“I think I always make films about things that are the scariest for me to deal with,” says filmmaker Rodney Evans in the trailer for his latest work, an evocative exploration of sight and creativity titled “Vision Portraits.” The deeply personal documentary chronicles the filmmaker’s loss of vision due to a rare genetic eye disorder, as well as the practices of three other artists who have lost or are in the process of losing their sight.
“Vision Portraits” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in documentary competition and went on to screen BAMcinemaFest. It will also play queer film festivals Frameline and Outfest before premiering theatrically in August.
Evans is best known as the writer/director/producer of the feature film “Brother to Brother,” which won the Special Jury Prize in Drama at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and featured the screen debut of Anthony Mackie. The film explores the inter-generational friendship between a young black gay man and a survivor of the Harlem Renaissance.
His second narrative feature, “The Happy Sad,” was adapted from the play by Ken Urban and was released in 2013. Evans currently teaches introductory and advanced film production courses and screenwriting in the Film and Media Studies Department at Swarthmore.
Told in four chapters, “Vision Portraits” is a celebration of the possibilities of art created by a Manhattan photographer (John Dugdale), a Bronx-based dancer (East Texas native Kayla Hamilton), a Canadian writer (Ryan Knighton), and the filmmaker himself, who each experience varying degrees of visual impairment. Using archival material alongside new illuminating interviews and observational footage of the artists at work, Evans has created a meditation on blindness and creativity, a sensual work that opens up new possibilities.
“‘Vision Portraits’ is my personal story of going on a scientific and artistic journey to better understand the ramifications of my deteriorating vision,” Evans wrote in a director’s statement. “I wanted the film to specifically focus on the ways each artist was impacted by the loss of their vision and the ways in which their creative process thrives in spite of their blindness. … As a filmmaker with only twenty percent of my visual field remaining, I am forced to work in new, more collaborative ways while also being part of a long tradition of artists seeing in highly idiosyncratic ways.”
Evans utilizes experimental filmmaking techniques in POV shots in an effort to render the remaining vision of some of the artists profiled. This includes overexposure, roll outs, flares, and cropping. Evans has referenced Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Patricio Guzman’s “Nostalgia for the Light,” and filmmakers Stan Brahkage and Leslie Thornton, who “use abstract, subjective viewpoints to immerse the viewer deeper into the emotional experience of their central characters” as inspirations.
“Vision Portraits” will open theatrically on August 9 at Metrograph in New York and on August 23 in Los Angeles at Laemmle Royal, with a national rollout to follow. Check out IndieWire’s exclusive trailer and poster below.