Chas can still see colors — in his mind. Blind since he was 10, he imagines what trees and birds look like when the wind blows, how leaves are green and the sky can be blue. He stands near an institutional wall and puts his hand on it. “I got it in my mind what it could be,” Chas says. “In my mind, I see it as white, because it has a chalky residue.” Reaching out to a chain-link fence, he adds, “I assume that this is silver, but I automatically assume. I have a visual memory pattern in my head that got stuck.”
What’s “stuck” for Chas becomes vibrant, strange, and enticingly mobile in The Eyes of Me. Named for a rap song Chas has written, the documentary translates the trees, birds, and wall, then Chas himself, into animation by Jason Archer and Paul Becka. The undulating image approximates what he describes, but by including his own figure, also re-reframes the experience. This isn’t what it’s like to be blind. It’s what it’s like to imagine being blind.
Chas is one of four young people profiled in Keith Maitland’s documentary. Each is blind and attending Austin’s Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSB, for short) as the film begins, and all have very different experiences, at the school and, as Chas puts it, “in their heads.” As they share these experiences, the film illustrates in both conventional and animated scenes. Denise remembers being in public school in Dallas, feeling afraid and “tired of failing.” Used to kids making fun of her, she says it had become “hard talking to people.” The film shows you what she’s talking about, the camera close on Denise as she waits at a bus stop in Austin, speaks briefly to a fellow TSB student, and then rides on the bus, humming to herself. Mostly, after she speaks to someone, she explains, “I go back into my shell.”
Over a year at TSB, Denise comes out of that shell: she runs on the track team and performs in the school’s version of Into the Woods. On her “sweet 16th,” she’s treated to a party and cake, and is so moved by her changed sense of self, that she’s again unable to speak. As her eyes tear up and her voice fades to a whisper, the camera pushes closer, then closer still. “Are you emotional about your 16th birthday?” asks a counselor. Here again, the film makes a subjective experience explicit. While it’s a familiar documentary project (or even a fiction film project), to make visible what’s invisible, to reveal what a subject may be feeling, here the images begin to pile on. Denise’s emotional moment is obvious in her voice and shot from a distance. The tabloidy tight shot seems unnecessary.
That’s not to say that The Eyes of Me doesn’t share remarkable episodes, or help sighted viewers see into the lives of remarkable individuals. Meagan resolves to dig into her studies, to get a degree and become a counselor. She appears working at her computer and at her job, behind the counter at a fast food restaurant, courteous and counting change. “I don’t let my blindness stop me,” Meagan says. You have no doubt she’ll do what she says she will.
Isaac remembers the trauma of going blind, just a year before, following an accident at his grandparents’ home in Paris, Texas. As he talks about his grandfather driving him to the hospital in Dallas, some 112 miles away, the film shows the memory in animation, the road going on forever, the car seeming to float, suspended in time. As Isaac and his grandparents sit around a small kitchen table recalling the event (because they had no money or insurance, doctors did not perform surgery they deemed necessary to save Isaac’s detaching retina), Isaac’s grandmother remembers, “Chester said, ‘I’m gonna go rob a bank.'” The film isn’t focused on such injustice, however. The camera doesn’t press in and the terrible memory hangs in the air, as Isaac turns philosophical, not to say practical. “I think losing my sight really gave me to thinking, who I am, what I will do with my life.”
As plain as the scene may be, without explanatory imagery and with only a series of close-ups to shows the family’s faces, it’s hard not to see — literally and profoundly — the effects of Isaac’s shift in circumstances. While his self-described “God-fearing” grandmother suggests, “God wants him to see with his heart,” the film shows how difficult this process is for Isaac. He struggles in classes and in his social relations, understandably resents his radically changed life and expectations. “Now I’m this blind kid that don’t know nothing,” he says, “That don’t know how to be a blind person.”
It’s a lesson Isaac has no choice but to learn. While The Eyes of Me doesn’t show all of that process, Isaac articulates his evolving sense of responsibility. “Every act, good or bad, has a consequence,” he says. “I think that’s a lesson that everybody should learn, that kind of lesson, it all of a sudden just pops up and hits you square in the chest.” And with that phrase — so vivid on its own — Isaac reveals his experience on his own terms.