The story of six blind Tibetan teenagers who are taken on a trek to climb the 23,000-foot peak of Lhakpa Ri, a mountain that sits alongside the worlds tallest peal of Mount Everest, Lucy Walker's 2006 documentary Blindsight is the kind of inspirational story that already makes for a winner, one that is further enriched by how the events unfold and the personalities that undertook it.
German born humanitarian Sabriye Tenberken wanted to go help blind children in Tibet but was turned down by the German Peace Corps because Sabriye, herself, is blind and they don't send blind people on missions. Undaunted, Sabriye traveled there anyway and along with Paul Kronenberg started Braille Without Borders and established Tibet's first school for the visually impaired. The reason for the genesis in Tibet was that because of environmental and hygienic concerns it is an area with a high degree of its population becoming afflicted, plus, there is a social stigma where the blind are mostly marginalized and shunned because they are thought to be stricken due to superstitious evils or past life offenses.
Braille Without Borders has made waves in improving the children's lives. This extends to the basics of education but also in building confidence and hopefully dulling some of the harsh stigma and dim prospects they face. Having regaled the children with the story of Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind man to climb Everest, Sabriye wrote Erik and told him about the school. This eventually led to the proposal of Erik and a team leading six of the teenage children on their own hike to the 20,000(+) summit of Lhakpa Ri.
While by no means careless regarding the dangers and tough demands of the endeavor, there does seem to be a rose-colored initial view. For instance, the climb team is surprised to find that the children have no experience climbing whatsoever, and, of course, the treacherous terrain and the effects of altitude sickness is one thing in imagined theory, quite another thing when you are actually experiencing them.
The deeper they get into the climb, the rougher the going, there is an unfolding drama between members of the team (some even disagreeing with each other) and Paul and Sabriye. The climbers are, naturally, jocks, adventurers, and while they bond with their assigned child, they aren't Boy Scout leaders so to them the endeavor is still somewhat an athletic, goal oriented one. Paul and Sabriye, on the other hand, are the children's mentors and they know that the climb is not so much about where (or how) they end but the care and bond made while getting there. This makes the rushed schedule, increasing wear, physical toll, and mounting fear a heavier concern for them. The climbers just see these things as part of the package that climbers overcome, but they are aspects for which the children, Paul, and Sabriye are somewhat unprepared.
As big as the dual narrating personalities of Sabriye and Erik are, the stars for the film become the children. You have the genial Dachung, collected Gyensen, sweet Sonam Bhumtso, intelligent Kyila, confident Tenzen, and shy Tashi. The film offers biographical background for Erik, Sabriye, and all of the children. It is impossible to not become invested in the kids when you see moments like Daching's dismissive father or Gyensen's mother stating flatly that his blindness was a curse, that he used to be clever but now his life is a waste, etc. On the other hand, you see the support that Sonam and Kyila have from their parents. And, seemingly in a world all his own, there is Tashi, who was abandoned by his parents, left to beg, be abused, and eventually homeless. When he ends up being the slowest, most fragile member of the climb, he becomes the lovable one you root for the most. Because he is such an underdog, the film taking a side trip to travel with him as they track down his birth family is more than understandable- it is necessary.
Now, of course, the expedition and climbing the mountain is a towering metaphor for the challenges that the children face in a society with heavy prejudices agaisnt them. But, really that aspect of the film is just a hook that provides a narrative thread and a stunning backdrop. Even without it, their lives and the Braille Without Borders project is a fascinating story to follow.
The DVD: Image
Picture: Blindsight is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen. The film was shot in DV. It doesn't appear to be the absolute high end of the spectrum but for a documentary, especially one that was filmed under such tricky conditions, the format and presentation is acceptable. No glaring technical errors.
Sound: The audio options include 5.1 and 2.0 Surround as well as a track with an audio description for the visually impaired. The film features some on print English subtitles as well as optional English or Spanish subs. Again, we have some pretty basic tracks, well mixed, perfectly fine, and in line with what one expects from a documentary production.
Extras: The instant the end credits began, I still wanted more. That doesnt happen very often and thankfully this disc has several featurettes with further interviews and adventures with the children, Erik, and Sabriye. They include a "making of" (14:17), audience reaction (3:43), young Tibetans update (14:16), young Tibetans in America (12:34), and insights from Erik and Sabriye (5:22).
Conclusion: I'm definitely more cynical than sentimental. More a "take a nice nap" kinda' guy as opposed to a "climb every mountain" person. Its just not part of my nature. Blindsight is a truly great tale and it left this cynic very moved. Beyond the uniqueness of the basic conception, the story unfolds with richness, unexpected wrinkles, guided by very appealing personalities. Doc fans would be well advised to pick this one up.
For more information, including how to donate, please go to Braille Without Borders.