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The visual language of blindness

Blind filmmaker finds new ways of seeing
By: Will Sloan
July 28, 2017
Shadow Girl

Photo: School of Disability Studies student Maria Teresa Larrain documents her journey into blindness in her acclaimed film Shadow Girl.

Maria Teresa Larrain had a long career as a filmmaker and activist before she lost her sight, but the dimming of her vision was not the end of her creative life. Shadow Girl, the Chilean-Canadian filmmaker’s first-person documentary, chronicles Larrain’s entry into the world of blindness, and how her interactions with a group of blind Chilean street vendors changed her understanding of disability. Highly experimental, the film seeks to find new ways of representing blindness on screen. After winning a raft of awards on the festival circuit, Shadow Girl will air on CBC’s Documentary Channel on July 29 and August 8.

During the film’s long production, Larrain enrolled in Ryerson’s School of Disability Studies (where she is currently a mature student), and shot part of Shadow Girl on the Ryerson campus. Larrain is this year’s recipient of the Emma Hardie International Disability Award. Named in memory of the late DST graduate and disability advocate, the award recognizes a scholar and activist in the program for academic excellence, commitment to social inclusion, mentoring, and curiosity about disability in global and economic contexts.

Ryerson Today spoke with Larrain about her film’s revelatory journey to the screen, and her evolving relationship with blindness.

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This film took eight years to make. I imagine the end product is not the same as what you conceived. What was the creative evolution?

At the beginning I didn’t know what I was doing. I was desperate—I was just trying to express what I was feeling, but I never thought I was going to make a film. I started writing, and I could still write, but I could not see what I was writing. I needed to express myself in a different way. That’s when I went to Chile when they denied by disability pension because I had completed the other film that I was working on before: they said that because I had completed that film, I had kept working, meaning I could still work. That story is the centre of the film.

I am going to divert a little. The medical stuff with the blindness was never discussed. They said, ‘She is blind, but she can still work. Actually, she finished a film.’ The other film was about native people in Chile. They had sent a chief to jail and had wrongly accused him of burning a landowner’s home. I started to shoot that film when I could still see, and then I was losing my sight in the editing room. I decided I really needed to finish that film—the chief was in jail, I had been working on the film for four years, and when you’re a documentary filmmaker you’re committed to the work you do. I had the help of my crew—without that, I would never have been able to complete it—but for me to complete that film was blood, sweat and tears.

What we are fighting for now is: you get a disability pension, but the pension is never enough to cover your basic needs, so you need to work, and then you get penalized because you are working. It happened to me, and it happened to the blind street vendors of Chile—police would take them off the streets, confiscate their merchandise, and so on. The issue of working for people with disabilities is very important.

Now, back to your question. Originally, my idea was to make a film about the street vendors. When this disability pension was denied, I went back to Chile, to my family, one of my brothers gave me a job, but I could not complete the work because I could not see what I was doing, so I was very depressed. I met blind street vendors, and I fell in love with them because of their resilience, because of their sense of humour, because they took me out of my depression and taught me that blindness was not really the barrier, and they never doubted my ability to make a film. They never questioned that a blind filmmaker could make a film, which was wonderful, because around me, everybody was questioning that possibility.

I started to make a film about them, and one of them, Guillermo Sepulveda, said to me, ‘Maria Theresa, I will be in your film, but only if you will be in your film as well.’ I said, ‘What? I’m not blind, why should I be in the film?’ He said, ‘First of all, if you are not blind, why are you carrying that little cane with you?’ I said, ‘So why do you want me to be in the film?’ He said, ‘Because you come from the world of the sighted. The sighted will be interested to know about us because you come from their world, and you will carry them to us.’ And I thought that was a very interesting angle.

How did the process of making this film affect your relationship with your blindness?

To tell you the truth, my process has not ended yet. Spiritually, I am ahead of my emotions, because spiritually, I know that I am a human being—I am more than my eyes. I know that spiritually, but I’m terribly afraid of total darkness. That is the reality, and that is my reality, and I live with that reality. Every day when I went into the streets, I didn’t know if my vision would last enough to call myself the director of the film. The blind street vendors disappeared more and more as we shot. So that was a difficult process.

For me, I have to live with this disability, my blindness—I don’t like the word ‘disability’ because it sounds like you’re not able. I like to say ‘my blindness’—I give it a name, you know? One of the lessons was that the best I can do is live with my blindness, rather than trying to fight it or pretend it’s not there or pretend that I’m the happy blind person who has accepted everything. No—there are things that are difficult to accept, and I have not totally accepted them. I mean, I’m living with it—living with it means I am living in contradiction. And that is alright. I haven’t accepting aging either, but I accept it in the sense that I am living with it.

The resilience, of course. There were sources in me that I didn’t know… well, I think I knew, because I have gone through stuff in my life. I have gone through a coup d’etat in Chile. I have lived under military dictatorship. I have had many losses—I have lost my country, I have lost people I loved. When you have losses in your life, you get to be more resilient. So I knew resilience was within me, but this was different. You learn to be more alone, because blindness is a kind of loneliness in the sense that you cannot participate in all the activities you did before. You lose some friends, but the friends you lose were not really friends, you know?

Do you think you would be comfortable continuing making films?

I’m not sure about films. I don’t see anymore. I can explain very well, and I can direct that way because I have been a director for 30 years, I have a good relationship with my directors of photography, and I have developed a language. But what I have discovered when I’ve shown the film at festivals is, people say, ‘This is not your last film—you have discovered a different visual language in making the film.’ The biggest challenge as a director was to visually portray blindness. Many films about blindness—including Notes on Blindness, which is a beautiful, beautiful film—are made by directors who are not blind, and try to express how a person saw. The difference is, my film visually portrays the different stages of losing my sight. We discovered how blindness is something that is different for different people—sometimes light comes and disappears, and then comes back again, then it is shadows and colours that fade, shapes and forms. That is a different visual language.

What I’m doing now is, I’m developing an interactive video about blindness called Beyond the Shadows. I ask blind people: what is an image to you? What is the colour of blindness? And they describe those descriptions I am trying to express visually, and that is a beautiful language that I’m discovering now.

What interested you in Ryerson’s School of Disability Studies?

I didn’t want my mind to die. I was always a good reader, and I read about everything—literature, poetry, philosophy, whatever. I didn’t want, because of my blindness, for my mind to die. I studied radio and television at Ryerson, so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll see what happens at Ryerson.’ I discovered the program, and I found incredibly interesting that the disability program is centred not on medical solutions or on social work for the disabled person—which is fine—but rather, they put the disabled person at the centre. It is not your “disability” that disables you, but the barriers our society imposes on us. And starting from that basis, you get to study the history of madness in Canada and the visual portrayal of disabled persons through history in art.

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Shadow Girl airs on CBC’s Documentary Channel on July 29 and August 8. For more information, visit the film’s official external,website and external,Facebook page.