'Vision Portraits' Filmmaker Wanted To Chronicle Other Artists Who Are Blind | Connecticut Public Radio
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'Vision Portraits' Filmmaker Wanted To Chronicle Other Artists Who Are Blind

Aug 5, 2019
Originally published on August 16, 2019 8:49 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Before we begin, I want to add our voices to the many who have expressed their horror, outrage, sadness and grief over this weekend's two massacres. We send our sympathies to the family and friends of those who were killed and our wishes for a good recovery to those who were wounded.

And now I'll introduce today's guest, filmmaker Rodney Evans. After he started losing his eyesight when he was in his 20s, Evans wanted to continue making movies, and he still has enough sight left to enable him to do that. He wanted to know what it was like for other artists who have lost much or all of their vision, and he wanted their advice. That led to his new documentary, "Vision Portraits." It tells his story and the stories of three other blind or partially sighted artists - a photographer, a dancer and a writer. Evans says all the artists in the film are deeply influenced and motivated by the power of art to heal and transform. Evans also wrote and directed the film "Brother To Brother," which won the Special Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. It starred Anthony Mackie as a young gay man who meets an older gay man who was part of a circle of artists and writers during the Harlem Renaissance. Evans is now working on a film dramatizing the life of composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn, who worked with Duke Ellington for most of his career.

Rodney Evans, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think a lot of our audience will be wondering, how can you make movies if you can hardly see? So let's start with what can you see? How much vision remains?

RODNEY EVANS: I have about 9% vision in one eye and 8% in the other eye. And it fluctuates. So sometimes that goes up, and sometimes that goes down. But in general, it's about 20% percent of vision. But it is very localized in the center. So the condition I have, which is technically called retinitis pigmentosa, basically destroys your peripheral vision. So it leaves you with no peripheral vision and very minimal night vision. But I do have very clear central vision. So my vision is - often, I describe it as akin to looking through a telescope or a horse with blinders.

GROSS: A telescope, but without the magnification.

EVANS: Exactly.

GROSS: So let's talk about how you direct a film with your limited eyesight. How do you see who you're directing? How close are you to the shot that you're framing, or are you watching on a monitor?

EVANS: You know, it depends on, a., whether it's documentary or fiction, right? So usually with a fiction film, I'm collaborating with a cinematographer and we're shot listing, and doing storyboards, and really talking about what's at the emotional core of each scene and what's the best way to shoot it. So all of that work is done before I get to the set, right? And so, you know, when I'm on set, I am really solely focused on the performances, and on the actors and helping the actors to get where they need to be emotionally for the scene as it fits into the larger whole of the film. That is the sole responsibility of the director. Like - and I actually feel like having no peripheral vision is an asset to that because I don't see any of the lighting equipment being put up. (Laughter). I don't see, you know, the flags that are taking the halo off of the actress's head. (Laughter). You know?

There are just certain things that are not visible to me. So I'm literally, like, zeroed in on what is going on on the actors' faces, and where they are emotionally and where they need to be for the particular scene that we're shooting. And so I tend to not stand behind a monitor. I tend to stand quite close to the actors. My entire crew knows about my visual impairment so there's no confusion about what I need, whether or not I need a clear path to the actors. You know, sometimes they'll put up a monitor right next to me, and they'll say, hey, Rodney, there's a monitor to your left in case you want to check the shot. So a lot of times, it's just letting people know what you need.

GROSS: Why did you want to make a film about other visually impaired artists who've continued to do their work?

EVANS: Because I was terrified, frankly, about losing my vision and whether or not I would be able to continue creating films and doing this art form that I was really passionate about. So, you know, I just have this tendency of confronting my fears head on. So if something terrifies me, I know that that's where I need to go as an artist, and that's what I should be making art about. And I should figure out why it's terrifying to me and what's scary about it. So for me, I think that was the launching point for "Vision Portraits" and just to, you know, take that to the endpoint and just think to myself, OK, so what if you do go blind? What would happen? How would you create your art? How do other people do it?

How would a blind photographer continue to make photographs? How would a blind writer continue to write essays and memoirs and screenplays? How would a visually impaired dancer navigate the space of a stage not knowing where the obstacles on this stage might be? All of that just became really fascinating to me, just how each artist tackled the obstacles of blindness and low vision and continue to create their art.

GROSS: John Dugdale - can I call him blind? Is that...

EVANS: Yeah. Yeah. He prefers to be called blind.

GROSS: OK.

EVANS: He actually gets angry when people call him visually impaired. (Laughter).

GROSS: OK. OK.

EVANS: Yeah.

GROSS: So something else that John Dugdale, the blind photographer, told you is that since he had vision and then lost it after he'd got AIDS and had a stroke that he still has all this, like, visual memory, and he's able to see things in his mind even though he can't see them with his eyes. And he actually says to you that the last time he saw the world was in 1994, and if he got his sight back now, he'd probably throw up, he said. He said so much has changed. He hasn't seen friends and family get older.

And I can't say I've ever thought of it that way, that if you lose your sight and then years go by, the people who you know, you're close to - friends, family, partners - like, you don't know how they've aged. You can't see it.

EVANS: Right.

GROSS: Did that make you think a lot, to you?

EVANS: It did make me think a lot. And it's something that a lot of people talk about. You know, Ryan Knighton, the writer in the film, also talked about not being able to see his face, you know, for the past - over 20 years, you know? And so I think for people like John and Ryan, the world is kind of frozen. And John describes it as a state of bliss. You know, where, you know, everyone's hair looks great. (Laughter) No one's aging. Everyone is in peak form. And he's remembering them like that. You know? So for him it really is this pristine condition that he remembers all of his friends in, and so he hasn't seen them deteriorate. He has a real focus on the beauty in the world. And so that's what he, I think, focuses on in terms of his memories and in terms of the people that he loves in his life.

GROSS: I think you didn't initially plan to include yourself in the movie; you were just going to do it about other people who are blind or partially sighted. Why didn't you want to include yourself and why did you decide, well, you will include yourself?

EVANS: That's an interesting question. You know, I - initially, I thought of myself as a framing device, that I would talk about my condition and my fears around losing my vision and continuing to work as a filmmaker and that being the reasoning behind why I was searching out the - and looking at the creative processes of these different artists. But, you know, as I was editing, it just became more and more clear that people were interested in me as a character and were interested in how I was absorbing the stories that I was hearing.

I think some of my reluctance to being in the film was actually being depicted on screen with a red and white cane, you know, which is a signifier for blindness. I think I spent a lot of time in the industry not wanting people to know that I was visually impaired for fear that that would be damaging to career possibilities and would limit my career possibilities.

You know, so I thought long and hard about it, and then after a while, it just it became really clear that I was having a certain kind of conversation with these artists, and it was an insider's conversation. So, you know, I knew what it was like to finally accept the fact that you needed to take out this cane in order to navigate the world, both for your own safety and for the safety of others, and what a hard decision that that is to make.

I know what it is to crack my head against a subway pole and fall down and have blood dripping down the center of my head. So I think I was able to have a certain kind of trust and an intimacy in the interviews because I was coming from the perspective of someone who was a low-vision artist and understood from the inside what their perspective was. I think it - it started to feel disingenuous because I wasn't just this objective, you know, fully sighted journalists coming in and asking questions, right? I was coming in as an insider to the community and having certain kinds of conversations that reflected that.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is filmmaker Rodney Evans. And he directed the new documentary "Vision Portraits," about four people, including himself, who are vision impaired or blind and have continued to pursue their art, including filmmaking in his case, photography, dance or writing in the cases of the other three vision impaired artists. The film is called "Vision Portraits." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MGMT'S "ELECTRIC FEEL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is filmmaker Rodney Evans. His new film is a documentary called "Vision Portraits," and it's about vision impaired artists or blind artists who've continued to pursue their art. In Rodney Evans' case, he has a genetic, a rare genetic eye disorder, so he has only a small percentage of his vision and has no peripheral vision. But he continues to make movies. He also talks to a writer who is now blind and continues to write, a photographer who lost his vision and continues to take photos and a dancer who's partially sighted and continues to dance.

Did you initially think, I have to give up the idea of becoming a filmmaker because I'm losing my vision?

EVANS: I didn't really because I had so much vision left to work with. And the way that it was presented to me was that I had lost as much as I was going to lose for a - sorry - for a significant amount of time and that it had seemed to be plateauing and that I just needed to keep monitoring it, like, every three to four months. And frankly, at that time, I had also just come out as gay to my conservative Jamaican family, which was also a real emotional rupture in my life.

And I think that as human beings we have such capacity to compartmentalize our experiences. So for me, that experience was much more emotional in some ways, and I was much more drawn to trying to make sense of that experience on film, by any means necessary. So I - you know, I made a short film called "Close To Home," which led to my fiction debut feature called "Brother To Brother." And that really took over my life for six years and that is all I focused on.

And with the vision, it was just like, this is something you have. You can't do anything about it. Or rather, you're doing what they tell you to do in order to maintain the vision that you have. And, you know, you play the cards that you're dealt, right? And so that was how I dealt with it and focused on filmmaking. But if anything, it was more galvanizing in terms of getting the projects done that were burning inside of me.

GROSS: So was the prognosis correct that you wouldn't be losing more vision in the near future?

EVANS: It was correct. You know, I say that - it really didn't start to deteriorate more till about probably 12 to 13 years later, you know? And I - and that was when I started to commute a lot from Penn Station to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia for a college teaching job that I had. And I just was bumping into many, many people (laughter), and people were getting very angry at Penn Station. So I was like, you know, in order for me to avoid a physical altercation - because New Yorkers do not mess around (laughter). Like, if you bump into them, like, that could get - you know, it could get violent really quickly.

So I decided that that was the point that I needed this red and white cane, both to help me navigate spaces like Penn Station but also as a way of signifying to other people that I was visually impaired and that there wasn't an issue and that I wasn't just bumping into them to be aggressive, right? Because especially as a young black male, it's an aggressive act, and it's that much more prone to be looked at as a hostile act.

GROSS: So you kind of had two coming outs - one as a gay man and the other as a visually impaired person because I think you were trying to cover it up for a while by not carrying a cane.

EVANS: Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: And there were a lot of people who you didn't tell. So when you found out about the visual impairment, how did you decide who you were going to tell and who you were going to not tell?

EVANS: In terms of my work as a filmmaker, I always told my crew. I always told, you know, the producers that I was working with. I always told the actors that I was working with you. You know, there's a lot going on in - sets are, like, chaotic places, right? So if somebody hands me a call sheet, which is just the information for the next day of shooting - like where the location is, who the actors are that are involved, what are the props that are involved. So if somebody hands me a call sheet, and I don't see it, and they feel like I am ignoring them, that could easily be perceived as a snub - right? - as some form of, like, denigration. And so for me, it became really important just at first crew meeting to be like, hey, I'm visually impaired. So in terms of the work process, that was always front and center.

The people that were closest to me - obviously, my family knew, and they were helping me to get medical care. My friends that were closest to me knew. But, you know, other people outside of that close, intimate circle didn't know, frankly, and I think it caused a lot of confusion. And people probably judged me in a negative way because of it. I think there are a lot of people who probably waved hello to me at, you know, a function and I didn't see it, and they thought it was a snub, when it was really something where I just didn't see them.

And so I think the red and white cane just helped to to signify to them that there is a visual impairment going on and that it wasn't me, you know, being snotty (laughter), you know, or trying to, you know, put them down in a way or - you know, it just made things clear. And so yeah, it just helped with social awkwardness and embarrassment.

GROSS: Yeah, this is something I hadn't thought about. Of course, I'd thought about that if you're losing your vision, you'd be knocking into poles and the world would become more dangerous, but I hadn't thought about all the people who would misinterpret your not seeing them as a snub or an insult, or that you'd accidentally knock into somebody and they'd think, like, you were trying to start a fight with them, that you were disrespecting them.

EVANS: Yeah.

GROSS: So yeah, I can see how the cane, the white cane signifying that you're blind and also being a tool to assist you, would send a message to the world - here's why this is happening.

EVANS: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

EVANS: Yeah. It was really important. And a lot of friends, I have to say, after I started using it, they were like, I'm really glad that you're doing that. And it was very clear to me that close friends of friends were likely telling them about experiences that they were having with me where I was acting strangely, where they had run into me and I didn't see them and I didn't say hello. Or...

GROSS: What's wrong with Rodney? (Laughter).

EVANS: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Like, who does he think he is?

EVANS: Like - yeah. What is up with your friend? Like, he's super shady? Like, I'm not - why are you friends with him?

GROSS: (Laughter).

EVANS: And then my friends would literally have to explain what was going on, and it just became this kind of continuous loop. (Laughter) So like - I just remember my really good friends being like, I am so glad you have that red and white cane.

(LAUGHTER)

EVANS: Because I cannot go through that explanation one more time.

GROSS: My guest is filmmaker Rodney Evans. He lost much of his sight as a result of a rare genetic disorder. His new documentary "Vision Portraits" is about how he and three other blind or partially sighted artists - a photographer, a dancer and a writer - continue to do their work. We'll talk more after a break, and we'll listen back to an interview with groundbreaking documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. He died Thursday at the age of 94. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with filmmaker Rodney Evans. He's continued to make movies despite losing most of his eyesight as a result of a rare genetic disorder. His new documentary "Vision Portraits" is about how he and three other blind or partially sighted artists - a photographer, a dancer and a writer - continue to do their work.

You were telling us that you started losing your vision and got your diagnosis at the same time that you decided to come out. And so, like, coming out and also making the movies you were making at the time were so - took up so much psychic and physical energy that the vision loss was almost in second place. So since you made a film about coming out, I want to talk with you a little bit about that.

EVANS: OK.

GROSS: You say that your parents were or are - I'm not sure if they're still alive - conservative? Before you came out, did you sense that they were homophobic and that this was going to be very frightening to them?

EVANS: Yes. And I guess I should qualify the term conservative because I think that that has some - so many connotations.

GROSS: Yeah.

EVANS: You know, my parents are Jamaican. And so my dad passed away in 2003, and my mom is still alive and is super proud of my films, right? But, you know, they are Jamaican, and I think Jamaica, you know, I have to say, is probably one of the most homophobic countries in the world. And I don't say that lightly. And, you know, being of Jamaican ancestry, it's painful for me to say that. But I do think that it's true, and I understood all of the cultural baggage and influences that my parents had from growing up in Jamaica.

So yes, I did know that it was going to be incredibly difficult for them to handle my coming out as gay. And I had always been this kind of straight-A student that, you know, went to the Ivy League college, that - you know, that they could be super proud of and brag about to their friends that - how well I was doing, and, you know, almost emblematic of their success immigrating to this country, you know, like, what I was able to achieve, right? And so I think coming out worked counter to that story for them.

But I will say that they still (laughter) were very supportive of my art-making and still, even though, you know, was fully gay and dealt with, you know, LGBT history during the Harlem Renaissance and...

GROSS: In your film, yeah.

EVANS: In my film, yeah. So they were financial supporters of that film. And, you know, my dad unfortunately didn't live to see the film, but my mom, you know, went with her Jamaican friends on, you know, the weekend that it opened at Cinema Village in New York. And they bought tickets, and they sat there and they watched it, you know.

And I do think that the film slowly influenced my mom's opinions about gay lifestyles and her homophobia. And I think that was just a huge shift that came as a result of that film and it being so outspokenly and unabashedly gay and me being out as a gay filmmaker and her having to say, yeah, that's my son, and I'm proud of him, and I'm proud of the work that he's doing, and defending me to people that probably didn't understand what I was making or why I needed to tell those stories.

GROSS: Well, in terms of your life, in a world that's still filled with racism and homophobia, you're in the position of being African American, gay and partially sighted. And so you add racism, homophobia and vision impairment together, and, you know, that's a lot.

EVANS: Right.

GROSS: I'm not saying - you know, I'm just saying, in terms of obstacles...

EVANS: Yeah. Yeah, for sure.

GROSS: ...In terms of how the world perceives you.

EVANS: Yeah. You know, it's funny - it just reminds me of a James Baldwin quote. When people asked him what it was like to, you know, be both black and gay, and his response was something to the effect of, you know, I won the lottery.

(LAUGHTER)

EVANS: You know? Being both facetious but also being, I think, honest in a really astute way, in that when you are marginalized, you see the center in a much more clear-sighted way, right? So, you know, I think as a black, gay, disabled individual, I am able to see white mainstream culture from a very - you know, white, mainstream, able-bodied culture in a very specific kind of way.

You know, for me, it's quite shocking that 1 in 4 people identify as having a disability, but, you know, 0.2% of characters in films that we see have a disability. That's a huge void between actual lived experiences and what gets reflected back to us onscreen.

GROSS: So before we have to end, I want to ask you about Billy Strayhorn because you did a short film that I think was a documentary about him?

EVANS: It was a fiction piece, actually.

GROSS: It was a fiction piece, OK.

EVANS: Yeah.

GROSS: And now you're working on a feature film about Strayhorn. And Billy Strayhorn was a composer and arranger who worked in most of his professional career with Duke Ellington. And among the things he wrote were, like, "Daydream," "Lush Life," "Take The 'A' Train." And he was gay, and I think that wasn't really public until, I don't know, 20 years ago or something. Tell me about your interest in Billy Strayhorn and your angle on him for the movie that you're making.

EVANS: You know, I think I just fell in love with Billy Strayhorn through his music and through the vulnerability that came through his music. And, you know, I feel like people within the jazz milieu of the '40s and the '50s did know that he was gay, and I think that he had made a pact, you know, to live in the shadows of Duke Ellington and be taken care of and have this openly gay lifestyle and not receive the proper credit that he was due for a lot of the songs that he had written - you know what I mean? - that he had fully composed that Duke Ellington, you know, had wrongfully taken credit for. And I think it's taken decades for scholars and musicians and family members to really suss out who wrote what. But I think now it's become more clear. And yeah, the film, you know, really explores the weight and the burden of that pact. What does it mean to live in the shadows of someone creating art but then not being able to receive the proper credit?

GROSS: Rodney Evans, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

EVANS: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Rodney Evans directed the new documentary "Vision Portraits." After we take a short break, we'll listen back to an interview with groundbreaking documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. He died Thursday at age 94. His subjects ranged from Bob Dylan to Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. This is FRESH AIR.

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