Friday, July 08, 2016

Frederick Wiseman: Deaf and Blind But Not Dumb

Frederick Wiseman's documentaries are a collection of dialogue, compromise, anger, observation and, in the case of his 1987 film "Blind", an exercise in pure cinemas as discovery. It comes at the halfway point when one of the very young blind children featured in the film (known as Jason) is followed in an extreme long take as he feels his way downstairs into one classroom and then back upstairs to another to talk to his teachers. There's no expediency or montage juxtaposition to hurry up the act. We simply exist to observe this child as his newly taught sensory skills are put to the test. It's a moment both bracing in its honesty and awe-inspiring in the possibilities of film to capture something non manufactured and real. In essence, that's what Wiseman has been doing for forty plus years.

As a companion piece to "Blind", there's also "Deaf", released a year earlier in 1986 but taking place in the same Alabama area school for the Deaf and Blind. Culled from endless hours of footage and whittled down to approximately five hours of film, both "Deaf" and "Blind" follow the framework of Wiseman's now pattern formula... i.e.basic exterior shots of the city and school welded around the inhabitants, leadership and tangential elements of an institution. In between, there are one or two extended scenes of discussion or conflict that serve as the identifying setpiece. In "Deaf", its a 35 minute discussion between a principal, a teacher, a mother and a deaf child whose been causing trouble at the school. Threats of suicide and intentional fights with other boys has landed this young man in the hot seat and through a carefully worded and patient conversation, his animosity about not seeing his real father and his mother's supposed lack of communication become the root cause. It's as if we're watching an intense psychiatric session, punctuated by sign language and the genuine care of all involved to arrive at an accepted and humane compromise.

Separating the visual style of both films- while "Deaf" is in color, "Blind" is black and white, naturally- both films are interested solely in the mechanics of thought, learning, perception and discussion... even when we don't fully understand the discussion. Several scenes in "Deaf" feature students communicating outside or by themselves in the hallway in sign language. There's no attempt to translate or cheapen the moment. The viewer is present, fully, in their world. Likewise, in "Blind", Wiseman sagely dispenses with compassionate leanings and shows only the strong moments of the blind students. Jason's confident walk. A classroom lesson where children learn about textures and feel as linen cloths are placed over their prone bodies. And a carefree dance where the energies and vigor of youth take over, regardless of their inability to see.

In both "Deaf and "Blind", the overriding message is that, yes, these children do have handicaps, but their immersion in life, relationships, and the everyday ebbs and flows of emotions are just as pertinent. Perhaps more so because they're learning to adapt without a vital sense many people take for granted. Wiseman doesn't. And the men, women and children featured in "Deaf" and "Blind" certainly don't.

Both films are available at

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