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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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 of 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.

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 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).

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.

In the context of this practice-led research, Trinh T. Minh-ha encapsulates the relationship between theory and practice 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.

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).

 

 

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