Blind Cinema by Gregory Glyants
Originally published in Festival Daily, Jihlava International Film Festival, October 2017.
All seeing is not-seeing. The act of seeing is made possible by careful selection, ignoring most of the visual field, in order to decode patterns of light and colour. The cinema is a project of public seeing: let’s all look at this together! And the other side of seeing, perhaps its most important side, is the question of blindness. What do the blind see? Could a movie deliver us to the experience of blindness, which isn’t simply the act of “not seeing” (as if such a thing were possible), but to a thousand shades of grey and felt impressions, the rumble of cobblestones up a walking stick, the sudden shift in air pressure after turning a street corner? Without being able to rely on the old habit patterns, stuck inside the cockpit where we like to imagine we are directing our lives (without the meat of the body and its unwanted sensations getting in the way), the blind are pushed back into their bodies, which become receptors of seeing, encounter and invention.
The director shows us a club concert glimpsed in shaky close-ups (as if every vantage were uncertain, tenuous), before the sightless gather on a rooftop to toast the explosions that robbed them of their sight. The filmmaker is patient, he’s hanging out with his sightless charges, letting them flow into the frame, gathering moments, waiting for something to happen, while knowing that the most important things arrive when nothing is happening.
A simple walk down the street requires the touch of a helping stranger. To get in touch means allowing oneself to be touched. The blind are in contact again with their fellow citizens, they help their helpers to see again, to wake up to the old streets that have become invisible through the old habits of usefulness and portable telephones. The adventure of stair climbing. Stepping onto a boat. The smell of water.
This Russian movie is also a sailboat trek, a rehabilitation pilgrimmage whose destination is the present moment. Why not fill it with easygoing dinners, discussions about tomato ice cream, foot massages, remnants of the everyday. It turns out the trip is part of the White Cane Social Movement, a Russian non-profit helping people with visual disabilities. “Sails of the Spirit” is one of their projects, already a dozen treks have cruised the Caribbean, Black Seas, the Mediterranean and beyond. The crew has a mix of abilities, and the adventure has been designed to get the blind out of their apartments and into the world.
The camera is invariably close up, often set up on three legs, offering a steady intimacy through the long intervals of waiting. Being led to a concert in order to wait. Being led to a boat in order to wait. How to endure this waiting? How to live inside this moment, as if it were the only one? A half smile hovers over the lips of these blind voyagers, as if they had all just heard the same well-performed joke. As if the only way to be free, or even happy, was to live inside the frame of one’s limitations.