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Long before he became the first blind man to climb Mount Everest, Erik Weihenmayer recalls his experience with losing his vision at a young age. Intriguingly, he notes that he wasn't worried about the idea of going blind itself but rather the thought of being pushed off to the sidelines and made to feel obsolete. It's pretty safe to say that this was most likely the overwhelming motivating force which led him to conquer his fear head on via a mind-bogglingly physical obstacle that still is beyond the reach of many sighted individuals.
And while America still has a long way to go in its treatment of disabled individuals and those with vision and hearing impairments-- especially in terms of our costly health care system that seems to especially punish those who aren't able-bodied-- as soon as documentarian Lucy Walker introduces us to a group of blind children in Lhasa, Tibet who attend a school run by their blind courageous German instructor Sabriye Tenberken, we're stunned to see the way in which the children have been treated as dangerous and demonic.
Although a small number of the children featured in Walker's group of six have more supportive parents or siblings--the majority have been cast outside their homes with one heartbreaking tale about a boy who was made to beg in the streets where he was beaten. Despite their nurturing environment in Tenberken's school, the students are routinely shunned as they go about their day and we gasp in horror while witnessing the treatment of the young blind children who are cruelly shouted at by passersby in a Tibetan culture which dictates that they're blind in this life because they're making up for their "evil" deeds in the past.
And indeed while on the surface it seems barbaric as even some of the children fall prey to the belief arguing that they need to be extra good in this life to come back with sight in the next-- in a way, it does recall some of the same adages used by other religions and cultures around the world who state that "everything happens for a reason," that "people get what they deserve," and others that perpetuate an us vs. them mentality of the disabled and able-bodied in a way that makes Lucy Walker's film that much more urgent and relatable to viewers around the entire globe.
However, Sabriye Tenberken -- the co-founder and chief educator of Tibet's Braille Without Borders school which she runs along wither her sighted best friend-- isn't content to let the children buy into any stereotypes. And by teaching them to read and write in a multitude of languages-- while Weihenmayer conquered a mountain, Tenberken is conquering injustice in trying to empower the children to help make their futures seem more positive and goal-oriented instead of the sad probabilities some of the children share such as a worry of what will happen to one girl if her parents should pass and the siblings she helped raise decide they no longer wish to care for her.
Inspired by Erik Weihenmayer's quest and extraordinary achievement, Tenberken wrote to the climber in earnest in a heartfelt e-mail that stated her belief that as he made it "to the top of the world... we also can overcome our borders and show the world that the blind can equally participate in society and are able to accomplish great things."
Taking that literally, Weihenmayer and Tenberken join forces to-- along with Wiehenmayer's team of experts-- lead an expedition to bring six of the school's children to the top of the 23,000 foot high peak Lhakpa Ri, incidentally a "neighbor" of the Everest he'd taken on years earlier.
And although initially I feared that like the high quality but motivation questionable War Dance or Born into Brothels-- Walker was mostly just wanting to make what the disabled community refers to as a film that uses them as exploited fodder for the able-bodied to feel better about themselves (for proof watch any episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), the film manages to raise more questions than answers.
And sure enough, we manage to see all sides of the situation in knowing how important it is for the children's self-esteem to reach a goal but at the same time, when their lives are jeopardized, wondering if it was right in the first place to set such a goal that-- if they don't achieve it-- may reinforce the negative connotations they feel about themselves as inflicted by the cruel outside world.
Although, we realize ultimately we can't be over-protective with the understanding of just how important it is for the children to even embark on such a journey when we acknowledge the alternative of the life waiting for them at ground level where they are shunned as though their blindness is contagious and will bring about bad luck. Admirably not willing to get involved in the debate-- while it would've been an easier approach to pat-yourself-on-the-back Western filmmaking to focus exclusively on the wonderfully inspiring Tenberken, Walker must be commended in her contemplative work.
As in the end Blindsight is a fascinating film that evolves many times over throughout its running time, fittingly changing with the journey similar to the way the young teen climbers must adjust, feeling their way, and unsure of the pleasures or dangers that stand just ahead of them. This is especially evident by the way it becomes (as many critics have argued) an Eastern vs. Western mini-debate as the high altitude affects those involved and the athletically inclined Western professionals place more emphasis on just nailing that particular goal of reaching the top whereas the Eastern individuals and especially Tenberken begin to have second thoughts, wanting to emphasize the journey instead as some of the children begin to seriously struggle.
Easily an audience favorite which has earned countless Audience Awards for Walker's film as the Best Documentary in its inclusion as an official selection at prestigious festivals including the 2006 AFI Fest, 2007 Berlin International Film Festival, Ghent Film Festival and Palm Springs International Film Festival and recently released on DVD from Image Entertainment that begins with blind-adjusted settings including an audio description track that sighted individuals must manually switch off, the disc also includes a making-of-featurette, follow up with the Tibetans and individuals involved, audience reactions and the official theatrical trailer.
An excellent conversational piece about ethics, culture clashes, stereotypes, and courage that would be ideal in high school or college classrooms-- although it's suitable for all ages given its PG rating-- the film not only raises awareness about the ill-treatment of the disabled around the world but it will make one instantly want to reach out in their community to organizations such as our own Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic as well as the film's Braile Without Borders.