SXSW Review: Vision Portraits


Vision Portraits is the rare kind of film that you’ve always hoped to see, heralding back to the earliest use of montage in cinema in the 1920s and evoking a fresh sense of experimental, artistic filmmaking. Director Rodney Evans truly has the spirit of an artist, and his sensitivity to the issues of blindness — actually bringing people into the ‘liminal space’ between sight and blindness — is singularly powerful.

Vision Portraits
Director: Rodney Evans

Rating: TBC
Release Date: March 11, 2019 (SXSW World Premiere)

What I loved was the pace and rhythm of the piece: it had a very musical quality and even between different sections it was fluid and had a sense of unity. It told the stories of four different individuals, artists in their own way, who have lost their sight. A photographer, John Dugdale; a writer, Ryan Knighton,  a dancer, Kayla Hamilton, and Rodney himself, a filmmaker. The photography segment was fascinating: images were tinted blue in order to evoke a sense of melancholy, yet despite the fact that they did seem thoughtful — often they depicted individuals looking downcast, looking intensely at each other, looking into the far distance, like Renaissance artwork — they were able to also evoke hope. How? Well, through John’s narrative (an imaginatively edited combination of talking heads, spliced with his artwork), he explained that pictures are in the mind, and it exists first and foremost to provide those images: being blind doesn’t affect your ability to create images and to evoke light and colour.

Powerful scenes were used to stitch the different narratives together: at one moment, we’re following Rodney through the woods, the camera walking as if in his own shoes. It’s dark, twilight, and a deep sense of fear is evoked. Fear, he explained, and anger, are the predominant emotions one might experience through their loss of sight. This technique, the use of a metaphorical journey told by a voiceover in the style of a nouvelle vague filmmaker, is a wonderful technique to align the viewer with his experience. Likewise, the use of colour and light is really imaginative. We are told via voiceover that ‘going blind is like going into a tunnel, but the reality is that there is something on the other side.’ True to the words, it’s accompanied by images of a train: these connections are made in a way that shows how we automatically create signifiers in the mind. Ferdinand de Saussure’s idea of signifiers through language – that is, making arbitrary connections with inanimate objects in order to convey meaning — seems to have deep relevance to this piece of work. I’d say that this kind of analysis shows that Rodney as a director is extremely in tune with the meaning of every word, image and sound in his work, and for that reason, I think his film is something truly special.

I was reminded watching this film of Notes on Blindness, the story of theologian John Knox’s loss of sight, documented through his recordings on tape. There are striking parallels between his story and writer Ryan Knighton, whose own research and teaching had to be adjusted in order to account for the loss: it seems that documentation is part of making us feel valued, or valid, or remembered, or not lost to ourselves. It’s a legacy, and the poignant idea of leaving something of yourself to be remembered once you transition into a new phase of life is a fascinating concept.

There is also an exploration of queer identity, through Rodney’s own narrative and reflections on the challenges of having a prospective partner while living with a disability, and through John Dugdale’s own story and photographic subjects. This adds another angle to the narrative — already making a stand in a largely institutionally racist, homophobic industry, together they are seeking to subvert the norm and to create an artistic outcry against conservative ideology. One concept that would be interesting to apply to Vision Portraits is that of ‘othering’ —  in post-colonialist theory, this is usually used to describe a cultural difference, an idea projected onto another person that is incomplete and stereotyped — in short, ‘us and them.’ I think it could transfer to the realm of sighted and blind people — but Rodney has not seemed to reify this divide. Instead, by figuratively taking hold of the viewer’s hand, and their imagination, he walks them through what it’s like to lose vision, showing that it’s not something to be afraid of, but an opportunity to heighten other senses to have a different perspective on the world.

Kayla’s story was also evocative and beautiful in its own way: she dances with absolute conviction, like a discipline rather than play, and her abandonment of her art seems largely due to a loss of inhibition through the loss of sight. She talks about the connection between blindness and darkness, but how so many blind people see white instead of black. This is a profound way of looking at the subject, suggesting spiritual enlightenment, and the self-reflexive construction of the film adds to this: poetry comes up on black title cards, then there’s a fade to brilliant white: it’s a fantastic revelation of another point of view.

Something I think could have added even more to the film, as inventive as it was, would be to have each of the artists come together and to share their experiences. While there are clear parallels, I would have enjoyed to see them engage in a discussion together, cementing the discourse surrounding blindness and their own stories. However, it works just as well to see them in their own spheres, distant as they are — they are all deeply connected. Vision Portraits served to bring viewers into a new perspective on blindness and what it means to see, in a physical and spiritual sense. Rather than simply recount facts, the film uses the range of media from archive footage, title cards, poetry, metaphorical imagery and talking heads — to really create an immersive, sensory experience.

Sian Francis Cox
Sian is Flixist’s UK Editor and has written for sites including Escapist Magazine, Destructoid, and Film Enthusiast.