The Representation of Blindness

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Abstract

The portrayal of blind people in Western media largely conforms to stereotypical representations that oscillate between two poles: either as unfortunate, disabled and deprived, or exotic, mysterious and in touch with the supernatural. This ‘othering’ of blindness in documentaries is the symptom and partial cause of socio-cultural stigmatisation and ‘ableist’ hegemony.

Challenging this hegemony, the discourse proposes the adoption of a spectatorship-based approach to film practice. It first identifies a range of stereotypes in mainstream documentaries, revealing the overwhelming use of formulaic narratives that foreground either tragic or heroic, goal-oriented plot trajectories, and stylistic devices that objectify blind characters. These insights frame the making of my own documentary films about two blind people. The aim is the mediation of everyday experience from the characters’ own perspective, with the result that the spectator experiences them as ordinary people, performing ordinary activities, albeit with extraordinary bodies. The films focus on everyday objects and spaces, and use narrative fragmentation to elicit a temporal sense of ‘everydayness’. The methodology operates on two levels of filmic mediation: the pre-filmic, comprising my first-person encounters with the subjects, and the post-filmic that addresses the mediation of pre-filmic experience to the audience via the film. The pre-filmic level makes use of phenomenological methods; the post-filmic implements a range of methods adapted from cognitive film studies. This spectatorship-focused model offers a new way of representing and communicating the ordinary ‘everyday’ of the two blind characters, undoing the stereotypes that consistently ‘other’ members of this community.

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Introduction

In 2004 I made A Touch of Colour, a 12-minute documentary about Terry, a blind painter (figure 1). Since I am neither blind, nor do I have any blind relatives or acquaintances, the motivation for that film lay in the fascination of portraying the extraordinary story of someone who, although completely blind, continues to create visual art. The plot depicts the painting process; Terry describes how his traumatic loss of sight, which brought with it increasing social isolation and caused him to abandon drawing, also forced him to reinvent his painting style. As such, it conformed with the emotive plot trajectories recommended by documentary textbooks and, for this reason, it resonated with film festivals and fellow filmmakers. At the time, I considered disability representation and critical filmmaking to be secondary issues.

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Figure 1: A Touch of Colour (2004)

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The representation of blindness in Western thought has oscillated between two binary stereotypes: deprivation and a presumed mysterious link with a supernatural reality (Barasch, 2001, p. 147). Since making the short documentary in 2004, I encountered these two stereotypes, albeit in different manifestations, in almost every film I saw that featured blind people. I slowly came to realise that my film was part of this unfortunate trend. Stereotypical media representations of disability are the mechanisms of boundary maintenance deployed by an abled culture to distinguish the disabled as inferior and deficient, creating societal barriers that limit interpersonal interactions between abled and disabled people, and perpetuating the subordination of this community (Haller, 2010, pp. iii–iv). The term ‘representation’ in this context is understood as the use of a shared language (written words, spoken sounds or visual images) to refer to concepts depicting people, objects and events in either the ‘real’, physical world or the world of the imagination (Hall, 1997, pp. 17–18). Consequently, representations of disability both reflect and inform, and are informed by, the social reality of disabled people in an able-bodied world, as well as our mental representations of that social reality. This insight provided the impetus for my doctoral research, in which I explore the existence of blindness stereotypes in documentaries and attempt, by means of my documentary practice, to conceptualise alternative representations that dismantle or ‘undo’ these stereotypes. In a sense, it has served as a way of redeeming myself for the stereotypical portrayal of blindness in my 2004 film, and for this reason, I again chose Terry as one of the characters, in order to undo my earlier representation of him.

In methodological terms, undoing blindness stereotypes requires the construction  a critical framework for documentary practice, one that recognises that the filmmaker’s actions are informed by ‘cultural knowledge’, resulting in a cultural artefact with particular implications (Wayne, 1997, pp. 9–10) for the spectator’s “interpretations, knowledges, experiences and modes of comparison” (Fuery, 2012, p. 85). These include the formation and confirmation of stereotypes based not only on the reception of the film text, but also on contextual factors relating to the dispositions of the spectator and their preceding knowledge. The major paradigm of this research is based on the proposition that filmmaking practices that potentially lead to stereotypical representations need to be approached through the critical deployment of spectatorship theories. Such theories help prevent the formation of stereotypes by gauging the spectator’s response to the final film artefact in relation to the preconceptions he/she has acquired through viewing previous films.

Mike Wayne (1997, p. 11) argues that the critical framing of documentary practice enables the practitioner to place his/her work in relation to other cultural artefacts and hence discern connections with or departures from certain traditions of representation. Further, it illuminates the effects of textual strategies on the audience and provides the practitioner with a vocabulary that enables the understanding and communication of complex ideas through filmic form, the reflexive interrogation of the implicit assumptions underpinning formal conventions, and the conception of potential alternatives (pp. 11–12). In this respect, documentary practice can be seen as a teleological endeavour in which authorial field practices and filmic expression ultimately result in a specific audience experience. The conceptualisation of this experience needs to frame the filmmaking process. Thus, the two research questions are:

  1. How can the application of spectatorship theories establish a documentary film practice that critically addresses the received ways (audience experience) and related conceived ways (filmmaking practices) in which the portrayal of particular subjects are perpetuated in documentary film?
  2. Can documentary practice, informed by spectatorship theories, assess the public perception of blind people and undo common stereotypes in the portrayal of this group?

These questions do not relate to the subject of my film practice (blindness) per se, but rather to the medium of documentary practice. The first question addresses gaps in current research; it requires a methodology that is pragmatic, malleable and inductive, in order to accommodate the second question. Hence, rather than generating new data or meta-theoretical knowledge, this research is focused first and foremost on producing a methodology for documentary practice. The second question comprises the case study used to test the methodology, but even here the data produced does not refer to blindness or disability but to its representation. The knowledge generated here is therefore praxical – that is, it can be practically applied to any subject matter that bears even a remote similarity to the case study, including other frequently stereotyped communities or topics.

Nevertheless, the subject of blindness is particularly pertinent. The attempt to represent people who experience the world in a very different way to the filmmaker and the sighted audience tests the boundaries of the proposed methodology. The filmmaker, in attempting to conceptualise narrative and aesthetic representations of blindness, is faced with a challenge: because film is an audio-visual medium, it is technically incapable of conveying touch or smell, the essential sensory means by which a blind person apprehends the world. Thus, the blind character is experienced by the spectator through the one sense the character does not possess. This raises the question of the capacity of the proposed methodology to convey the character’s subjective experience to the viewer without simply resorting to sound as the main aesthetic mediator. This question is being addressed by reassessing the notions of ‘subjective experience’ and ‘filmic mediation’.

In terms of gauging spectatorship (audience dispositions and reception), this research operates from a filmmaker’s perspective and therefore uses a hypothetical spectator to justify all its related filmmaking decisions. Neither its scope nor its objectives allow for a dedicated audience study in order to conceptualise the films or verify the desired impact of the finished artefacts; the spectatorship mentioned in the research questions is conceptual, not empirical. However, as will become apparent throughout the research, a conceptual approach is more efficient and pragmatic than an empirical one, not least because it is usual practice for filmmakers to base their work on the premise of a constructed audience. Hence, one of the key questions explored here concerns which theories are used to construct the audience, and how this informs the filmmaking process.

This project is accompanied by two documentaries, the eponymous Terry (48 minutes) and June (45 minutes).

 

Terry Hopwood-Jackson June Bretherton
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Figure 2: The characters

 

Terry and June, the two characters (figure 2), are both (non-congenitally) totally blind. Terry, a freelance painter, lives with his partner, Pam, in a small, crowded flat on the outskirts of Basingstoke. June, a former drama teacher, lives in a spacious house in Harwich with her partner, David, and is a freelance writer and trainer/consultant on issues affecting blind people. Terry and June are markedly different in character and temperament, especially in relation to their feelings about being blind, as well as in their social lives and everyday activities; this becomes evident through the way they are portrayed in the films. Their difference was a major reason why I chose to make two separate films – one based on each character – since juxtaposing them in the same film would have created a binary opposition between them, rendering their pre-filmic personae as comparative screen personae and considerably attenuating their individuality and particularity, which, as Chapter Four argues, are crucial to undoing stereotypes. Forcing characters into the same film through intercutting would fragment their contribution and forfeit their individual integrity (McLaughlin, 2010, p. 97). Even if there were no evident links between the characters, and they were each portrayed in a long, individual segment to prevent intercutting, the spectator would still discover relationships and infer cross-plot meanings, because the human mind is an association-driven engine, accumulating and contextualising knowledge by linking things that occur within the same time frame. Indeed, the exploitation of this ability is one of the main mechanisms of multi-character film narratives (Cutting et al., 2013, pp. 85–86). Hence, when the above films are disseminated in non-academic circles, such as film festivals, they will be treated as two separate artefacts, although a detailed discussion on exhibition lies outside the scope of this discourse.

Dedicating a separate film to each character maintains their uniqueness; however, in terms of the actual research, they are in fact related case studies that enact the methodology. As such, they represent a diptych of two separate artefacts connected by a hinge – the methodology. The huge disparity between the characters tests the resilience of that hinge, and requires the deployment of a plethora of different strategies. For this reason, in an academic context, I recommend watching both films together after reading the written exegesis, or at least after reading this chapter and Chapter Four. Chapter Four provides an essential framing to the representation of blindness in documentary film – identifying current stereotypes, analysing their socio-cultural impact on blind people, and proposing concrete strategies to undo these stereotypes. Reading the chapter before watching the films reflects the inductive nature of the written exegesis in which the entire literature review and methodology are grounded in the issue of the representation of blindness; it also resembles the way I have presented the project at conferences and in academic publications.

In the context of this research, the written and the practical components are inseparable, since they frame one another. The written part is implicated in the practice but is not merely illustrational, informative or supportive. Trinh T. Minh-ha encapsulates this relationship with regards to her filmmaking and her writing:

I theorize with my films, not about them [emphasis in the original]. The relationship between the verbal, the musical and the visual, just like the relationship between theory and practice is not one of illustration, description or explication. It can be one of inquiry, displacement and expansive enrichment. (Minh-ha, 2007, p. 107)

A project that is simultaneously theorised practice and practised theory relies on the concept of bricolage. Jacques Derrida (2001, p. 360) explains that the ‘bricoleur’ uses “the instruments he finds at his [disposal] around him, [trying] by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogeneous”. While bricolage has long been embraced by practitioners, scholars often deem it to be synonymous with cherry-picking. In order to prevent this, Joe Kincheloe (2001, p. 685) argues that the academic bricoleur needs to have a diverse understanding of disciplinary processes, recognising at the same time their parochial and restrictive dimensions. In addition, using parts of a theory in a bricolage requires the initial examination of what is discerned and discernible in relation to its suitability for the particular research questions at hand (Mason, 2011, p. 7). The inductive deployment of discernible parts from different theories needs to be complementary; that is, the particular methods should neither contradict each other nor fulfil the same practical function in a different form. Overall, the aim of the written exegesis is to formulate a bricolage methodology that is academically rigorous and coherent, yet grounded and pragmatic, demonstrating the chiasm of theory grounded in practice and practice grounded in theory.

The formulation of the methodology and its application progressively crystallised as a result of my interaction with Terry and June, and the interaction between theory and practice. It has been led by experimentation in theory and practice, and has been constantly revised and refined. In this sense, it bears similarities with ethnographic research in which data collection and analysis continually inform the research design, and “all subsequent data collection is guided strategically by the emergent theory” (Walsh, 2012, p. 248). This ‘funnel structure’, through which the methodology is gradually channelled, rejects a strictly sequential research design that “compartmentalises it into distinct stages” (p. 250). However, the inductive actuality of the research design is different to its deductive presentation in the written exegesis. Given that the objective is to produce a praxical methodology that is applicable to other research contexts and subject matters, a seemingly theory- and discourse-led structure is more efficient.

Chapter Two, ‘Documentary Practice and Spectatorship’, provides a critical review of the relevant literature. It first looks at documentary filmmaking textbooks, arguing that the lack of critical, spectatorship-focused theories results in the circulation of narrative and aesthetic formulas, which, although pedagogically efficient for teaching filmic storytelling, are prone to the sort of schematic stereotyping that has a particularly adverse effect on the representation of disability. Existing documentary study texts, therefore, offer little scope to apply spectatorship theories in order to critically frame the practical endeavour of undoing blindness stereotypes. By contrast, a cognitive approach provides this critical framing by gauging spectatorship in terms of the socio-cultural mental dispositions that inform film viewing, as well as the actual experience of the film text in terms of narrative and aesthetics. It also offers possibilities for adopting cross-disciplinary methods and exploring spectatorship in terms of momentary, embodied experiences.

Chapter Three, ‘Dispositions and Mediations’, presents the main methodology, which formulates two stages of documentary practice. The first, a content analysis, identifies spectatorship dispositions towards a particular topic such as blindness. The sampling of films for the content analysis necessarily corresponds to the target audience of my own film practice, which is identified as a ‘public’ audience as opposed to a ‘connoisseur’ or ‘amateur’ audience (Sawyer, 2006, p. 2006). The second stage involves the consideration of documentary practice as a process of mediation on a ‘pre-filmic’ and a ‘post-filmic’ level. The pre-filmic level addresses my personal encounters with the characters; the post-filmic level addresses the spectators’ collective encounter with the film text. The object of mediation at both levels is identified as the subjective experience of the characters in relation to their embodied interactions with spaces and objects. The mediation of embodied experience from the characters’ point of view helps to undo stereotypes, and also results in a more homogenous spectator experience.

Chapter Four, ‘The Framing of Documentary Practice’, applies the first stage of the methodology to the condition of blindness. A content analysis of documentaries depicting blind characters identifies the common denominators in narrative and aesthetic stereotypes, with particular reference to the filmmaking formulas critiqued in Chapter Two. These stereotypes inadvertently use mechanisms of binary opposites, perpetuating an ‘ableist’ (able-bodied) hegemony that serves to ostracise the disabled community. The two main strategies for undoing these stereotypes are the focus on ordinary embodied experience within an everyday context and the focus on ‘alterity’, which maintains the particularity and complexity of characters without forcing them into universalised narrative schemas.

Chapter Five, ‘Ordinary Materialities’, and Chapter Six, ‘Ordinary Temporalities’, outline the variety of methods used in the actual filmmaking process. Both chapters distinguish, according to the methodology, the pre-filmic and post-filmic methods, and address the mediation of ‘everydayness’ and the characters’ embodied experiences from two separate angles. Chapter Five focuses on Terry’s and June’s material experiences with ordinary objects and spaces, using the anthropological concept of ‘objectification’ to mediate the reversible relationship between body and objects (Tilley, 2006). Chapter Six, meanwhile, concentrates on the temporal aspect of ordinary experience as mediated through a narrative structure. Two of the main strategies deployed include the use of ‘narrative fragments’ to mediate incompleteness and the use of ‘narrative cyclicality’ to mediate the repetition of everyday rituals. Chapters Five and Six are based on micro-detailed textual analyses of momentary aesthetics (for example, cinematography and editing) and global narrative structures such as motifs.

The conclusion in Chapter Seven reflects on the key issues of this research, such as the viability of hypothesising an audience and mediating ordinary, everyday experience through film. It also suggests possible avenues for disseminating the films, pinpointing institutional channels, as well as areas for further academic research.

This strong focus on spectatorship limits the need and the space in which to discuss the filmmaking process from an authorial perspective. Thus, issues of research and production are only addressed if they have implications for the spectatorial experience, as in the case of the pre-filmic practice of ‘database filmmaking’, which leads to narrative fragmentation. The same holds for authorship, which is only examined in particular instances where aesthetic and narrative strategies convey my presence to the spectator through ‘deep reflexivity’ (MacDougall, 1998) and ‘political reflexivity’ (Nichols, 2001). Similarly, ethical issues are only referred to if they arise for the spectator, as is the case for the ‘back shot’ examples and narrative beginnings. Equally, my relationship to Terry and June, as well as various aspects of their lives, are not mentioned unless they are revealed to the viewer through the film text or have direct implications for the aesthetic and narrative choices, such as the filmmaking motif in Terry’s film. This almost exclusive focus on spectatorship is tailored to the two research questions, whose remit is the formation and undoing of stereotypes in the spectator, not the filmmaker. Nevertheless, the stereotypical representations identified in Chapter Four also relate to my own preconceptions prior to this study, as my 2004 documentary about Terry demonstrates. As such, the first part of Chapter Four represents a quasi-self-reflexive endeavour.

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References:

Barasch, M. (2001). Blindness: The History of a Mental Image in Western Thought. New York: Routledge.

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McLaughlin, C. (2010). Recording Memories from Political Violence: A Film-maker’s Journey. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Minh-ha, T. T. (2007). Trinh T. Minh-Ha in an Interview by Eva Hohenberger. In: Pearce, G. and McLaughlin, C. (eds.), Truth or Dare: Art and Documentary, Bristol: Intellect, pp. 105–121.

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