TIFF12 REVIEW: Imagine [2013]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 105 minutes | Release Date: April 12th, 2013 (Poland)
Studio: KMBO / Neue Visionen Filmverleih
Director(s): Andrzej Jakimowski
Writer(s): Andrzej Jakimowski

“Blind people don’t need canes—unless they have a bad leg”

It may be weird to think, but there’s no better medium than film to transport an audience into the world of the blind. A character in Andrzej Jakimowski‘s Imagine says it perfectly: people with sight look without actually seeing. Their eyes illuminate what’s in front of them without instilling the need to delve further into the distance. If what’s beyond their sight sparks interest, they can simply get up, walk over, and see it without struggle. So, when dealing with those who cannot, one must become shielded from his/her advantage in order to understand how to ‘see’ as they do. And while a visual format like cinema might appear ill suited to the task, the myriad ways in which a cinematographer can block a scene makes it possible to show as much or as little as the circumstance requires.

This truth is not lost on Adam Bajerski as he and Jakimowski find some beautiful ways in which the camera can keep us viewers in the dark when the characters themselves are not. By zooming in close to the faces of the actors, we can read their thoughts as they process sounds and vibrations to move freely about town. We catch the illuminating “a-ha!” from a wry smile or the realization of danger by a sharp tilt of the head. The words they speak are what we must believe, the camera always facing them without turning to reveal what exists across the way. Our trust becomes paramount to whether we invest in the film because we too must believe their hypotheses as fact in order to care about what happens to them as the story progresses.

The blind inhabitants of the film’s Lisbon school must also take this leap of faith when it comes to a new, impossible technique. Ian (Edward Hogg), an instructing specialist who is also blind, arrives at the behest of the head doctor (Francis Frappat) despite being known for a rather unorthodox and dangerous style. Refusing the assistance of a cane, the British transplant finds his class highly skeptical of his utilization of strong shoe heels, clapping hands, and clicking tongues to navigate the hustle and bustle of outdoor living. Ian’s practice of echolocation gives him the freedom he’s been told he cannot have, setting him apart from those imprisoned by their handicap. Never disregarding the perils of his system, he hopes to at the very least inspire the others and show how they too can achieve a level of normalcy in their lives.

Ian proves himself to the children by passing their challenges and teaching them how to ‘see’ without moving. By listening intently to objects and those that interact with them—how a dog’s bark can infer a cat called earlier walked by for its milk—all can know their entire surroundings. One can hone their sensory perception to know how far cars are and what speed they are traveling, the hollow sound of pavement as it drops off into the road, or the echo of a church bell glancing off a giant structure in the distance. They can find a bike in the middle of a courtyard and know roses grow in the garden due to the clip of shears. Life is imagined and then made manifest in their minds, the world around them becoming tangible and yet never seen.

For the kids this is a neat trick to enhance limited lifestyles, but for the adults it is a revelation. Two older inhabitants have grown inside this atmosphere of conservative means instilling a level of precaution and are thus intrigued by the newcomer’s God-like ability to walk as though possessing sight. Eva (Alexandra Maria Lara) takes to the stranger and his desire to befriend and woo her from afar while Serrano (Melchior Derouet) yearns to learn his tricks to wander the streets without fear of injury or worse. Between a fantastically orchestrated sojourn through the city that has us on the edge of our seats watching Eva walk carelessly and exuberantly towards on-coming traffic and an adventure to the harbor proving to Serrano once and for all that Ian isn’t a fraud, experiencing the technique in action is riveting.

Because while the story naturally moves towards budding romance, trust building, and the bucking of authority, the real magic lies in these improbable, extended walks. Hidden details are revealed, unwavering faith is shaken, and potential love halted for the thrill of flirtatious excitement as the close-up camerawork transforms to overhead crane shots blinding us from what’s outside the frame just like the actors. As Ian describes to Serrano what they’re ‘looking’ at, we too must use his words to imagine what may be off screen. Slight, subtle visual cues are given via an impeccably timed camera pan, but the real truth remains a tenuous contract between the viewer and Ian. Whether or not he has been playing everyone for fools will be revealed, but until then it’s up to you to decide if he’s justly confident or misguidedly delusional.

Both Hogg and Lara—neither blind in real life—bring a level of uncanny authenticity necessary to these captivating and endearing roles. Edward’s Ian not only received echolocation training, but also wore opaque contacts to dive headfirst into the character. A man of strong convictions, he never wavers in his beliefs and willingly proves himself despite outside interference. A perfect guide for Lara and Derouet’s innocence, his troublemaking personality turns him against his employers as he tries to educate the kids that there is more to life than the force-fed pity of a populace incapable of treating them with equality. The child actors excel in affirming this stance too, cutely playing their pranks to become hyper kids rather than sympathetic cripples. Ian wills them into truly living for the first time—a prophet of perception unwilling to surrender no matter the unfair pressure thrust upon him.

courtesy of Stephen Lan.

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