A feature-length documentary that chronicles the creative paths of blind and visually impaired artists including a photographer (John Dugdale), dancer (Kayla Hamilton), writer (Ryan Knighton) and the film’s director, Rodney Evans. A tantalizing meditation on blindness and creativity
opening minds to new possibilities for facing vision loss.

“Evans has made a touchingly honest ode to the inner life of all artists.”

-Robert Abele, LOS ANGELES TIMES
Synopsis: 

VISION PORTRAITS is a deeply personal documentary by award-winning filmmaker Rodney Evans (BROTHER TO BROTHER) as he explores how his loss of vision may impact his creative future, and what it means to be a blind or visually impaired creative artist.  It’s a celebration of the possibilities of art created by a Manhattan photographer (John Dugdale), a Bronx-based dancer (Kayla Hamilton), a Canadian writer (Ryan Knighton) and the filmmaker himself, who each experience varying degrees of vision loss. Using archival material alongside new illuminating interviews and observational footage of the artists at work, Evans has created a tantalizing meditation on blindness and creativity, a sensual work that opens our minds to new possibilities. 

Reviews

“A moving meditation about our unwavering need for creativity and finding ways to express it ...There is not a whiff of self-pity or self-indulgence here just a desire to tell a story from a viewpoint that rarely reaches the screen.”

-David Lewis, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

“Quietly wondrous to behold.”

-Joe Morgenstern, WALL STREET JOURNAL

“has the power, however briefly, to alter your perception.”

-Ben Kenigsberg, NEW YORK TIMES

"Vision Portraits—an omnibus documentary about several artists who have lost their sense of sight and work in partial or full blindness—will touch vast, diverse audiences interested in the creative process, disability, healthcare, and alternate modes of sensory knowledge. The section about photographer John Dugdale, who became blind due to complications from the AIDS virus, connects these issues to LGBTQI+ communities. Evans' brilliant and highly personal film reveals something crucial about perception: that what we call "vision" is far more complex and heterogeneous than is commonly thought."

Prof. Homay King, Bryn Mawr College, Chair, Dept. of Art History, Founder-Film Studies Program

Director Rodney Evans interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s FRESH AIR about VISION PORTRAITS

 

https://www.npr.org/2019/08/05/747605189/vision-porNPR.S
Director's Commentary: 

Vision Portraits is my personal story of going on a scientific and artistic journey to better understand the ramifications of my deteriorating vision. My aim is to come to a deeper sense of knowledge through illuminating portraits of three artists: a photographer (John Dugdale), a dancer (Kayla Hamilton) and a writer (Ryan Knighton).   I wanted the film to specifically focus on the ways each artist was impacted by the loss of their vision and the ways in which their creative process thrives in spite of their blindness.  The film consists of four chapters which profile each artist and also follows a medical procedure centered on the restoration of my lost vision through the use of cutting edge technology at the Center for Vision Restoration in Berlin, Germany. 

The film is told from my perspective as a filmmaker who was diagnosed with a rare genetic eye condition in early 1997 called retinitis pigmentosa resulting in the loss of my peripheral vision and much of my night vision. As a filmmaker with only twenty percent of my visual field remaining, I am forced to work in new, more collaborative ways while also being part of a long tradition of artists seeing in highly idiosyncratic ways.  My personal story is interwoven throughout the documentary and is the connective thread that unifies the different story elements. We experience my emotional, artistic and physical journey as I engage deeply with each artist and experience changes in my vision throughout the medical procedure that I am undergoing. 

Photographer John Dugdale slowly loses his vision at thirty-two in St. Vincent’s Hospital at the height of the AIDS epidemic due to CMV retinitis and continues to take photos with the sliver of sight that remains in one eye.  Ryan Knighton, a punk rock teenager, is diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa on his 18th birthday and finds writing as his salvation through the process of going blind.  Kayla Hamilton was born with no vision in one eye and has very minimal peripheral and night vision in the other due to glaucoma and iritis. She incorporates her unique perspective on the world and embodies resilience and empowerment in her solo dance piece Nearly Sighted.  All of the artists featured in this film are deeply influenced and motivated by the power of art to heal and transform.  These are stories of inspiration that I hope will be a real galvanizing force for those of us that struggle with the day-to-day realities of living with a disability. 

In terms of approach, the film offers a deep dive into the work of each artist and incorporates their art (photography, dance, literature and filmmaking) to provide an immersive way to experience how they “see” the world through these unique perspectives.  We utilized a wide array of cinematic tools including sound design, visual text, macro cinematography and subjective camera positions to chronicle the experience of each artist. We also utilize visual strategies that incorporate scientific imaging so that viewers can experience the process and procedures as my treatment in Berlin progresses.   

To provide an up close and personal look into the wide spectrum of emotions that each artist goes through from idea development through completion and exhibition/performance, we used a mixture of in-depth interviews, vérité footage of each artist’s daily experience, creative process, and exhibition/performance. There is some use of experimental POV footage to visualize some of the remnants of sight that remain for each character.  This involves use of overexposure, roll outs, flares and cropping to mirror the subjective experience of these artists similar to the ways in which films like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Directed by Julian Schnabel) and Nostalgia for the Light (Directed by Patricio Guzman) and filmmakers like Stan Brahkage and Leslie Thornton use abstract, subjective viewpoints to immerse the viewer deeper into the emotional experience of their central characters.  We also incorporate impressionistic cinematography and still photographs to visualize some of the stories of the past that each character tells in order to keep the viewer immersed in the events as much as possible. We utilize rich and evocative sound design and detailed audio description channels specifically created for the visually impaired and blind community so that they have the ability to access the film. 

We additionally include in-depth conversations with Dr. Anton Federov at the Center for Vision Restoration in Berlin, Germany.  He is the co-developer of therapeutic electrical stimulation, an interdisciplinary approach involving neuro-opthalmology, neuro-physiology and neurology being used for patients with Retinits Pigmentosa and Glaucoma. Through these interviews I wanted to share new research that is being done and potential breakthroughs that could have dramatic future impact on the lives of people like Dugdale, Knighton, Hamilton and thousands of others. Scientific imaging, retinal photography and computer graphics are incorporated to visualize the changes that I experience as my treatment progresses.

Worldwide, 550 million people are disabled including one in four Americans and yet this is one of the most underrepresented communities in terms of mainstream film, television and digital programming.   In making this film, my aim is to bring greater awareness and honest portrayals of members of the disabled community to the screen.  As a visually impaired filmmaker, this film is also a way of reaching out but also reaching within and grappling with the confusion over my loss of vision through storytelling that allows others to enter into a very personal experience for myself as a filmmaker and the other artists profiled in the project as well as the scientists pushing at the frontiers of knowledge through the use of cutting edge technology.