Filmmaker Rodney Evans Discusses His New Documentary Vision Portraits

Filmmaker Rodney Evans discusses his deeply personal feature-length documentary exploring how his loss of vision may impact his creative future, and what it means to be a blind or visually-impaired creative artist.
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Filmmaker Rodney Evans discusses his deeply personal feature-length documentary exploring how his loss of vision may impact his creative future, and what it means to be a blind or visually-impaired creative artist.

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“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.”

— Rodney Evans

I had the pleasure to speak with Rodney Evans following the press screening at the Ford Foundation in Manhattan and Q & A with Evans and dancer Kayla Hamilton. As it turned out, Evans and I are both MacDowell Colony fellows and even occupied the same studio during our respective residencies.

Emerging from the event into the summer heat of midtown, I found it particularly profound from a personal perspective as a writer/filmmaker, reflecting on each of the artists portrayed in the film, who not only redefined their lives with impaired vision, but redefined and discovered new ways to communicate and express themselves through their respective art-making practices with poignant beauty and vulnerability.

ABOUT RODNEY EVANS - DIRECTOR/PRODUCER/EDITOR/SUBJECT

 Rodney Evans

Rodney Evans

Rodney Evans is 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 garnered four Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Film, Best First Screenplay, Best Debut Performance for Anthony Mackie and Best Supporting Male Performance for Roger Robinson. Evans has received funding from The John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, The Ford Foundation’s JustFilms Program, The Creative Capital Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, The NY State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), The Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Black Public Media (BPM). His second narrative feature, The Happy Sad, has played at over 30 international film festivals. Evans has taught at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Princeton and Swarthmore. His documentary short Persistence of Vision screened at BAMcinemaFest and Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival and won the Jury Prize at the Ann Arbor International Film Festival in 2017.

ABOUT VISION PORTRAITS

This deeply personal feature-length documentary explores how Rodney Evans’s loss of vision may impact his creative future, and what it means to be a blind or visually-impaired creative artist. It’s a celebration of 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, who each experience varying degrees of visual impairment.

Winner, Outstanding Documentary at the 2019 Frameline International Film Festival, and Official Selection at many festivals, including the 2019 SXSW Film Festival—Documentary Competition, 2019 BFI Flare London LGBTQ Film Festival, 2019 Inside Out Toronto LGBTQ Film Festival, 2019 Outfest Los Angeles Film Festival, 2019 American Black Film Festival, 2019 Sydney Film Festival, BAMcinemaFest, and the 2019 Black Star Film Festival.

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DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT—RODNEY EVANS

Vision Portraits is my personal story of going on a scientific and artistic journey to better understand the ramifications of my deteriorating vision. My aim is to come to a deeper sense of knowledge through illuminating portraits of three artists: a photographer (John Dugdale), a dancer (Kayla Hamilton) and a writer (Ryan Knighton).

The film consists of four chapters which profile each artist and also follows a medical procedure centered on the restoration of my lost vision through the use of cutting-edge technology at the Center for Vision Restoration in Berlin, Germany. The film is told from my perspective as a filmmaker who was diagnosed with a rare genetic eye condition in early 1997 called retinitis pigmentosa resulting in the loss of my peripheral vision and much of my night vision.

 Kayla Hamilton

Kayla Hamilton

Kayla Hamilton was born with no vision in one eye and has very minimal peripheral and night vision in the other due to glaucoma and iritis. She incorporates her unique perspective on the world and embodies resilience and empowerment in her solo dance piece, Nearly Sighted.

 John Dugdale

John Dugdale

Photographer slowly loses his vision at thirty-two in St. Vincent’s Hospital at the height of the AIDS epidemic due to CMV retinitis and continues to take photos with the sliver of sight that remains in one eye.

 Ryan Knighton at the Moth

Ryan Knighton at the Moth

Ryan Knighton, a punk-rock teenager, is diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa on his 18th birthday and finds writing as his salvation through the process of going blind.

All of the artists are deeply influenced and motivated by the power of art to heal and transform.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE Q & A

PERSONAL JOURNEYS

Rodney Evans: 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.and also follows a medical procedure centered on the restoration of my lost vision through the use of cutting-edge technology at the Center for Vision Restoration in Berlin, Germany. The film is told from my perspective as a filmmaker who was diagnosed with a rare genetic eye condition in early 1997 called retinitis pigmentosa, resulting in the loss of my peripheral vision and much of my night vision.

The film offers a deep dive into the work of each artist and incorporates their art (photography, dance, literature and filmmaking) to provide an immersive way to experience how they “see” the world through these unique perspectives.

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CINEMATIC TOOLS

Evans: We utilize rich and evocative sound design and detailed audio description channels specifically created for the visually impaired and blind community so that they have the ability to access the film.

The film includes a mixture of in-depth interviews, vérité footage of each artist’s daily experience, creative process, and exhibition/performance. Sound design, still photography, visual text, macro cinematography and subjective camera positions chronicles the experience of each artist.

There is some use of experimental POV footage to visualize some of the remnants of sight that remain for each character. This involves use of overexposure, roll outs, flares and cropping to mirror the subjective experience of these artists similar to the ways in which films like Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Nostalgia for the Light (Directed by Patricio Guzman) and filmmakers like Stan Brahkage and Leslie Thornton use abstract, subjective viewpoints to immerse the viewer deeper into the emotional experience of their central characters.

WHAT DREW RODNEY EVANS TO THE ARTISTS PORTRAYED IN THE FILM?

Evans: Ryan Knighton and I were already friends and I had already read his memoir Cockeyed, which is incredibly powerful and moving. It’s about his retinitis pigmentosa diagnosis at 18. I learned that it had been adapted into a screenplay that had gotten into the Sundance Lab, and I asked Michelle Satter at Sundance and mentioned that I had the same condition, and she was nice enough to connect us.

John is someone whose photography I knew very well; it’s beautiful, stunning. My brother’s friend dated John for 10 years. I think it was difficult for John to go back through a lot of those memories. He asked to see a film of mine, and I showed him a film about my own coming out to my own Jamaican family, and I think he was moved by how intimate that film was and how vulnerable I was in that film. I think that made him trust his story with me.

With Kayla, I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing her before. I specifically asked a colleague at Swarthmore where I teach if he knew of any women dancers of color, and he said yes. It was fortuitous timing meeting Kayla, we met on a Sunday, and I asked if I could film her rehearsal. Four days later, my DP and I went and shot at the space in the Bronx.

PLEASURE AND CHALLENGES

Kayla Hamilton: I was asking myself: If I lose 100 percent of my sight, how can I consume dance; how can I see it? How do you describe movements to someone who is not a dancer? What are the possibilities? What can that mean for a sighted person and someone who doesn’t see out of their eyesight? Challenging ways we take in movement as vision as the primary source.

Evans: Visual style, for me, one of the great pleasures and challenges was putting the viewer in the subjective position of the different ways we all see differently. When John describes his vision as the aurora borealis, and these flashes of color he gets and that he constantly has his optic nerve firing.

In the film world, because it’s a visually-based medium, if you are visually impaired, there is a stigma. I don’t know a lot of people who are ‘out’ about it, with audio descriptions there are so many ways to execute visuals through language.

One challenge is how do you create a visual language that an audience can experience? The visual language of the film came about the various ways we talked about seeing in different ways, waking up and blinking, things being abstracted and literally light and shapes, and asking how do you move around and navigate space.

VISION PORTRAITS opens in theaters August 9th in Manhattan at the Metrograph and August 23rd in Los Angeles at Laemmle Royal with a national rollout to follow, courtesy of Stimulus Pictures.

To learn more about Rodney Evans, visit his website.

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