The tale of the blind man pervades some of our oldest stories. In Greek mythology, the prophet Tiresias helps Odysseus on his long journey home, and warns Oedipus not to go down a road that ends with marrying his own mother; in Christian theology, Jesus’ miracles include many blind men being given the power of sight once more.
Moving into the 20th century and the modern cinematic tradition, the idea of sightlessness paradoxically found a place in the most visual of media. One of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest films, City Lights, is the story of The Tramp falling in love with a blind girl selling flowers on street corners, ending happily with the recovery of her sight. Ideas behind the logic of film had kicked off as a representation of both realism and fantasy – it’s amazing that Chaplin took interest in the condition of blindness, but the curing of Virginia Cherrill’s character comes across as an insulting celebration of an art form which she normally wouldn’t be able to enjoy.
We saw an interesting portrayal of the blind last year, when Fernando Meirelles followed up City of God and The Constant Gardener with Blindness. The story upon which it was based was made readily available in Braille, and its author José Saramango was happy for it to be adapted for the screen as long as the characters had no names, and the city in which the story is set remained anonymous. Watching the film, that’s the least of the audience’s worries: when an epidemic of blindness spreads across society like wildfire, the first sufferers are quarantined, left to their own devices and find themselves in a nightmarish dystopia where humanity plunges into a Lord of the Flies-like hysteria. Disease spreads quickly, food shortages become widespread, and male population resort to rape and murder.
The National Federation of the Blind condemned the film’s release, and the American Council of the Blind declared their ‘outrage’ at this allegory, stating that ‘blind people do not behave like uncivilized, animalised creatures.’ The concern is certainly justified in terms of how horrific this $25 million film, that features stars like Julianne Moore and Danny Glover really is. But the irony behind the complaint, concerning an art form that the blind community is not expected to enjoy, creates a far larger ethical dilemma: is it really fair to film the ‘experience’ of a condition that can’t really be re-created by one of its sufferers? Blind artists working in visual media have existed, but none were behind the making of this film. The problem is not dissimilar to issues raised whenever Hollywood makes films, for example, in countries rife with poverty, and expresses Western ideas rather than giving a voice to the poor who don’t have the same means of expression. It’s a privilege to be able to make, and to enjoy, cinema: it can tread on unfamiliar ground, but we must remember that no art is universally accessible, and that there’s a difference between criticising cultural exclusion, and promoting it.