'Vision Portraits': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Kjerstin Rossi
An inventive, sometimes choppy look at visual impairment.

Filmmaker Rodney Evans contemplates what loss of eyesight means for his life and work and finds kinship with three other visually impaired artists.

A blind filmmaker may seem like a contradiction in terms, but for Rodney Evans, losing all of his peripheral vision and most of his night vision hasn’t stopped him from writing and directing. In his latest, Evans explores what it means to be a working visual artist who is also visually impaired due to a rare genetic disorder. A deeply personal essay that documents Evans’ journey from sightedness to near blindness, the film is also infused with documentary profiles of three other visually impaired artists, photographer John Dugdale, dancer Kayla Hamilton and writer Ryan Knighton.

Vision Portraits takes audiences inside the artistic processes of four people, including Evans, who serves as the reflective tour guide of a disability he’s only beginning to understand himself. If only for the in-depth discussions of the creative process, the film is worth a watch. Photographer John Dugdale points out that what we see starts first as an image in our minds, and that our eyes essentially allow us to match internal and external pictures. Evans actually fades to black for a few beats while Dugdale narrates to force the audience to practice this. Dugdale dashes off a list of things to “see”: plum, Mother, sunset. It’s a simple idea that is brilliantly elevated onscreen: Loss of sight doesn’t mean loss of vision. It’s the message the film wants to champion even as Evans seeks medical treatment in Germany to keep him from going completely blind.

Despite being diagnosed with the rare genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa — which results in the gradual deterioration of peripheral and eventually all vision — Evans has 20 percent of his focal vision left, meaning he can literally see only what’s right in front of him. He believes this has actually been compatible with his more intimate style of filmmaking, as exemplified by his 2004 Sundance Special Jury Prize-winning film Brother to Brother.

The content of the film is endlessly thought-provoking and will have artists and their admirers spinning out for days on questions about literal and figurative artistic vision. What does it mean to see and what does it mean to have vision? What does it mean to make art when you can’t see what you’ve made? How can we expand our ideas of what a visually impaired artist is? How can artists deepen the well from which they create? 

Fittingly, the way Evans constructs Vision Portraits mimics the process of going blind. We’re watching a film that’s trying to simulate blindness while talking about blindness and creativity, and it is destabilizing, especially for people who have no direct experience of visual impairment. Citing influences like the filmmakers Leslie Thornton and Marlon Riggs, and staying true to his art school roots, Evans has crafted a movie that expresses itself in an experimental way, primarily through the companion visualizations to the four subjects describing their internal experiences of being blind. Trippy, multicolored images and abstract animations simulate the spaces from which these artists often create. The film also uses excerpts of Evans’ poetry, which appear in white lettering on a black backdrop, dispatches from Evans’ inner vision. They speak in a voice that’s deeper than what we see on the surface in his interviews, helping peel back some of the layers behind the mask of admirable gusto with which the filmmaker faces his condition:

Where is the liminal space

Between the sighted and the blind

It’s where I live

Sometimes these experimental touches feel like high art and sometimes they fumble. And even though these visual artists are all linked by their disability, Evans’ story and that of the other subjects feels unrelated at times. In the post-screening Q&A, Evans mentioned that he originally planned for the film just to be a profile of the other artists without him, but later he realized that he was hiding behind them and attempting to pass as a sighted person, and that he needed to include himself in the film — to come out as a member of the visually impaired community.

Despite its shortcomings, Vision Portraits consistently fascinates the mind and activates the senses; it's never dull. The final frame fades not to black — as blindness is often mistakenly associated with darkness — but instead to white. We are left with a sense of lightness, possibility and, yes, vision.

Cast: Rodney Evans, John Dugdale, Kayla Hamilton, Ryan Knighton, Anton Federov
Director: Rodney Evans
Producers: Rodney Evans, Rob Wunder
Cinematographers: Kjerstin Rossi, Mark Tumas
Editors: Hannah Buck, Rodney Evans
Sound Designer: Abigail Savage
Music Supervisor: Brooke Wentz 
Re-recording Sound Mixer: Tom Efinger
Sales: Lucas Verga (The Film Sales Company) 
Venue: SXSW (Documentary Feature Competition)
Runtime: 78 minutes