Filmmaker Rodney Evans says towards the end of his new feature documentary Vision Portraits that he makes films about the things that he’s most fearful of. Here the subject, or the starting point at least, is loss of sight. With under ten percent of vision remaining in each eye, Evans has no peripheral eyesight as a result of the rare genetic disorder Retinitis Pigmentosa, which he was diagnosed with back in 1996. In Vision Portraits he turns his camera to examining how being vision impaired has affected several fellow artists, as he grapples with the impact of his condition on his own life, essentially “looking for guidance in how to be a blind artist.”
Initially reluctant to be a subject of the film himself, not wanting to be depicted on screen with his cane, Evans’ story becomes intertwined with a series of portraits of a photographer (John Dugdale), a dancer (Kayla Hamilton) and a writer (Ryan Knighton). Moving away from these figures, the film become a deeply personal reflection on Evans’s path to coming to terms with his condition, intent on investigating cutting edge medical procedures not available in the US.
Spending intimate time with each artist, Evans firstly introduces us to John Dugdale, who lost his vision at thirty at the height of the AIDS epidemic, while working as a successful commercial photographer. With a sliver of sight remaining in one eye, Dugdale adapted his approach to the art of photography, though he admits that he “always saw everything in his mind first” even before losing his sight. Dugdale’s words are poetic and genuinely insightful to his creative process, reassuring Evans at one point in the film, he says “you have such other venues in your mind and in your heart that you can draw your work from.”
Dugdale also reveals that having not fully seen the world since 1994, he thinks he’d throw up if he ever got his sight back. In his mind’s eye it’s “a world of beauty, there’s no litter, people don’t look tired, everybody looks the same as they’ve always looked, nobody gets older or younger, everybody’s hair looks great.”
Throughout the film Evans explores the perception of what vision impaired people experience, “people often think blindness is black” the filmmaker says, “but so often it’s described as completely white”. We hear Dugdale talk in detail about what he experiences, “my brain is giving me colour galore every minute of the day and night for the last twenty years…like solar eruptions, they’re really beautiful.” As Dugdale talks about his blindness, what he describes is rendered on screen with immersive experimental POV footage, as it is for each of the subjects, while the intricate sound design also illustrates and enhances what’s being discussed, helping to create an emotional connection between the audience and the film’s subjects. Evans also makes some effective use of evocative text on screen, which stimulates pictures in the mind.
Long before Madonna’s Madame X was sporting an eye patch, dancer Kayla Hamilton was asking her audience members to wear one to gain a different view of her performance. “Shifting your own perspective to witness something,” is important Hamilton says, and she hopes it leads her audience to ponder “how does that experience change, enhance, make you question how it is that you see.” Hamilton was born with no vision in one eye and left with very minimal peripheral and night vision in the other as a result of glaucoma and iritis. Becoming increasingly vision impaired resulted in her having suicidal thoughts, but eventually inspired her 2017 dance show Nearly Sighted.
Canadian Ryan Knighton was diagnosed with the same condition as Evans on his eighteenth birthday and found a lifeline in turning to writing while going blind. His poignant, humorous books have inspired titles including Cockeyed, C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark and the forthcoming Nothing To See Here: Around the World in Four Senses.
The meeting of the two artists leads to discussions of shared concerns such as the dilemma of whether or not to disclose that they are vision impaired to potential employers, and how to frame it if they do. Evans admits he was disinclined to add being vision impaired to people’s perception of him as a filmmaker in what he describes as “one of the most racist, homophobic industries that exists.”
Explaining how he approaches the visual medium of filmmaking, Evans reveals that he has discovered that working with actors is one aspect of the process that has actually improved as his eye sight has declined. Now he’s not distracted by what’s going on peripherally on set actually, something that helps him “get to the heart of their performances,” he says.
Away from his professional life, Evans talks about first telling his mother that he was going to start using a cane, having “passed as sighted” with much of the world up until that point. His description sounds on some level analogous to the experience of coming out as gay, which he’d previously had to do. Allowing himself to be vulnerable and confiding in us as an audience, Evans admits to concern about how his cane might look to a potential partner, considering it as unsexy and a sign of disability that might be off-putting.
With the final part of the film devoted to following Evans as he explores medical options to potentially restore some of his vision, there’s a quiet, but fiery determination in him. We travel with Evans to Berlin, and are taken into the consulting and treatment rooms, the discomfort, fear and sense of hopefulness are palpable. Although Evans’ journey is compelling, the shift in focus following the established pattern of profiling the other artists, initially leaves the film feeling slightly imbalanced, but ultimately Vision Portraits expands its scope. Through examining the experience of these artists and his own journey, Evans seeks to explore and even redefine the concept of vision itself as something that isn’t purely ocular, but instead incorporates memory, imagination and the creative process.
By James Kleinmann
Vision Portraits is now playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles on Friday 23rd August at the Laemmle Royal with rollout to follow in select US cities including Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington D.C., courtesy of Stimulus Pictures.