Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Year at TSBVI: The Eyes of Me

Film is a visual medium, so even with the best of intentions, there is always an uncomfortable irony to documentaries about those who are blind or sight impaired. Avoiding such a trap is quite a trick, but first time director Keith Maitland pulls it off by using striking animated interludes to express the mind’s eye of four blind Texas teenagers in The Eyes of Me (trailer here), which airs on PBS’s Independent Lens this Tuesday.

It turns out Texas is quite a progressive state. Since 1856, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) has been a national leader in providing rigorous academic instruction and a sense of community for visually impaired students. Over the course of an academic year, Maitland followed four students, two freshmen and two seniors, as they deal with high school angst without their sight.

Again, to Maitland’s credit, he does not grind out an exercise in cheap sentimental inspiration. In fact, the audience watches as the young men, senior Chas and freshman Isaac, make terrible decisions that will have serious repercussions on their futures. Conversely, the young women, freshman Denise and eventual valedictorian Meagan, seem to thrive at TSBVI, both academically and socially. Indeed, at a time when national studies show women are more likely than men to attend institutes of higher learning, there is no reason not to expect the trend to be reflected at TSBVI as well.

Maitland very definitely humanizes his four primary subjects, warts and all. They are not tragic figures of nobility. They are just kids, though in some cases they have major issues. Such is life. However, it is the all too brief animated sequences that really distinguish the film from other docs. Perhaps the best features Chas, illustrating how he draws on his sense memories from when he still had some limited vision to project a sense of the world around us.

Considering the time and resources that probably went into these interludes, they are understandably used sparingly. They do give the film an interesting character though, elevating the well executed but not exactly groundbreaking day-in-the-life style documentary footage of the four TSBVI students.

Ultimately, even with the distinctive animation, Eyes probably would not have been cinematic enough for a legitimate theatrical run. Still, it makes quite a strong installment of Independent Len, definitely worth checking out on free TV. It airs this Tuesday (3/2) on most PBS stations.