linear, and image-saturated style could prove difficult to translate into descriptive narration. This documentary's inclusion of audio narration means that it is as easily accessible for audience members who are vision-impaired or blind as for those who are sighted. This reviewer did not find such a toggle control but would hope that the option to switch to narration or closed captioning formatting is soon an inherent feature of every DVD.
Like This Ability and Between: Living in the Hyphen, Acting Blind appears to be part of a growing NFB effort to bring Canadians on the margins into mainstream consciousness. Duckworth's documentary puts faces and names to blind Canadians and promotes awareness of the diverse abilities held by people who are blind. One hopes that Acting Blind will inspire similar creative and inclusive projects elsewhere in Canada.
Julie Chychota works as a computer interpreter in Ottawa, ON.
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