One of the most touching, almost sublime, moments in Lucy Walker's documentary, Blindsight, is a meditative exploration of some ice formations on the side of Mount Everest. The film, which follows blind mountaineer, Erik Weihenmayer, as he leads six blind Tibetan teenagers up to the 23,000 foot summit of Lhakpa Ri (practically next door to Everest's summit), spends a lot of time musing about what they're doing: the challenges of being blind, the importance of building self-esteem in young people, the clash of Western and Tibetan notions of success. As the teenagers and Weihenmayer get closer and closer to the summit, and as things get harder and harder (Weihenmayer is the only experienced mountaineer), a new question pops up: is reaching the summit really the most important thing?
It's then that we have this meditative moment by the ice, when the kids teach the mountaineering crew that sometimes stopping to soak in a moment is much more important than pushing your way through to an arbitrary goal. The joy on everyone's faces, the lilting background music and the vibe of hard-earned peace and contemplation is absolutely lovely. Much more than anything else in the film, this scene captures the bittersweet beauty of what these kids are doing and what it means.
Sonam Bhutso, one of the young mountaineers, during the rock climbing training.
Documentaries are few and far between here in PPCCland, mostly because we have trouble finding them and then, have trouble reviewing them. You can't really talk about characterization, narrative and aesthetics when the film is, by definition, only supposed to document the facts. Of course, documentary-making is just another form of storytelling. Blindsight's storytelling is normally straightforward: a swift prologue-type section with introductions and interviews of the team, followed by a more day-by-day accounting of their trek up the mountain.
Layered over the trek is a back story of one of the team's young men, Tashi, who is the group's outcast and weak link: always trailing behind, he has difficulty during the trek and has an unfortunate background (he was a street kid before joining the Braille Without Borders school). Tashi, who quickly becomes the film's special hero, is moody and troubled, yet also cheeky and joyous. You can't help but root for his success. And in scenes running parallel to his climb up the mountain, we follow Tashi's journey into a remote town of Szechuan Province, China, for a long-overdue reunion with his estranged family.
Tashi's story is occasionally likened to Weihenmayer's background as well: there are touching moments when Weihenmayer remembers his own gangly, awkward youth, his own feelings of being an outcast (Weihenmayer went blind at 13). Watching Weihenmayer's growing closeness and concern for Tashi - especially as it becomes increasingly unclear whether Tashi will be able to make it up the mountain - is very touching.
Two of the kids: the cheekiest!
While there are some interesting discussions about differing cultural attitudes towards blindness, and the dynamic between the American mountaineering experts and the Tibetan kids and workers is fascinating and even a little ambiguous at times, the documentary on the whole sends a crisp, powerful message about working hard and winning big. The simple, humanistic film is much more interested in showing the different back stories of the kids and their different personalities than making any overly-philosophical statement about disability or culture. For that reason, we think this film will be both inspiring and touching for a very broad audience.