For reasons both historical and artistic, the short Czech feature doc “The Unseen” is something of a small wonder. Ostensibly about an unorthodox program that teaches photography to blind children, pic is also a beautifully crafted celebration of freedom, personal initiative and the inclusion of the handicapped in society and culture. This has bright future in international docu fests, cable, public TV and educational markets. Pic shared the documentary award, with “Noel Field – The Fictitious Spy,” at Karlovy Vary.
Opening with a stunning sequence of two blind boys learning how to load and operate a 16mm movie camera, “The Unseen” takes hold of the heart immediately and never loosens it grip. It also never loses its sense of humor, a critical component of the film’s power and charm.
The primary players are the children of a Czech school for the blind where a sense of absolute normalcy and creative ventures are enthusiastically encouraged. Effectively, the instructors and directors of the school are virtually never seen, and no one but the children is ever interviewed.
Revelations abound that seem to spring naturally from the gifted, funny and courageous children’s interviews. Nearly every child emerges as a distinctly colorful personality, as the kids matter-of-factly discuss their physical impairments and proudly demonstrate their artistic achievements, which, in addition to photographic work, include music, writing and one boy’s outrageous gift for mimicry and comedy.
Through the interviews, another, even more poignant point is subtly made about the role of photography in the lives of both the blind and sighted. One youngster explains that he keeps photos he’s taken of his family in a drawer during the day, and on his night stand during the night, “because I’m in school during the day!”
The Czech husband-and-wife directing-writing team of Miroslav Janek and Tonicka Jankova spent nearly 10 years in the U.S. honing their docu talents before returning to their native land after the 1989 fall of communism. Pair demonstrate a sharp sense of movement and the ability to perfectly integrate the kids’ arresting, off-kilter B&W still photography into scenes of their lively daily routines, which include riding bicycles, climbing trees and jogging.
Shot in 16mm and cleanly transferred to 35mm with professional English subtitles, this is a brilliantly conceptualized and immaculately crafted piece of filmmaking that both continues and expands the grand tradition of Eastern Euro documakers. A grasp of the sociological and historical significance of “The Unseen” yields a fuller appreciation of the pic: The disabled were for decades literally hidden away when this part of the world was dominated by the aesthetic and political dictates of communism, whose monitors saw the handicapped as bad news that the working classes would be better off not seeing. Janek and Jankova’s efforts here are dedicated to opening eyes.