I had the opportunity to catch up with director Rodney Evans following the world premiere of his genre-defying, creatively pioneering documentary Vision Portraits at SXSW. Here’s what he had to say about the creative process behind his striking film, his cinematic influences and some of the ways he translated thought onto the big screen.
Flixist: I wonder whether you could talk to me a little bit about your influences for the film, on a personal level we get some of your story, but also on a cinematic level, what are the films that jump out?
Rodney Evans: You know for this film, I feel like I was thinking a lot about filmmakers who made personal, quote unquote personal films but then somehow used that as a launching point into larger social and cultural issues in the world. So, Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Marlon Riggs, and I would say specifically Chris Marker’s film about Andrei Tarkovsky, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich. And just because it was such a nuanced portrait of this artist at work, and he was sick but you could really engage with his process, even in this weakened condition.
I tend to — I feel like a lot of my films are about artists in one way or another, so Faces Places (Agnes Varda), I’d seen that, that was really inspiring. And I just love some of the older avant-garde diary films, like I love Robert Frank’s films, particularly his film called Conversations in Vermont — it’s basically about his decision to send his children to this alternative boarding school in Vermont. It’s the late 60s, there’s all these alternative ideas about education, at this point it’s almost like intense self-examination, the questions he was asking were almost more important than the film, and because he wants to find out so bad, the questions become a sort of narrative engine that pulls you through the film.
So I think that film is about him kind of questioning his parenting, really, and what does it mean to balance your life as an artist and being a parent, thinking about leaving your children to travel across the country for a year, it’s just such a classic photobook but he wasn’t there as a father. I thought that was a really honest interrogation of his life and so I think a lot of his diary films are really inspiring, I have a collection of them, and he came to visit, as a visiting artist, when I was at Cal Arts in grad school.
And then Leslie Thornton is someone that I studied with, who’d done some personal diaristic films, which I love. One is called The Last Time I Saw Ron and it’s about an actor named Ron Vawter who she worked with – he was a member of the Wooster Group – and she did a lot of film and video for the Wooster Group’s productions and so she was very close to him. And so that film draws a lot of parallels between the play that they’re working on, which is called Philoktekes Variations, and just the parallels between the play and Ron’s condition as he’s in the latter stages of complications from AIDS, has to use a wheelchair to move on stage. So her voice narrates it and it has a lot of imagery of the cosmos, imagery that she shot for the play.
Flixist: Yes, it comes across in Vision Portraits when you draw the comparison between what you can see or not see and your images of the Milky Way, I thought that was a really gorgeous sequence. One thing that really jumped out at me as well was your poetry in title-cards, I absolutely loved them. Were they your own words?
RE: They are my own words and I feel like that is very new terrain for me, I don’t think of myself as a poet at all, but I was reading a lot of essays about blindness in relation to performance, in relation to music, and so through a lot of the research and the reading that I was doing I would reflect on my own experience, so I feel like live reactions to that research was just allowing me to sink deeper into my own experience. I feel like the poetry is almost like a laser beam to my thoughts, it just gets to a different level of my experience, beyond image. It’s very internal, and it’s my internal process.
I think with the poetry it was me trying to communicate that in a very succinct way, the opening poem I think loosely deals with a time when I was running for a train and didn’t see a massive metal column in the L train station in New York and ran head first into it and was just completely knocked out, my head was split open and I had to go to the emergency room.
Flixist: Oh my goodness!
RE: And that was the first time I thought “Wow, I really don’t have the same freedom that I had before this condition set in, and I’m going to have to move about the world in a different way.”
Flixist: Yes, definitely. Do you feel that creating this film maybe helped you to discover more of your identity, do you feel like it’s changed you, or is it more reflecting on where you’re at right now?
RE: I do think it’s changed me as a person, I think it’s made me less afraid and I think I feel like less of a burden of shame, for lack of a better term, I just feel a little bit more free and a little bit more honest in who I am and I think in the film industry there’s just so much pressure to be perfect, to have the perfect skillset, to have the perfect physical capabilities, to be able to craft shots beautifully, and communicate with actors on an exemplary level.
I feel like it’s been very intense and interesting, in the amount of people who have written to me, who are visually impaired but have just lived with a real fear of anyone finding out, because they feel like it will impede their ability to work or people will judge them differently. So a lot of people have written to me and said “I was born with vision in one eye, but I’ve always hidden it, and I’ve always felt shame about it, and I work in a visual field, and it’s just always been this thing that’s loomed over me.” So I’ve had emails from people that I know just thanking me for putting myself out there.
Flixist: Absolutely, and I do think that’s one of the defining characteristics about the film, that it is just so vulnerable, and I think that takes a lot of courage — it’s not like anything I’ve seen before. I saw the film Notes on Blindness and I wonder whether that film had any influence at all on your creative process or whether it wasn’t something you didn’t really identify with?
RE: Yeah, I did see it — I think my film is really different, in a lot of ways. I guess that film was hard for me because I know the book on which the film is based, it’s these audio diaries by John Hull. One iteration is called Touching the Rock, and a later version is called Notes on Blindness.
I read that book and was really moved by it and his ability to describe his changing vision over the course of so many years, and his relationship with his children and just talking really honestly about that. For me, it felt like, maybe the casting of actors to portray him and members of his family, and he fact that those filmmakers are not visually impaired — I have a different relationship to that, to the condition. And so I was much more interested in a) receiving guidance and having conversations with other visually impaired artists, both to figure out how they made work and to have that inform the way that my career possibilities or paths might take in the future. I just think I set out to do something more personal, and it got more personal as it progressed.
I was always aware that there was a certain conversation I was having with the other artists because I was visually impaired and they knew that I understood their experience from the inside, and there were certain things that I just knew that they didn’t have to explain to me. Like an example would be everyone’s relationship with the red and white cane. And when you decode that you need to use it for your safety and for the safety of others, and what that means is that it’s such a signifier of blindness, and so many stigmas attached to it, that I think all of us — well I should say three of us — myself, John Dugdale and Ryan Knightley — all have very specific times where we had to just accept the fact that we had to use canes, we’d been trying to pass for a really long time.
John talks about tracing people’s feet and just looking towards the ground, and I did that for a really long time. And it does get to the point where you’re in a really crowded space, like Penn station, and you’re bumping into like 20 people, and New Yorkers get very hostile, so you think “someone’s going to punch me in the face, for bumping into them!” And I just need to have them know, so they can know that I’m not bumping into them as some form of aggression.
And then Kayla [Hamilton], she’s interesting because she chooses not to use cane still at this point, even though she does have pretty severe visual impairment and limitations, she really stressed, “I like to rely on other people, and I like to have to verbalize that I’m visually impaired, like what does this say, or can I grab your arm as I’m going that way?”
Flixist: Yes, it breaks down that barrier I suppose, that kind of ‘halo’ where people are perhaps afraid to get too close?
RE: Yes, yeah that’s right.
[This interview is continued in Part 2]