British director Lucy Walker‘s latest doc “Blindsight” is set against the majestic Himalayas. The film adventure of six Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb the 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. The dangerous journey soon becomes a seemingly impossible challenge — made all the more remarkable by the fact that the teenagers are blind. Believed by many Tibetans to be possessed by demons, the children are shunned by their parents, scorned by their villages and rejected by society. Rescued by Sabriye Tenberken, a blind educator and adventurer who established the first and only school for the blind in Tibet, the students invite the famous blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer to visit their school after learning about his conquest of Everest. Walker directed 2002’s doc on Amish teens “Devil’s Playground” which took the best documentary prize in 2003 at the Independent Spirit Awards. “Blindsight” won the Panorama audience prize at the 2007 Berlinale. The film opens this week in limited release.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
During the filming of “Blindsight,” the blind Tibetan teenagers explained the cruel ways they’ve been treated by saying that “normal people’s hearts are blind.” I guess I never wanted to be normal. I always wanted to open hearts and minds, not least my own. Nothing feels more exciting for me than creating emotional connections between people. Documentaries let you walk in somebody else’s shoes for 90 minutes. You can’t pity someone, or hurt someone, or hate someone, when you are engaged in their point of view. And to me that is what my films, and my efforts to make them, are all about. I love the emotional experience of discovering sympathetic identity with people from such different worlds – whether it’s an Amish drug dealer turned narc – who by rights should have no friends at all, or a family of four blind Tibetans cooking their noodles on a yak-dung stove – who in practice in their village have no friends at all.
It never occurred to me that I could be a film-maker as a job. A lot of my peak childhood and adolescent experiences involved having my mind blown by movies. When I was growing up Channel 4 and BBC showed the best films ever if you stayed up late enough. And I always instinctively tuned in to what directors, actors, technicians were trying to achieve with their technical choices — film grammar, or framing, or design choices, or music cues, or whatnot. But I never imagined that people like me could be involved in the making of movies. I had more realistic goals, like becoming the next Shakespeare, or the next Mother Teresa, or the next Marie Curie, or the next John Peel.
The “a-ha moment” was when I first got my hands on a video camera, which happened when I was an undergraduate, when I decided to videotape a stage play I had directed. It was a spectacular musical production of The Jungle Book, staged outdoors in the famous mound garden of New College, Oxford. Of all the fun things to do in Oxford on those enchanted long midsummer evenings — punting along lush riverbanks, gatecrashing May balls, frolicking about with the most ridiculously talented young people (and they’ve all gone on to do extraordinary work, such as my roommate the genius Emily Mortimer) and washing it all down with lashings of Pimms No 1 Cup — putting on plays was the most fun of all. Having directed this show I found I knew exactly where to point the camera in each moment: crash-zooming in for Mowgli’s lip curl here, whip-panning around for Shere Khan’s entrance there, pulling back when the monkeys swung in. Suddenly I realized what motion pictures were capable of, and I was getting high with the infinite possibilities. I loved the photography, I loved the music, I loved the editing. I started tripping on close-ups. Something I’d always hated about theater was that I couldn’t really see the actors’ faces. Now I could see a hair quivering in their nostrils. It was the end of my theater career.
Cut to Paris, my first job as an assistant director making the worst television in the world – Cas De Divorce, a ham French Divorce Court knock-off. We could get two episodes in the can a day if we smoked enough Gaulloises. I figured if I loved working on that rubbish, I must really love film. And Paris is the city to be if you’re in love with film — every night I’d jump on the metro, leafing through Pariscope, and head to a flea-pit to watch Godard or Truffaut or Antonioni or Kubrick or Ophuls or John Ford or Fritz Lang movies. Weekends I consumed four or five movies a day.
One afternoon in a cafe on the left bank I read an interview with Spike Lee about NYU, and learned for the first time that my heroes Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese had all attended NYU’s graduate film program. My late father loved the USA, and he’d once suggested that I think about grad school here. He was thinking of law school or business school. But it was too late. I applied.
I only got into NYU because I won a Fulbright scholarship. I was the only student who had never made a film before, and I was the youngest in my class. I was expected to have friends, locations, cash, and skills enough to make my own short films within days of landing in New York for the first time, totally wide-eyed and hyper-stimulated and over-tired and broke. It was perfect training for hit-the-ground-running documentary filmmaking. I developed shingles from sheer cold lying in the snow under a car in single digit temperatures without warm clothes holding a boom mic for 12 hours without a break. I passed out with heat exhaustion squashed twelve-people-in-a-bathroom under hot lights without air-conditioning in a record-breaking heat-wave fed on nothing but discount day-old cannolis. I feared for my life standing up to my neck in the Amazon river surrounded by piranhas holding the camera for Enrique Chediak’s brilliant short film El Rio.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I don’t think of myself as documentary filmmaker. Yes I am best known for my two feature docs “Devil’s Playground” and “Blindsight.” But I’m the kind of documentarian who is always first and foremost a filmmaker. I love working with both actors and non-actors, with both scripts and real life. I think they each hone the skills you need for the other.
To paraphrase Hitchcock, in fiction God is the director, and in documentaries the director is God. When I’m making fiction I have all the control I want, but it’s a fight to the death to find the authenticity and the heart, and I crave the raw given-ness of documentary. But then I go back to documentary and the lack of control is horrifying – when the best moments happen, you will be across town with a flat tire, or the camera will jam, guaranteed. Barbara Kopple once told me that when she was filming she felt that she was missing 99% of what she knew she needed. I always cling to her words when I’m struggling in the field and feeling like I’m not getting any of the moments I need to tell the story. I literally have to reassure myself that if I’m getting 1% of what I need, I’ll have enough to edit with.
I see a lot of people mistakenly thinking that it’s somehow easy to make an entertaining documentary. I think the opposite. If films are life with the boring bits cut out, documentaries can be all too like life-like and insufficiently interesting. But if you can shape the messy convolutions of everyday life into a tight story that sucks people in, then you are really on to something.
I resist the classifications of fiction versus non-fiction filmmaking. Back when I was at school there was pressure to specialize in either arts or sciences. I liked both equally. And I wanted to pursue both. I always thought that notion of either/or was hooey. Discoveries come from unlikely connections and dissonances. Everything is art and science, and film is passionately so.
I love being out of my depth and having to use everything I’ve learned to rise to the challenge, and when it comes to that, I am the most dementedly resourceful person I know. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Lord Jim “the way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up”.
How did the idea for “Blindsight” come about and evolve?
The initial idea for “Blindsight” came from the people in the movie, I didn’t originate the project. Blind American Erik Weihenmeyer is the only blind man to climb Everest – another two blind men tried, and one died and the other fell and didn’t make it (for every ten people who summit Mount Everest, one dies trying — just in case you were inspired by the movie and thinking about trying it, don’t do it for me, please). Equally formidable is blind German woman Sabriye Tenberken, who invented Tibetan Braille and opened the only school for the blind in Tibet, Braille Without Borders.
When Erik climbed Everest, Sabriye emailed him to tell him about how he has inspired her students, and he was so moved by her email that he decided to visit her school in Lhasa. But as a mountaineer extraordinaire he wasn’t content with an ordinary visit. Oh no. He decided that the students should climb their own mountain, and he picked 23,000′ Lhakpa-Ri, which sits on the shoulder of the north face of Everest. And by the way translates as Stormy Mountain. Then he wondered if that might make a documentary film, and that might publicize the school and help raise funds. So he reached into the film community, and I was recommended (by various people, including Vanessa Arteaga who I’d worked with at Wellspring on “Devil’s Playground”) as the go-to filmmaker to get remote worlds and elusive teenagers to open up in front of the camera.
I was asked if this sounded like a movie, and it was a no-brainer. I was instantly obsessed and set everything aside to learn Tibetan, figure out what crew and equipment we’d need on Everest, and altogether scramble to get to Tibet within a month so I could be at the school before Erik arrived. We had private financing which was unusual and so there was no pitching or budgeting to worry about, but everything else was so exhausting that I collapsed within a few minutes of landing in Lhasa, at only 12,000′, and was lying on the side of the road sucking on an oxygen tank wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
The story felt very close to home to me as I happen to have had severe vision problems since birth myself, although I am fortunate that one of my eyes has been rescued and corrected to just about perfect vision thanks to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. I don’t see much at all with my right eye, it is densely amblyonic, and it can’t be corrected. I like to think that I am rather like a camera, which has only one lens, and a flat screen for a field of vision. I was always disappointed when I tried to watch 3-D movies as a kid. All I saw was a green stripe and no 3-D at all. If I had grown up in Tibet, it wouldn’t have just been 3-D movies I’d have missed out on. Without a doubt I’d have been in the blind school, if I was lucky enough for there to have been a blind school.
I also happened to be personally fascinated with Tibet, having previously visited Dharamsala, where the Dali Lama currently resides in exile.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
A lot of this movie was very instinctual, I was operating from the same character-driven observational chops that I developed on “Devil’s Playground.” A lot of my creative decisions were instant and effortless. I knew the mountain was a spectacular, suspenseful drama that would provide a great dramatic urgency. And I knew that audiences would want to get to know each of these eight blind characters, and that their life stories could be hung off of the spine of the mountain drama, and would enrich it.
I knew off the bat I wanted to open and close the movie with a black screen, as we open the film with Erik’s POV of a crevasse he is crossing – which is a black screen. And we close the film with Kyila turning off the lights in the dormitory.
I knew that the film would depend on creating trust and openness and courage for everyone to be open in front of the characters. Some people think that blind people might not be able to notice when the camera is pointing at them – but that wasn’t the case at all. You couldn’t have had a more astute, aware, insightful group. I did anything I could to spend time and talk off-camera with the kids, and I learned a bit of Tibetan which was fun and helped give the kids the confidence that their English was a lot better than my Tibetan. But mostly I just got lucky. What a group. Traveling to each of the kids villages with them was an especially bonding and illuminating experience.
I didn’t know what was going to happen on the mountain. And I, like Sabriye, was shocked at how difficult our mountain turned out to be. I had been expecting a much more manageable goal. I was desperately concerned about everyone getting down safely and how to discourage anyone from playing up to the camera in any way that would exacerbate the danger. I don’t believe in objectivity at the best of times, but when you are all on one mountain team the ethical questions become especially tricky to negotiate. Not to mention nobody was thinking straight because of the oxygen deprivation. It was like everyone had dropped acid, and nobody was straight – you kept looking around for some responsible, sober person who wasn’t all messed up. But there was nobody. We’d all lost our minds. At night you couldn’t sleep because of the headaches and the altitude, so I’d lie in my freezing tent reading the Dalai Lama on courage by the light of my headtorch.
I love that the film deconstructs itself and becomes complex, acquiring such rich themes of culture clash and questioning the whole definition of success. I love that when you are making a documentary the truth will get you, will seep its way onto the screen, there’s no escape. All the way up the mountain my gut was telling me that this was a questionable idea, too dangerous, too difficult. At first I tried to quell these fears and focus on the simple victorious script, even though I was always worried that a simple victory would read as a movie cliche. But your gut is one step ahead, already tuning into the most interesting thing about the journey, and ultimately the movie. I love the way the expedition turned out works even better than I’d hoped in script terms. Reality is so interesting when you let it be.
The most compelling of all the teenage characters is 19-year–old Tashi, whose name translates as Lucky, but when you get to know his story you realize he is the least lucky person you have ever met. He told me that the best thing about being blind – and you’ve got to doublet-take the first part of that sentence – is that it forces him to look on the bright side of things. I sometimes think that my goal with this film is for audiences to get to know Tashi, and to be inspired by him to follow his example. These are an extraordinary group of fearless people – Sabriye, Erik and all six kids. Even though the climb was a bittersweet coming-of-age story in some respects, and not a simple victory, the victories that these people have achieved in their lives as they have adjusted to their disability so brilliantly is breath-taking, and utterly victorious.
I hope you are as in love with them all as I am, and come out of the theater arguing about the rights and the wrongs and the Erik and Sabriye, and the East and West, and the China and Tibet, and the Europe versus America, and the yin and the yang of it all….
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?
The biggest challenges making the movie? Really, the whole thing was one big challenge party. Oxygen deprivation. Altitude sickness. Amoebic dysentery. Broken ankle. Chinese government supervision. Macho mountaineers. Trying to function that far up Mount Everest. Frost nip. Learning Tibetan. Velcro. Headaches. Headlice in one’s eyelashes (very itchy). Trying to figure out how to negotiate mountain safety and crew relationships while everyone was so altitude impaired. The fear that somebody would hurt themselves. The smell of rancid yak butter tea when you are sick to your stomach and driving for days across mountain passes. Ladies, you don’t want to kick over that pee bowl in your freezing tent. Fighting the urge to quit filming and volunteer indefinitely at Braille Without Borders, which is doing unbelievably wonderful work.
Like they said about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: whatever he was doing, she had to do backwards in high heels. So with this movie: whatever you see on the screen, we had to do that thing while we were filming it. The cinematographers Petr Cickhart and Keith Partridge worked super-humanly to get all our beautiful shots. And producer Sybil Robson Orr was up there too and is quite the mountaineer. It was so hard to think coherently up there that I kept forgetting to get a shot of Lhakpa-Ri, the actual mountain we were climbing. I had to write everything down in a little notebook as I couldn’t trust my brain to remember even basic things like a single establishing shot of the mountain the whole movie was about. I dropped the notebook in a crevasse at one point and we had to stage a mountain-rescue for it – but it was not a question that I could leave it behind, it wasn’t just a notebook, it was my brain down there. And fortunately I did remember to get that Lhakpa-Ri shot in the end.
But whatever I was going through, I could see it was even harder work for those in the group who couldn’t see. I recently had eye surgeries and there was a couple days when my good eye was bandaged and I struggled to cope – cutting my hand, scalding myself, falling over, getting frustrated at not being able to deal with email or text messages. Of course it sounds trite, but when you experience it for yourself it brings it home all over again how incredibly brilliantly everyone in the movie has adapted to being blind.
One thing I hadn’t realized before working on this movie is that blind people love watching movies. Our movie has a special audio description track for the blind, but the technology is not yet available at any theaters in the USA. I would love for this movie to help change that. Some of our best screenings have been with young blind audiences and I hope that this movie can do all it can to serve this under-served audience.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed since you first started working?
Independent film was everything to me. I came to New York because of Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee and Nancy Savoca and Susan Seidelman and Martin Scorsese and before that Hal Ashby and Andy Warhol and all the mavericks and all that just-do-it ballsy energy. You can wait for permission your whole life. You can wait for financing forever. There’s always something to complain about. When I left the UK, the entire British film industry had caved into a soggy paralyzed mess. And getting to New York felt like coming alive.
Of course today independent film in New York is as different as the city itself is… and every major studio has an indie arm… and New Line can get co-opted… and no-budget movies are expected to secure name cast regardless of whether they are right actors for the roles… independent film is clearly a different game today.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
As the great Chris Doyle once slurred at me, only work with people you love. And I was having an irritating day, and so I thought, well, at least that way you can blame yourself when they rob, assault, abuse, harass, bully, or defraud you, or relapse or vanish or break down or tell people that they “really” directed your movie. People, there is no bar to entry in this profession. There is no license that gets revoked. Anyone can walk into the industry offering to produce or finance or collaborate, and they might be the best thing that ever happened to you, or the worst, and you are on your own figuring out which. In no other industry can people come out of nowhere and get so far with so little effort– or get nowhere at all after years of diligent struggle. And no other industry attracts so many disordered personalities. Except maybe axe-murdering. Watch out! The stakes are high — your personal safety, your creative reputation, large chunks of your short life.
And Chris Doyle is absolutely right of course. Only work on projects you love, and only work with people you love. Because it’s too painful otherwise. And when you work with people you love they will challenge you, fight you, cajole you, support you or trick you into making work that’s way better than anything you could ever do alone.
One of the perks about this work is the opportunity to chalk everything else up to research. But I’ve been lucky. I’ve always found interesting projects. Then again, there’s that old Chinese curse “may you have an interesting life”. When people tell me that I’m lucky my job isn’t too boring, I ask them how interesting might be, say, much too interesting. I don’t know many people who can enjoy the incessant travel, absolute unpredictability, insane egos, unlimited demands, intermittent salary, and total surrender of one’s life to the task. And that’s the good times, that’s when you’re actually making something. The times when I’m not making anything, when projects fall through or get postponed, that’s when it gets much too “interesting” even for me.
Orson Welles said if he had his life over again, he’d choose a cheaper paintbox. That film was too much hustle, not enough creativity. And I agree, in theory. If I was in almost any other field I’d be doing a lot better than I am as a filmmaker. But in practice… somehow, like Orson, I can’t stop fighting to get my hands on that paintbox and dreaming about painting it my way, not RKO’s…