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(The 2019 SXSW Film Festival runs March 8-17 in the fantastic city of Austin, TX. Lead critic Chris Reed is on the ground in Austin and has his usual massive slate of reviews and interviews. Stay tuned! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

What is it like to see the world through blurred vision, or no vision at all, especially if one is an artist working in media where the eyes are a principal tool of one’s craft? I have a hard time imagining how I would type this review while blind, though there is certainly technology available today that makes such things possible. Given the imperfections of my smartphone’s speech-to-text function, however, I wonder how hard it would be to compose more complicated essays in a similar manner. And that’s just writing; imagine being a dancer, a photographer or filmmaker with limited to no vision, and the challenge seems even more daunting. This has not stopped director Rodney Evans from making a film about four such people – one of them himself – who continue to pursue creative lives even as their eyesight deteriorates and/or vanishes. Moving and inspiring in equal measure, Vision Portraits offers hope to all who refuse to allow ostensible affliction to slow them down.

Beyond Evans, we meet photographer John Dugdale, dancer Kayla Hamilton and author Ryan Knighton, the story of each woven into the through line of the director’s own journey. At intervals, Evans gives us interstitial textual meditations on the life of a blind artist or, in his case, the in-between state of a man who can still see, but only by a percentage of his former capacity, with an even dimmer future ahead. Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa 20 years ago, even before he made Brother to Brother (winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival), Evans has since continued working behind the camera, navigating the increasing effects of his progressive disease, year by year. Here, we see him actively filming supporting footage (he nevertheless has two main cinematographers, Kjerstin Rossi and Mark Tumas), as it’s the peripheral sight that is lost, the encroachment of its shadowy edges gradually creating more and more of a tunnel-vision effect. Where Dugdale is completely blind, and Knighton almost so, Evans still perceives objects directly in front of him (Hamilton is blind in just one eye, though her good eye has recently experienced difficulties through overuse).

This is not a movie, however, about loss and despair – though there is certainly occasional regret – but rather about the celebration of what is possible. Dugdale’s photographs, with their blue tints, subtle blurs and double exposures (or collage effects) of bodies turning invisible are hauntingly beautiful portraits of the will to live; Hamilton’s performances similarly express an unquenchable life force with their emotionally expressive choreography; Knighton’s writing, focused on his blindness, mines potential tragedy for witty and poignant comedy; while Evans continues his focus on films about gay men and the overall metaphysics of human relationships. Together, they make a spirited cinematic team, and our lives are richer for knowing them and being reminded that disability lies only in the eye of the beholder.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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