One morning a few years ago, Keith Maitland found himself following a blind man as he used his white stick to navigate the busy streets of New York City. At the time, Maitland was working in the city on the set of Law and Order. He had recently attended a wedding in Austin and happened to get into a discussion with a man at his table who worked for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. It got him toyingwith the idea of making a documentary about the school. In the time it took him to watch the man navigate a busy intersection on 23rd Street, Maitland made a decision
“That was a light bulb moment for me,” Maitland, a Plano native, said in a recent interview. “In this one instance of seeing this guy and paying close attention, it occurred to me that he’s just like me. He’s got to get to work, he’s on his way somewhere and he’s not going to let the intersection stop him. He can’t live within one city block for the rest of his life. And that was when I said, ‘OK, I have to make this movie.'”
The result is The Eyes of Me, which screens at AFI Dallas on Saturday and Sunday. The portrait of four students at Austin’s Texas School for the Blind is alternately touching, heartbreaking, insightful and inspiring.
Maitland headed to Austin in the summer of 2005 to research his film. Within 24 hours, he found Chas, a 6 foot 9 aspiring rapper with personality to burn. The Fort Worth native would be a senior in the fall, so it was important to move quickly.
The other three stars of the film were selected from a pool of about 20 students after the school year started. They are Meagan, a fellow senior who would go on to be valedictorian; Isaac, a newcomer to the school who had been blind less than a year; and Denise, a Dallas native trying to find her way as a freshman.
The four students Maitland selected are opposites in nearly every way except for their blindness. Chas is larger than life; Denise is tiny. Meagan is driven in school; Isaac is a little more driven by girls. Their varied perspectives underscore a point important to Maitland.
“Adults in the situation of going through sight loss or major sensory loss have a tendency to shut down, and all other elements of their life go on hold while they focus on that and that alone,” he said. “But these teenagers didn’t put everything else on hold. Yes, they’re dealing with their sight loss, but they’re also dealing with everything else that a teenager deals with: dating, romance, the quest for independence.”
A documentary about teenagers is bound to be dramatic (see last year’s excellent American Teen, for starters). But documentaries based mostly on interviews can be visually boring. To protect against that and to explore a key question, Maitland decided to animate parts of the film.
“People always ask blind people how they dream. I assumed that if you had sight and lost it, and you’d only lost it a couple of years ago, you’re likely to dream in very much the same way you used to,” Maitland says. “So I wanted to create a dreamlike sequence.”
He hired Austin-based animators Jason Archer and Paul Beck to provide a few segments of rotoscopic animation. (You can see some it in the beginning of the trailer, above.) The duo had previously worked on Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. The charge for The Eyes of Me was to imagine what blind people see in their own minds.
Maitland sought creative input from his subjects, interviewing them about how they pictured the world. What he found when he talked to Meagan was that his assumptions about how they dream weren’t exactly right.
“We talked about it, and it was like, ‘When you talk about sunset, what do you imagine?’ And she said it was, ‘that postcard moment. When I think of a sunset, I don’t think of any one specific sunset I saw, I think of the best sunset’.”
As Meagan ticks off the colors of that sunset, they flow onto the screen, swirling around her and bringing the audience inside her mind.
If you don’t catch The Eyes of Me at either of its AFI screenings, there’s a good chance you will see it on Independent Lens one day – Maitland has already cut a 56 minute version suitable for television. And there’s also a chance your kids might catch it, too. The Meadows Foundation provided finishing funds for the film. And once they saw it, they liked it so much that they provided additional funding to develop a curriculum around the film for high school students.
The Eyes of Me screens at the Magnolia on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Director Keith Maitland and subjects from the film will be in attendance.