Film Festival Diary: three films about blindness that will challenge old assumptions

A still from the film The Ship of Theseus. A woman is standing in a room where some sunlight illuminates her face. She is holding a camera in her hands and is looking straight ahead.

This is the third in a series of posts on films shown at the First International Film Festival for Persons with Disabilities. The Festival, recently held in New Delhi, was presented by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in collaboration with the National Film Development Corporation of India.

There’s a tired old way of thinking of disability, which imagines the presence of disability as a deficit. In this, the person with the disability is seen as somehow incomplete. It is only when the disability is taken away or ‘cured’ that the person can be seen as whole. A number of films at the festival blasted this concept to smithereens with their complex, thought-provoking portrayals of people with disability.

An assumption one would make when thinking of disability-as-deficit would be that a person would necessarily be happier and more fulfilled when their disability is taken away. Two films screened at the festival, Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, and Ebrahim Saeedinejhad’s Rehearsal of Tolerance directly challenge this assumption.

In Ship of Theseus, Aliya is an acclaimed photographer, who is visually impaired. She uses her intuition to create her photographs, technology to be able to understand what they look like using her sense of touch, and is impatient with her partner if he tries to tell her which photos work. After a cornea transplant, her vision is restored. Thereafter, she loses her confidence in her creative process. In gaining eyesight, she loses something vital; she no longer likes the photographs that she takes.

The young Iranian man who is the protagonist of Rehearsal of Tolerance faces a similar painful predicament when his eyesight mysteriously returns after years of blindness. The man, the son of the rich landowner, has lost both his parents. He cannot read or write, but he creates poetry and saves it by recording it in audio cassettes. His sole companion is a woman that he thinks he meets every time he goes to a particular spot in the jungle. When his eyesight returns, he can no longer find the woman, and he is heartbroken. He takes to digging graves and lying in them as a way to cope with his new circumstances.

Eyesight without eyes

A still from Eyesight Without Eyes

In contrast, the protagonist of Hayk Ordyan’s Eyesight without eyes, Naira, an Armenian massage therapist and single mother who is blind, lives a full and interesting life. Naira speaks candidly about her little daughter Nataly’s father, with whom she is deeply in love. However, Naira doesn’t believe that this love has to necessarily translate into marriage or even living together.

The film follows mother and daughter through a day in their lives – Naira speaks to us over coffee that she makes in the kitchen, goes shopping for groceries and bargains at the supermarket, takes the bus to go to work, and comes home with Nataly in the evening. She treats herself with the utmost respect and demands the same of everyone around her.

Eyesight without eyes is an outright objection to the idea that someone like Naira is inherently incomplete, or asexual, or worthy of sympathy and pity. As the title of the film implies, Naira’s life is not devoid of the pleasures and experiences that are enjoyed by the sighted. As Naira herself says, “You do it with your eyes. I am doing it by another sense which is not developed in you as much as in me. That’s it!”

The transitions shown in Ship of Theseus and Rehearsal of Tolerance do not follow the simplistic trajectory of two ‘incomplete’ people becoming ‘complete’. They depict the struggles of two people who have shifted their locations on a continuum of ability on which everybody stands. In their new states of sightedness, both characters still have to make negotiations and adjustments, just like Naira does in Eyesight without eyes. All of these people are as complex – and as complete – as they ever were.

Featured Image Credit: SantaBanta.com