With the social, political and entertainment environment regularly changing, an artist’s innovative vision has to continuously change to keep up with that constant shift in society. That progress especially evolves if the artist is disabled, and doesn’t fit into what their culture perceives to be a perfect inventor. But visually impaired, award-winning filmmaker, Rodney Evans, is powerfully breaking barriers with his inspirational new documentary, ‘Vision Portraits.’
With the project, Evans admirably proves that everyone’s talents should be celebrated and embraced, no matter what their circumstances are in life. Overall, the movie is a tantalizing and sensual reflection on blindness and creativity, and is sure to open many viewers’ minds to new possibilities about what it means to be a successful disabled artist.
Evans, who’s known for directing the 2004 drama feature, ‘Brother to Brother,’ tells a deeply personal story in ‘Vision Portraits.’ That intimate tale will be shared with audiences when the film has its World Premiere in the Documentary Feature Competition section tomorrow, Saturday, March 9, at 2:45pm CT at the Alamo Ritz 1 theater in Austin. The movie will also screen on Sunday, March 10, at 11:45am CT at Alamo Lamar D, and Wednesday, March 13, at 9:30pm CT at Alamo Lamar B.
‘Vision Portraits’ follows Evans as he explores how his loss of vision may impact his creative future, and what it means to be a blind or visually impaired creative artist. The documentary celebrates the possibilities of art created by a Manhattan photographer, John Dugdale; a Bronx-based dancer, Kayla Hamilton; a Canadian writer, Ryan Knighton; and the filmmaker himself, as they 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 tantalizing exploration into blindness and creativity.
Evans generously took the time recently to talk about writing, directing, producing and co-editing ‘Vision Portraits’ during an exclusive interview over the phone before the documentary’s World Premiere at SXSW. Among other things, the writer-director-producer-co-editor discussed that he interested in making the movie because he was curious about how all blind artists create their art, especially since he’s a visually impaired filmmaker himself. He also mentioned that he’s excited that the documentary will be debuting at the Austin-based festival this week, as he’s looking forward to hearing audiences’ reactions to it.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new semi-autobiographical documentary, ‘Vision Portraits.’ Why were you driven to helm a film about how the loss of vision influences the creative process of artists?
Rodney Evans (RE): I was curious about how blind artists create their artwork. Being someone who’s visually impaired myself, and is a filmmaker, that’s obviously something I had to navigate since making my first fiction feature, ‘Brother To Brother.’ As I have gotten older, there has been continued vision loss. So the documentary is really about stepping into the fear of blindness, and not being afraid to step into a subject matter that’s unsettling.
So I reached out to blind artists who continued making work, in spite of obvious obstacles. So that led me to reach out to such artists as John Dugdale, a photographer, writer Ryan Knightom and Kayla Hamilton, a dancer.
SY: The movie features over interviews with such people as Ryan Knighton, John Dugdale and Kayla Hamilton, who you just mentioned. What was the process of determining who you would speak, and determining what you would ask them?
RE: It was different in different places. I had already had a friendship with Ryan Knighton, as I had read his non-fiction memoir, ‘Cockeyed,’ which is about him slowly losing his vision, after he was diagnosed at 18. His vision loss deteriorated very quickly, which he describes in his memoir, and I was moved by it.
We were first introduced through the Sundance Institute’s 2008 Screenwriters Lab. I was there with another screenplay I had written. While I was there, I saw that a screen adaptation of his memoir was in the Labs. Since we also have the same genetic eye condition and I was immensely moved by his book, Michelle Satter, the artistic director of the Labs, connected us.
With John Dugdale, I always admired his photography. It also turned out that my brother’s best friend was in a relationship with him for 10 years. So I basically asked Darryl, my brother’s friend, to introduce me to John. So he and I then went out to lunch, and he asked me to show him some of my previous work, which I did.
I spent a day with John, although it was initially supposed to be longer. But I think he was emotionally drained by the day, because it’s tough for him to go back to all of his difficult memories.
I met Kayla Hamilton through a dancer colleague of mine. I teach film production and screenwriting at Swarthmore College, and I was talking to a colleague in the dance department one day. I mentioned that I was looking for a female dancer, preferably a woman of color with low vision. He thought about Kayla, so he introduced us. We then met over breakfast, and immediately clicked. My cinematographer, Kjerstin Rossi, and I then went to one of her shows in the Bronx. We filmed her entire process of putting the show together through its final stages.
SY: Like you just mentioned, Kjerstin Rossi served as the Director of Photography on ‘Vision Portraits.’ What was the process of collaborating with her, as well as Mark Tumas, who also helped with the cinematography, on deciding how to shoot, and visually present, the artists at work?
RE: I met Kjerstin at an artist residency called Yaddo, and we became really good friends during that process. At the time, I had shot John’s section (for the documentary) with Mark, who’s a former student, and now a good friend, of mine. So I asked him if he could help me shoot that first day, because I knew I can’t do it all by myself. I knew that I should just focus on the interview, and leave the technical aspects of the filmmaking to someone else.
So I basically went away that summer and picked a special section of the film, and worked on it alone for about six weeks. It was actually quite challenging to form a small section about John that had a flow and everything I wanted in it, because his interview was about three-and-a-half hours-he gave long, detailed answers. By the end of filming John’s interview, I felt like I needed a second pair of eyes to look at it, so I asked Kjerstin to watch it and give me her feedback.
We then started communicating via editing, and she had some great editorial notes. She said, “It would be easier for me to show you what I’m talking about, so I’ll edit this little section, and we can just talk about it.”
For example, Kjerstin would do macro close-ups of different sections of the photographs, which didn’t sound that radical, but it did change about how I felt about the editing process. I was being very careful about John’s original compositions, and she was a little more radical about looking at the details of the photographs, and then looking at the total image. So working together was a very organic process, which arose from our friendship and mutual respect of each other.
SY: Besides directing and producing the documentary, you also served as a co-editor with Hannah Buck, like you just mentioned. What was the process of working with Hannah to determine what you would include in the final version of the film?
RE: Well, I think that documentaries tend to get written in the editing room. So the film took a lot of incarnations, and like I was saying, shot in different sections. That’s the good and bad thing about documentary filmmaking; you can start by shooting and editing a section, but then you have to stop because you have to raise more money. Then when you get more money, you can continue shooting.
So I was editing as I was shooting the project. When I put John’s section together, I decided that I liked it enough for it to be a stand-alone short, and started sending it out to festivals. It then played at Persistence of Vision at BAMcinemaFest, as well as at Frameline, which is the San Francisco LGBT film festival, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival. So it was interesting to have that circulating as I continued to work on the full-length version of the documentary.
The editing process was challenging. As I progressed through it, it became clear that I was a major character in the film. I pretty much worked on it until I had the first assembly.
I was then lucky enough to raise a chuck of funding from the JustFilms / Ford Foundation, which is the film arm of the Ford Foundation. They were particularly interested in disability and its representation. They felt that the visually impaired community was one that was underrepresented, and were already talking about it. So it was a fortuitous thing that I approached them at that time, as they were already internally talking about making projects that focus on disability.
I then brought in Hannah as my co-editor, because I think she’s completely brilliant. She had edited the 2016 documentary, ‘Memories of a Penitent Heart,’ which was directed by Cecilia Aldarondo, and I thought was powerfully edited and visually striking. It used a lot of different formats, including Super 8 home footage. There were a lot of original shots that Cecilia had done that were interviews of her family members, and Hannah beautifully edited that together.
So I asked Cecilia to put us in touch. We then met for coffee in New York, and Hannah asked if she could look at all of the material that I had shot. At that point, I was pretty exhausted looking at the footage, so she looked at it, and really understood what the project was about overall. I then had to go back to teaching full-time, and had three classes, so I really didn’t have time to edit.
I think editors like to be given the freedom to work with footage and create their own ideas. So I just left Hannah alone for a couple of months, until spring break. We would communicate a lot remotely through email and phone, and she would send me sections of what she was working on. But I didn’t sit with her until March, after I had given her the drives with the footage in January. It was a really great collaboration.
When I became more of a character in the film, it was great to have her perspective on what the film needed from me as a character to tie everything together into a cohesive story. I think when you’re doing something that’s chaptered, it can feel very episodic. But Hannah had strong opinions about what my character needed to do, in order to feel unified. A lot of that work was done in the editing process with Hannah.
SY: You mentioned bringing the short that features John’s section to several festivals. The full version of ‘Vision Portraits’ is set to have its World Premiere at this year’s SXSW in the Documentary Feature Competition. What has the experience of bringing the movie to the festival been like so far?
RE: I’m very excited to go to SXSW! I’ve never been there before. My first fiction feature, ‘Brother to Brother,’ played there in 2004. Unfortunately, I missed my connecting flight, and we only had one screening. It turned out that I would have arrived after the Q&A, so I ended up turning around and going back to the artist residency where I was writing. So it was frustrating that I spent 12 hours of energy to end up right where I started.
So I think that made me even more excited to have this SXSW experience, and share this film with audiences and get their reactions. I feel like movies are never fully completed until an audience sees them, and engages with it and the filmmakers. For me, it’s all about how movies make people feel. So this experience feels like the completion of an almost five-year journey.
SY: After the film premieres at SXSW, what are your distribution plans for it in the future? Are you bringing the documentary to other festivals?
RE: We have a sales rep at a company called The Film Sales Company that’s helping get distributors to the premiere screening on Saturday. The movie will also have its International Premiere at the BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival about a week after SXSW. So I’m going to London between March 22 and March 28, and the film is going to play at that festival on the 23rd and 24th. It will be then playing at several other festivals throughout the summer that I can’t announce yet.
After that, I hope to get the movie theatrically distributed, starting in New York, and then in a limited 10-city release. I’m all about not waiting for permission to do something. So if I end up not working with a traditional distributor, I know how to hire a theatrical booker and publicist, and get the film out to 10 major cities across America, and build the audience that way.
With all of the movies that are now on streaming services like Netflix, films that do get a theatrical release usually have a traditional marketing campaign behind them, so they stand out. That helps to get people talk about them. Films need that now, more than ever, because the market’s so flooded with films.
So I think it’s important for filmmakers to be entrepreneurial. I’ve had experiences where I’ve worked with distributors, and other times, I’ve released movies theatrically on my own. Either way, ‘Vision Portraits’ is going to be in theaters by the fall, and I’m looking forward to having audiences see and discuss it!