There’s a difference between sight and vision, and that line is investigated with illuminating intimacy by “Vision Portraits,” Rodney Evans’ documentary about his struggles — and those of three other artists — to continue working in the face of mounting blindness. Bolstered by the writer-director’s own journey, recounted via a collage-like aesthetic that eloquently conveys his circumscribed condition, it’s a nonfiction study of artistic creation and, also, of individual courage and perseverance. As its ongoing theatrical expansion suggests, the film’s inspiring and evocative power should resonate with viewers across the cinematic spectrum.
The recipient of the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize for his 2004 feature “Brother to Brother,” Evans was a filmmaker on the rise even though his sight had begun to deteriorate in 1996 on account of a rare genetic (and degenerative) disease called retinitis pigmentosa that left him with something akin to tunnel vision. As he states in narration (and via transitional textual poems), that loss was terrifying for its impact on both his profession and on his life as a single New Yorker. Gripped by fear over losing the sense that was most instrumental to moviemaking, Evans — while seeking medical treatments here and abroad — sought out others in similar situations, hoping they had guidance to impart about coping with this daunting new reality.
Through conversations with photographer John Dugdale, dancer Kayla Hamilton and writer Ryan Knighton, what he discovers is that blindness, though seen as an ending of sorts, can also function as the beginning of a new phase in processing the world and defining one’s self. Struck sightless after a seizure, HIV-positive artist Dugdale has since worked consistently for a quarter-century with the help of assistants, using memory and imagination to internally conjure the external images he seeks to capture — a process he has others experience by asking them to close their eyes and think of the items and spectacles he recites. Evans duplicates this exercise by cutting to black while Dugdale verbally rattles off random things, and the effect is nothing short of enlightening.
An analogous device is employed by Hamilton, who was born blind in one eye (and beset by problems in the other), and whose 2017 show “Near Sighted” required that audience members wear an eye patch as a means of replicating her unique circumstances. The issue of perspective arises in each of the documentary’s vignettes, which refuse to sugarcoat the frustration and hopelessness wrought by (often permanent) visual impairment, and yet confront those issues with a measure of optimism and humor. That’s particularly true with regard to Knighton, who began his writing career as an attempt to deal with his blindness. His first-person story about a trip to the world’s largest rattlesnake roundup proves that the absence of vision doesn’t necessitate the negation of lightheartedness, or hope — and for Knighton, writing about his condition has had the unlikely effect of reconfiguring his memories and, in the process, his very identity.
The notion of blindness as simultaneously restrictive and freeing runs throughout “Vision Portraits,” which combines sequences of artists at work, shots from Evans’ limited POV, and expressionistic images of retinas, flashing lights, muted shapes and lunar eclipses to represent the diversity of its subjects’ state of sight. From Dugdale’s description of the colors he sees 24/7 as akin to the aurora borealis, to Hamilton’s explanation of collaborating with fellow dancers she can’t always peripherally distinguish, to Evans’ anxieties about including himself in the proceedings, and the potential consequences of being perceived as disabled — both by the movie industry and by romantic partners — it’s a film that nimbly balances the autobiographical and the experiential.