Rodney Evans on Documenting His Own, and Others’, Loss of Sight in Vision Portraits
Rodney Evans’ Vision Portraits works his experience of gradually losing his eyesight while continuing to make films into a personal documentary that also considers the larger implications of this experience for artists and minorities. The film is structured around Evans’ own experience: he shows himself on film sets, dealing with the aftermath of falling onto an Amtrak train platform in New Jersey and traveling to Berlin to get surgery. But in between, he also profiles three artists who are largely or entirely blind: photographer John Dugdale, dancer Kayla Hamilton and writer Ryan Knighton. Dugdale makes the biggest impression; despite losing his sight to HIV, he has continued making photos with a strong confidence in his ability to express the vision retained in his mind. Vision Portraits uses techniques like blurred images to evoke the conditions it describes without getting entirely literal.
Evans’ debut feature, Brother to Brother, looked back to the Harlem Renaissance to find models for queer African-American art. He has been making shorts since 1995.Vision Portraits opens August 9th at the Metrograph in New York and August 23rd at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles.
Filmmaker: Did you ever consider making Vision Portraits entirely about your own experiences?
Evans: No, I actually considered the opposite: a documentary series of short films chronicling the experiences of blind and low-vision artists, without me appearing in it at all. I never thought about it just being my experience. I had already done a film like that in 1998, Close to Home. It dealt with me coming out within a conservative Jamaican family. I was more interested in having the film be a launching pad into other people’s experiences.
Filmmaker: You made the short Persistence of Vision, about John Dugdale, in 2016. At that point, was your idea making a series of shorts like this?
Evans: At that point, I was already planning a feature. I knew that piece was going to be part of a larger work. I thought that it could stand on its own. So just on a lark, I started to send it. I sent it to BAM Cinemafest, Frameline, the Ann Arbor International Film Festival and it got programmed there. It won a jury award at Ann Arbor. It took me a whole summer to figure it out, because it was a three and a half hour interview, so I whittled it down to 11 minutes that I thought worked. John is a very digressive talker, and he talks a lot. It was a challenge figuring out what was essential. Then, that short got reworked for the larger feature. John’s section in Vision Portraits is not the same cut. There are essential differences, like the section when he asks me to close my eyes, tells me a series of images and asks if there’s anything I didn’t see. That’s not in the short. When I became more of a character in the film, that allowed these moments where I interact with these characters to organically become part of the texture of the film.
Filmmaker: His photographs have a very precise aesthetic, with blue tinting and controlled framing. Even after seeing the film, I’m puzzled how he can do it when he says he’s been blind since the ‘90s.
Evans: He had what he calls a corona at the bottom of his eye. He doesn’t anymore, he’s fully blind. For him it’s not so much about the final product. It’s about an archive of art history within his body, drawing on that archive and experiences he’s gone through, fusing those things with his imagination, then posing the models within the photograph to get close to what he’s trying to achieve. He works with assistants to help with framing and composition. He could use that crescent moon in his left eye to take in an entire form. And he’s always making sure he’s the one clicking the shutter. That’s important to him. But I don’t think he gets great satisfaction over the final composition as a tangible object. It’s more about having a joint experience with people creating something in his head.
Filmmaker: There’s a history in cinema of using images of assault on the eye. In Un Chien Andalou, there’s the famous shot of a woman’s eye being sliced open. To pick a very different kind of film, Lucio Fulci’s ’80s films are really obsessed with images of eyeballs being gouged in baroque ways. Derek Jarman’s Blue reflects his own blindness. How do you think Vision Portraits fits into this lineage?
Evans: Blue has been coming up a lot in interviews. I haven’t had the opportunity to see it on a big cinema screen. It seems like a crime to see it in any other context, so I haven’t really seen it, and it hasn’t influenced me, so I can’t speak to how it’s connected to the aesthetics of Vision Portraits. I will say we were really fascinated by macro-close-ups of the eye and images of the internal state of the eye, like retinal examinations, measurements of fields of vision and all the kind of medical procedures that I went through. Hannah Buck, the editor, who has a very strong graphic design background, uses all these elements in interesting ways, There’s also some Hans Richter footage of doll eyes. That was a really important part of the film: how eyes are depicted visually and what we think about when we see a huge close-up eyeball, what it evokes. What are the definitions of vision, and how can they be expanded? Those are pivotal questions. Taking information in an ocular way is normally what people think of as vision, but I want to expand it to include imagination, memory and emotion, which I think is also influential.
Filmmaker: How did the poems become part of the film?
Evans: The poems became part of the film as a reaction to a lot of essays I was reading about blindness in this book called The Disability Studies Reader. Some of them dealt with blindness and performance art, some dealt with the history of the blind black blues musician. My reaction to all of that research came out in these four really succinct poems. The first one that appears in the film is the first one I wrote. I was really scared to put it in the film, so I put it in Persistence of Vision. It actually opens that short. At the time, I was at this artist’s residency, and Kjerstin Rossi, who ended up being one of the cinematographers was also at the residency. I showed her the cut and mentioned not being sure about the poem. She said “You can’t take that out, it’s such a great opening, so allusive and such a way into fear and subjectivity. I think it’s so great.” I showed it to an editor friend and she said I should keep it in. They just kept coming as I did tons of reading. I would jot it down. There are probably twice as many, if not three times as many, as I used. In the edit, we decided how many we needed, where they would be placed and how they were gonna transition into the next section. So that became a editorial decision for Hannah. We cut some down a little bit.
Filmmaker: When you were first diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, did you fear that it would immediately destroy your ability to make films?
Evans: No, I didn’t, I guess because the way it was explained to me is, there are two dominant strains of the disease. One progresses really rapidly, and you will lose almost all your vision in about six to eight years. The other strain progresses rapidly and then plateaus for decades, probably staying the same. I was told that was the version I had. It was recommended that I go to a retinal specialist and have him monitor the condition every three months. There was a medication I could take that kept my eye pressure in a good place and prevented the liquid behind it from building up, which is usually a signifier that the retina’s deteriorating. There are things you can do to maintain the vision you have, like taking vitamin A palmitate and never going out into bright sunlight without sunglasses, because UV rays are very damaging to my eyes.
At that point, I was very immersed in writing the screenplay for my first fiction feature, Brother to Brother, which was all-consuming. So, I had a way of compartmentalizing different traumatic events in my life. I was dealing with the drama of coming out within a hostile environment and the emotions that stirred up within me and how I would depict that onscreen, how I would link that to a history of LGBT artists in the Harlem Renaissance, doing a lot of research and writing a screenplay that balanced those two threads. For me, that was a more powerful and emotional experience that I felt the need to create work about. I’m a uni-tasker, if such a thing exists. I really do focus on one thing and drill down hard until it’s down. I don’t feel satisfied un it’s complete, and that was a six-year process, from 1998-2004.
So, I didn’t have a fear that I wouldn’t make films. I was conscious that I just needed to adapt my process to it. Fiction filmmaking was part of that. I had been a non-fiction, experimental filmmaker who did most of my stuff on my own. The idea of working with a crew and actors was completely new. It was an added layer of information, like “By the way, I’m visually impaired and have no peripheral vision. If you hand me a call sheet for the next day’s shooting and it looks like I’m not seeing it, I’m probably not, so you need to say it out loud.” That would be something I’d explain on the first day of the crew meeting for each film I made. It was part of the adaptation process for working with large crews, although none of them have been that large. Vision Portraits never had more than two people shooting and recording sound. There was a two-person crew and an editor. Hannah edited a lot of it after I did the first assembly.
Filmmaker: In the film, you worry that coming out about being disabled will further marginalize you. Has that happened or have your experiences been more positive?
Evans: I don’t know, because the film hasn’t come out yet. We’ll see. It’s only been shown on the festival circuit. If anything, I’ve been looking for projects where the main character has low vision or is blind and my visual impairment can be an asset to an actor trying to give an authentic performance of that experience. I’m reading a memoir now that’s being adapted into a screenplay. For now, it doesn’t have a director attached to it. I’ve been thinking a lot about different aspects of my experience and which projects are best suited to use those experiences to make them powerful.
Filmmaker: Do you think our culture is coming around to the idea that people with disabilities should be in charge of representing themselves rather than being depicted as objects of pity?
Evans: I’d like to think we’re on a path where that’s becoming more of the case. My making this film was a contribution to that body of work and wanting to add to the conversation about disabled filmmakers telling stories from within, in an authentic way. I know Kayla, the dancer in the film, on a Q&A said “I wouldn’t have participated in this film if Rodney wasn’t making it.” So it was important to her that I was visually impaired and she didn’t have to explain what that experience was. We have a long, long way to go.
One in four people in this country identify as having a disability and less than .2 percent of characters in film have a disability. That’s a huge distinction between the reality of lived experience and reality as represented on film. There are a lot of stigmas and negative connotations attached to disability. The less people see it represented, the more those stigmas, fear and shame are perpetuated, so we need to see more images of it for it not to be pathologized. The people that have those disabilities are at the most unique and authentic place to tell those stories. So for me, it’s a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you hire someone who understands that experience to render it on-screen in a realistic way and to communicate with an actor what it feels like to roam around in a hotel room without knowing where the walls are or to fall between the gap in the subway? There are myriad things that go with being visually impaired. It’s a body of experience that lives within me, from which an actor can gleam knowledge. I hope this film can make disability part of the conversation about diversity that’s going on now, because it often gets left out.
Filmmaker: The film alternates between your story and the three artists you profile. Did you begin with that idea or did it develop in the editing room?
Evans: That organically became the structure. I always knew I’d be there in the beginning and the end. When I was cutting each artist separately, I knew I would be the thread people were following. I was the character who was changing over the course of the film. That was one of the things Hannah and I finessed. We had a few rough cut screenings with friends, and a lot of the feedback we got was, “Everyone is fleshed out right now except Rodney. We desperately want to know his story. It feels like we need to be grounded, but it’s not happening.” So, we went back and Hannah asked some hard questions about how I was reacting to other people’s sections of the film. What do I feel about blindness as a state of bliss and a beautiful utopia frozen in John’s mind, where no one ages and everything’s preserved as it was? Do I think of blindness with that potential for beauty? I said no. I’m terrified of going blind and I’m trying to hold on to the 20% of vision I have left and regain what I have lost. I have a very different idea of what it would mind to reach that state of blindness. It’s not something I’m slowly resigning myself to. So she said “OK, that needs to be a section of the film. Why don’t we come up with a section of questions? Kjerstin can interview you.”
I was very averse to writing a voice-over. In this film, I did not want my voice to stand out from the other characters. I wanted everything to feel low-key and intimate. Kjerstin and I are such good friends that she could ask me very personal questions. Then, Hannah created the voice-over from those interviews. A lot of it was asking questions in the edit room about how I reacted to different sections. In one instance, I said to her, “I think Kayla’s the bravest of all of us, because we’re all hiding behind cameras and computers but she’s putting her body into space.” Navigating space is the most frightening thing for blind people because there are potential obstacles which can harm you. So she thought about it and asked what it means when your art form is about navigating that space. That became a title card which introduces Kayla’s section. A lot of that was just dialogue between Hannah and I that turned into interstitial sequences. Then they built into this medical procedure in Europe which becomes the ending chapter.