Future Reflections         Special Issue: The Teen Years

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The Eyes of Me

A film review by Mary Ellen Gabias

From the Editor: Mary Ellen Gabias is a longtime member of the NFB.  After emigrating to Canada she helped found the Canadian Federation of the Blind, which is modeled upon the NFB in the United States.

The Eyes of Me: A co-production of Illegal Films and the Independent Television Service (ITVS)
Available from <www.eyesofme.com>

Growing through adolescence to adulthood can be confusing and emotionally bruising under the best of circumstances. The Eyes of Me captures the richness and depth of these struggles as it follows four students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) during one eventful year.

Chas, Megan, Denise, and Isaac are kids you could find in any high school. Chas is a seventeen-year-old hip-hop musician. His drive toward instant adulthood leads him to drop out of school and live precariously on his own. Megan is a class valedictorian with dreams of higher education and a professional career. Denise is a painfully shy fifteen-year-old just beginning to discover boys, make friends, and break out of her shell. Isaac is a young man from rural Texas who has lost his sight within the previous year.

If these students had been sighted, their stories would have made for interesting cinema. Blindness, their reaction to it, and the attitudinal barriers they face add another dimension to stories that are, at bottom, about coming of age.

The film spends some time highlighting blindness techniques, but it avoids the trap of making individuals seem insignificant by focusing chiefly on the tools they use. We see a cane travel lesson and a Braille lesson and observe several students using computers equipped with screen readers. We also see a student council meeting, a drama practice, and a school play, as well as prom night and graduation. The message is clear; blind students use the skills of blindness as a means of participating in life.

The filmmakers spent a year at the Texas School for the Blind, a residential school in Austin. They shot more than 250 hours of film to weave the four individual stories into a collage. The storyline switches abruptly from one student to another, a style of presentation that isn't always easy for a blind person to follow. However, the DVD includes a descriptive video track, which can make a big difference. Documentary footage is interspersed with "rotoscopic animation" that is intended to create visual interest. I watched the movie with my sighted children, and they described the animated sections as "odd."

Several vignettes in the film stand out for me. There is the heartbreaking moment when we learn that Isaac's retinal detachment might have been operable if his grandparents had had medical insurance. There is the painful scene when Chas discovers that his mother hasn't arranged for his bus ticket home as she promised. There are also light, giggly scenes of girls gossiping about potential boyfriends.

The film avoids reinforcing the dual stereotypes of helplessness and superachievement that so often tarnish stories about blind people. The students talk openly about how the reactions of others to their blindness can be hurtful and disheartening. They also demonstrate their growth in self-confidence in the course of the year.

Federationists will be far more able than uninitiated viewers to separate the struggles of adolescence from the adjustment to blindness. The film could have been much stronger philosophically if a capable blind adult had been asked to provide a mature perspective. The same effect could have been achieved if the film had followed sighted adolescents facing similar personal issues. For example, a sighted valedictorian or hip-hop musician also face the world with a complex set of problems and emotions.

Producer/director Keith Maitland and his team have put together a film noteworthy for its respect of adolescents and blind people. It is clearly superior to most films about blindness created by those outside the community and vastly superior to many that have been done by organizations that claim to understand blindness-related issues.

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