June 2, 2008

REVIEW: Blindsight (A-)

Background: Some films organically grow from a small seed. In the case of Blindsight, it was a letter to blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer, which led to an idea, which led to a conversation, which led to British director Lucy Walker (Devil's Playground) being approached to make her second documentary feature. Although Weihenmayer's name is present in much of the film's promo materials, he's only a minor subject in the multiple award-winning film. Some trivia about the title: "The word was initially inspired by how blind people are literally blindsided by society in Tibet. Blindsided became ‘blindsighted,’ abbreviated to Blindsight."

Synopsis: Add yet another item to your list of "Things I Don't Know About Tibet": blind people are not just mistreated, they're completely outcast from society because blindness is thought to be the result of demon possession or karma from a past sin. A woman tells two of our blind characters they "deserve to eat their father's dead corpse" when they pass by her on the street. Understandably, then, it was not a local Tibetan but an idealistic German who began advocating for the blind in Tibet. Sabriye Tenberken, blind herself since the age of 12, is the founder of Braille Without Borders and the director of a school for blind Tibetan children. Many of the students' parents have essentially disowned them, and those with supportive parents live in poverty anyway. In the midst of this tragic situation, Sabriye contacts Erik Weihenmayer, an American and the first blind person to climb Mount Everest, to see if would be willing to conduct a "small climbing workshop" for her students. Somehow the goal becomes a full climb to Lhakpa-Ri, a "smaller" summit next to Everest at just 23,000 ft. Yes, 23,000 ft. Weihenmayer arrives in Tibet with his climbing crew while Sabriye chooses six students who she believes would benefit from the trip. At this point the documentary becomes part climbing video and part cross-cultural education video. The Americans are determined to get the students up the mountain at almost any cost. Sabriye didn't have something like this in mind and is concerned with the mental and physical well being of her students. Tensions rise and health deteriorates as the group slowly struggles up Lhakpa-Ri...Find updates on each of the students here....

I Loved:
+ The story of Sabriye Tenberken, who has done everything herself while also, unselfishly, doing nothing for herself.
+ The 3-D animation of the climbers' planned path up the peak.
+ Tashi Pasang ('Lucky'), an orphaned and tortured blind young man whose spirit remains strong through struggles that I'll never be able to imagine in my life.

I Liked:
+ The suspense of not knowing if the children would actually make it to the peak of Lhakpa-Ri.
+ The beautiful shots of the Himalayas and the locally inspired musical score by Nitin Sawnhey.
+ Sonam Bhumtso ('One Hundred Thousand Beautiful Lakes), whose smile is luminescent.

I Disliked:
- Coloradan climbing guide Jeff Evans, whose "gnarly" attitude was off-putting for me.
- The disjointed editing, which took away some of the film's momentum. Inserting background information on some of the characters at different times was a little confusing for the viewer.

I Hated:
- The kid singing "Happy Together" as the closing credits rolled. I didn't find it funny.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 27/30 = 90% = A-

Last Word: If there's nothing else you can take from what I've written, know this: Blindsight is not actually about blind kids attempting to climb a mountain. Rather, it's a thought-provoking study of what happens when Western culture, and specifically American ambition, runs headlong into Eastern traditions and a "group before self" mindset. If that was Lucy Walker's goal, and I think it was, then she's succeeded in grand fashion. The structure is a little shifty, but it's an overall beautifully shot film and the drama in the last half hour makes up for any earlier flaws. Although I was at different times frustrated, embarrassed, proud, devastated, thrilled, and shocked, Blindsight never seems emotionally manipulative. It just happens to be both an incredible story of six incredible students, and an important film from which to gather cultural insights.


  1. Yup - your "Last Word" says it all.

    Emotionally gripping for me, inspiring and deeply moving film on several levels. Very glad to have seen the footage of the beautiful mountains AND people in the theater; highly recommended to all. Would like to watch this one again.

  2. Wow, I didn't realize you liked it that much. Well it really was good to see a lot of people in the theater. Hopefully they "got" it. It's slowly making its way around the country but I don't think it will make it into the top tier of docs this year, up against Up the Yangtze, American Teen, and, of course, Young@Heart.

  3. Yeah, it is one of those films that dug itself into my brain and I have thought of it several times. Hard to compare it directly, but maybe it's not quite as good as Young@Heart; still, I was glad to see that it (deservedly) made it into the A range for your reviews.

  4. The marketing for this one must be tough. The poster and trailer and everything make it appear that it's all about climbing, when climbing is really just the backdrop for the real story. Which is not to say what the kids attempt isn't amazing; it's just that Blindsight has more layers than you'd think at first look.


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