Sunday, December 29, 2013

Imagine (2012)



This indie film came out in 2012, a French-Polish-Portuguese co-production written and directed by Andrezj Jakimowski. It's about a maverick teacher at an ophthalmology clinic in Portugal who wants to teach the patients there to use echolocation rather than a cane to get around.

Ugh, where to start on this one..... I found watching this film an intensely frustrating experience. On the one hand, the sound design and cinematography are stunning--so beautiful and thoughtful about representing the blind experience. And almost all the secondary characters are played by blind people. But on the other hand, the plot (such as it is) is ludicrously inaccurate and insulting both to blind people and their teachers. And true to the art-house style, nothing much happens. It's unbearably slow and the ending is inconclusive.

A title at the very beginning dedicates the film to Ben Underwood, the teenager who was briefly famous for using echolocation. But it seems Jakimowski did little more than watch a 10 minute TV special on Underwood and created the rest of the story without any sort of research or mundane, boring realism. Yes, echolocation is a real thing and some blind people can do it, even to the extent of not using a cane. Underwood wasn't the only one; there are records of people doing this for hundreds of years. And yes, it probably could be taught more systematically.

But the way it's handled in this film is utterly ridiculous. Rather than a thoughtful look at real issues facing blind people, the plot relies entirely on the hackneyed trope of the crazy, rule breaking teacher who actually wants to help the kids, man, versus the stuffy, hidebound professor who is only interested in safety and breaking the kids' spirits.

And what kind of place is this, anyway? Set in a monastery in Portugal, it's repeatedly referred to as a clinic, not a school, and the kids are called patients, not students. It's a random collection of blind people from very young kids to adults, and from random countries all mixed up for no apparent reason. They aren't given medical treatment or taught anything. They seem to spend most of their time sitting around inside doing nothing, waiting for a doctor who never talks to them, and they are forbidden from going outside the walls without an army of helpers. There are also other random sighted people living there (including a monk). Even the very first schools for the blind in Europe and America over 150 years ago were better set up than this, and had more progressive ideas about education for the blind.

So maverick teacher Ian (Edward Hogg) tries to shake things up, but his lessons mostly consist of sitting around the courtyard outside and sitting around doing nothing inside, only occasionally practicing pouring water into a glass. "It's hard," he intones tragically, as the children spill the water everywhere. Really? I imagine the blind kids in that scene were embarrassed to pretend to be so incompetent on camera, especially the smart-ass British girl. She would have been awesome in Harry Potter, but that's another story.

Of course Ian and his love interest Eva (played by German actress Alexandra Maria Lara) are played by AB actors faking it. And while the students are all played by blind kids, it's telling that almost none of them have names, personalities or back stories. The camera lingers voyeuristically over their faces as they move dramatically from shadow to light (hello cliche!) but ultimately they're just symbols, not real people. The only exception is an older student played by Melchior Derouet, an awesome French actor who is really blind. He is just as talented as the leads, and far more interesting to watch. The film (or parts of it anyway) is worth watching just for him.

The other really insulting thing is the way Ian is so against using a cane. This is inane ableism at its worst, the idea that using a piece of adaptive equipment you actually need makes you a cripple and a target of ridicule, like you're giving in to the disability. I see this in a lot of misinformed novels about SCI, where the main character does everything he can not to "give in" to the wheelchair in a triumph of the spirit. Sorry, real life does not work that way. Yes, there are some blind people who don't use canes, but to have the main theme of the movie that the kids should throw away their canes in order to be free is ridiculous.

The teacher Ian clashes both with the head doctor who thinks his no-cane method is dangerous, and with the students/patients who think he is faking or lying to them. But despite this ready-made conflict, the plot never goes anywhere. At first the atmospheric scenes are nice, but they just meander on forever. None of the characters' motives are clear either; the characterization is as indistinct as the plot.

Now I am the kind of obsessive dev who will watch hours of Orientation and Mobility videos on YouTube, but even I was bored with this movie by about halfway through, and it's only an hour and forty minutes. This was such a wasted opportunity. I'm still waiting for a movie with an actual blind actor in the main role and that is more than just a bundle of centuries old cliches and misconceptions.