From an ableist perspective, few things may seem more unlikely than a blind filmmaker. Vision (a physical state) and the "gaze" (a theoretical construct) are central to and constitutive of film, so how could it be possible for a blind person to make a film? Yet, blind and visually impaired filmmakers such as Chilean director María Teresa Larraín, by virtue of their unique perspective, capture images in new ways, reframing blindness and altering society's expectations about the central role of the image and of how visuality operates in film. Recent films by visually impaired directors, as well as collaborations between blind and sighted filmmakers, show how the aesthetics and content of these works represent the experience of blindness. For example, Larraín's autobiographical documentary "Shadow Girl" (2016) mimics the filmmaker-protagonist's gradual vision loss by progressively darkening the screen, placing the spectator at the center of her traumatic experience. This self-reflexive documentary narrates the filmmakers' journey into blindness and, concurrently, her return to Chile after a lengthy exile. The loss of her vision is intricately linked to the loss of the Chile she recalls, binding the personal to the political. By asserting a new visual style that evokes vision loss even as she advocates for her rights as a blind artist, Larraín will reconstruct her status as a filmmaker and locate a renewed hope for Chile. Moreover, Shadow Girl disrupts our mistaken belief that vision is the primary way of processing the cinematic experience and the world at-large, making it a truly transgressive film in form and content alike.

Opening Scene: By Way of Introduction 1

The opening frames in María Teresa Larraín's film La niña sombra [Shadow Girl] (2016) establish an intimate association between vision loss and the recent death of the filmmaker's mother. The first image is a dedication scrawled in white letters against a black background that reads, "para tí, mamá" [for you, mom] (00:09). The tentative and irregular script suggests the difficulty experienced by low vision individuals when writing. The high contrast letters occupying almost the entire screen indicate accessibility concerns. Handwriting entails a close, tactile engagement with a material surface. Such intimacy seems appropriate for a movie dedicated to the memory of the filmmaker's mother and the vulnerability of visual perception. A sense of touch is conjured alongside a feeling of loss and longing, endowing the film with a powerful affective charge from the outset.

I will return to the title frame later, for now I wish to note the evocative opening sequence that follows. After a fade to black, several shots that privilege the tactile over the visual are seen in succession. With these images, the filmmaker challenges our ocularcentric culture and reflects on the gossamer fragility of vision. 2 The images are suffused by ochre-sepia tones reminiscent of fading photographs. They delineate the shadow of a young girl jumping rope, cast onto a roughly cracked sidewalk (Fig. 1). As the camera tracks in, the silhouette becomes an indistinguishable blur. Conversely, the sidewalk's cracks and blemishes come into sharper focus and reveal a textured surface that resembles a defamiliarized landscape (Fig. 2). The sound that accompanies these images is similarly distorted: the swish of the rope cutting through the heavy air and its thud as it strikes the pavement, the muffled echo of distant feet, the receding reverberations of joyful laughter. Fainter still, the voices of children playing and the ethereal tones of a flute. Once the image goes out of focus only the grainy materiality of the filmic medium remains. Then, the filmmaker's voice-over breaks through the nostalgic trance, "I remember my mother taking me to the optometrist for the first time, and him telling her that I had inherited her condition […] and that one day, like her, I was going to go blind" (00:30-00:57).

The distorted opening images declare that Shadow Girl requires a more intimate, affective and embodied form of spectatorship. The film's appreciation calls for a shift in modes of perception, moving beyond vision to touch, sound and other senses. Through its shadow play, the scene hints that the dominant cultural representation of flawless bodies and the preeminence of vision will be queried, as will standard notions of clarity, focus and perfection, vis-à-vis ability and disability. The scene informs viewers that the film is a first-person subjective narration by a visually impaired filmmaker, her autobiographical account of becoming blind. Prefiguring the film's themes, the scene speaks to issues of inheritance, belonging, and exile, and to the affective and political entanglements that arise from claiming visual impairment as a subject position.

My experience as a scholar with severe macular degeneration has made me aware of the cultural, social and embodied complexities stemming from living with visual impairment. I am also wary of the potential pitfalls of mobilizing blindness as a metaphor. I understand the danger posed by the act of narrating as a process that, through its trope-making, can obscure the corporeal reality of visual impairment. Blindness scholars such as Georgina Kleege, Rod Michalko, David Bolt, Stephen Kuusisto and Moshe Barasch, among others, have teased out the ableist implications of the use of blindness as a metaphor. 3 These include the equation of sight with knowledge or the implication that sightlessness indicates moral failings, or the super-crip myth suggesting that, for the blind, other senses are more acute. Critics have identified the use of blindness in film as a metaphor for social decay. For instance, Susan Antebi interprets the blind old beggar in Buñuel's Los Olvidados as representing the violence present in post-Revolutionary Mexico ("Landscapes" 87-89). But perhaps there is something to be gained from the metaphoricity of sightlessness, from striking a balance between material reality and narrative. Shadow Girl provides an insider account of the negotiations between loss and gain, literalness and metaphoricity, blindness and vision.

Still from the Shadow Girl film. More description below.

Fig. 1: Shadow Girl Opening Scene – A shadow of a girl jumping rope is cast onto a concrete sidewalk. The color is ochre and sepia, making the image seem like a memory from the past.

Still from the Shadow Girl film. More description below.

Fig. 2: Shadow Girl Sidewalk Extreme Close-Up – Very close to the ground, the image is no longer recognizable, there are large cracks and a textured surface.

At first glance, few things seem more astonishing than a blind filmmaker, and, in the ableist imaginary, the mere thought might trigger skepticism, irritation, even ridicule. Vision (a physical state) and the gaze (a theoretical construct) are constitutive of film, so one might ask, how is it possible for a blind person to make a film? Yet, blind filmmakers such as Chilean director María Teresa Larraín, by virtue of their atypical perspective, capture images in unique ways, reframing our understanding of blindness and, as I claim, altering society's expectations about the centrality of vision in film. 4 Films by visually impaired directors, as well as collaborations between blind and sighted filmmakers frequently represent the experience of blindness through a style that I am calling the blind gaze. This style is reflected in both the aesthetics and content of the films and, in reality, it is much more than a style, it is an enhanced way to think about and experience the cinema. 5

Although the term blind gaze has been previously used by three other scholars, the way I apply it is novel. Blind gaze was first deployed by Georgina Kleege in her book Sight Unseen (1999), later by Johnson Cheu in his 2009 article "Seeing Blindness on Screen: The Cinematic Gaze of Blind Female Protagonists," and most recently in Rachel Newland's doctoral dissertation Overshadowing Sight: The Story of Blindness in Twenty-first Century Latin American Narrative and Visual Culture (2018). Kleege, who has severe macular degeneration as I do, investigates how blind and visually impaired individuals experience the visual arts. Kleege uses blind gaze as a subjective concept to describe the way she, as a person with a disability, experiences the art museum, how she sees paintings and films. Thus, her blind gaze entails proximity to the art she views and provides a personal experience that is different, but just as valuable as the one had by sighted spectators. Cheu's article dismantles gendered stereotypes about blindness in the cinema. He uses the blind gaze to theorize "how the [unseeing] gazes of blind female characters are co-opted in order to take away the blind woman's agency" (481). In this case, the blind gaze is a pejorative valuation of the ways blind people are portrayed as lacking agency in mainstream cinema. Finally, Newland reclaims agency and mobilizes the term to refer to the gaze of a blind man who looks straight into the camera in a photograph by Chilean artist Paz Errázuriz. According to Newland, who is herself blind, the blind man in the photograph stares back at the viewer assertively. She argues that "the fact that the blind or visually impaired man is granted the power of the gaze in this image grants him the possibility of looking back at his observers [… his …] accessible and active gaze offers a direct challenge to notions of 'looking blind' – moving beyond the stereotyped images of the blank stare, blind eye" (105).

While these are all valuable and highly specific uses of the term, I wish to establish a theoretically polyvalent concept of the blind gaze that encompasses the filmmaker's approach toward film, the characteristics of the film itself (style, content), and a more inclusive spectatorship attuned to the visual experience of impairment. Such attuned spectators would reconsider the cinematic experience by recasting or repositioning vision in relation to other senses. As a filmmaker, one need not be blind or visually impaired to deploy the blind gaze, although it is characteristic of films by blind cineastes, as I will show.

Although every filmmaker has his or her unique style, many films by the blind and visually impaired often share stylistic elements, particularly in the way they portray vision. These shared characteristics are consistently present, regardless of genre, filmmaking expertise, and level of visual impairment. Even regardless of national origin, race, gender and other identity categories that influence cinematic style. What I am proposing is the existence of a type of filmmaking that liberates cinema from its reductive reliance on perfect vision and seamless images, and which allows for greater inclusion for both filmmakers and spectators. The blind gaze still relies partly on vision, but it deemphasizes its preeminence and reconsiders how visual input suggests, interplays with, and at times takes a secondary role to tactile, auditory, olfactory, proprioceptive and other embodied forms of filmmaking and viewing. Perhaps not surprisingly, films by visually impaired and blind filmmakers often center around questions of sight, either as chronicles of the blind experience itself, as autobiographical documentary narratives, or as fictional films featuring blind characters. 6

Larraín's autobiographical documentary is an ideal case study for the blind gaze. Shadow Girl replicates the filmmaker's gradual vision loss, as Larraín experiments with prisms and filters, filming through fabric and water, adjusting the light, focusing on sounds and textures, and placing the spectator at the center of her traumatic but also hauntingly haptic and ultimately unfettering experience. Unfettering, because the film arguably frees the filmmaker and viewer alike from their dependency on vision. Larraín uses the well-known metaphor that presents the camera as an eye, a trope made famous by Buñuel's eye slicing scene and by Dziga Vertov's concept of the kino-eye which sought to replace the imperfect human eye with the camera lens. But rather than presenting Vertov's mechanical, objective and flawless vision, the Chilean filmmaker, echoing Buñuel, embodies and inhabits the camera as if it were a damaged eye in the process of losing sight. The film is not strictly focused on vision loss but vision more broadly. As such, Larraín illustrates various types of sight through her camerawork, encompassing the visual spectrum, from clear images to blurred or monochromatic screens reminiscent of Derek Jarman's Blue (1983). Although total blindness is a different experience from low vision, Larraín presents the spectrum from full blindness to complete sight as a related continuum which allows for both shared experiences and differences. For her, the distinction between blind and visually impaired becomes one of degree rather than kind. Likewise, the concept of the blind gaze as I understand it is sufficiently flexible to accommodate this full spectrum.

Larraín muses on the fragility of sight and shows how the gradual onset of blindness shapes her unique worldview but does not predetermine it. Although a significant part of her identity, blindness is but one aspect of the nuanced self-portrait of this exiled Chilean artist. In an interview, Larraín stated that the film was a journey of self-discovery that restored her confidence in her potential as filmmaker: "using filmmaking, using images, I dealt with blindness, which is sort of a contradiction but is what I needed to do. And in doing it, I think I discovered another way of filmmaking" ("A Director"). Such discoveries were grounded in simple, everyday experience as she found creative workarounds to continue filming.

Shadow Girl is an experiential journey that offers viewers a phenomenological glimpse into Larraín's declining vision. The film provides other sensory world-making events and discoveries that surround her condition, as the filmmaker adapts. Larraín's condition is not ultimately framed as a loss but as a transformation, and in some critical respects, as a gain. Indeed, blindness scholars Hannah Thompson and Vanessa Warne argue for "the value of non-visual relationships with the world [… and …] the potential of 'blindness gain,' a form of gain generated by blind experiences of environments and of culture" ("Blindness Arts"). For Thompson, who stresses the ability in disability scholarship, blindness is not to be seen as a tragedy, but rather as "a valuable and important way of being in the world" ("Blindness Gain"). In Larraín's case, the gain is both societal and personal. Through her filmmaking practice, she expands normative societal expectations about who can work with visual media. On a personal level, she leaves ocularcentrism behind and recasts her entire body as a kind of prehensile eye. As a consequence of this process, she radically alters her filmmaking style. 7

The expansion of the sensorium that followed from the recent phenomenological turn in film theory provides, in conjunction with critical disability theory, an ideal framework to study the work of blind and visually impaired filmmakers. Without disavowing the visual, phenomenology reframes the spectator's experience well-beyond a strict focus on vision, questioning the privileging of the sense of sight, as well as that of a universal, disembodied spectator that is unmarked by corporeal difference. 8 As I defined it earlier, the blind gaze should be broadly understood as a theoretical construct encompassing film, filmmaker and spectator. It refers not only to a specific way of making films, to the specific shots, styles and devices used, and in some cases to its subject matter, but also to the sensibility of particular filmmakers toward visual impairment, as well as how audiences and individual spectators relate to these films – intellectually, sensorially, affectively.

Shadow Girl as First-Person Subjective Filmmaking

Larraín's self-reflexive documentary narrates her transition into blindness. When she begins filming she can still see shapes and colors but by the end she only discerns light and shadow, as the title Shadow Girl suggests. Concurrently, the film explores another transition, her temporary return to Chile after a lengthy exile in Toronto. Her experience of blindness is culturally mediated through her Chilean identity and her political activism. 9 Married to a civil rights attorney and active in Leftist circles, Larraín was forced to leave Chile after the 1973 military coup that ended Salvador Allende's government and empowered Pinochet's two-decade-long dictatorship. In Toronto, Larraín ran an organization that advocated for immigrant women's rights. Still in Toronto, she became a documentary filmmaker focused on social justice issues in Chile, making films such as Besieged Land (2007), a movie about the Mapuche struggle for indigenous land rights (Taylor n.p.). Larraín's career interweaves several ethical strands: her engagement with social activism, her personal and collective story of political exile as part of the Chilean diaspora, and her recognition of the creative potential of vision loss. In all cases, she has reevaluated the notion of tragedy, refused victimization narratives and transformed her experiences of loss into instances of gain. 10

While making the film, Larraín returned to Chile to mourn her mother's death with her family. She then temporarily relocated to Santiago after being denied disability benefits in Canada on account of a technicality. 11 As seen in the opening sequence, Larraín initially associates her vision loss with her mother's passing, but also with her mother's vision loss years earlier. The film binds the personal to the political by allowing blindness to become at once literal and metaphoric. Sight loss is intricately associated with the loss of Salvador Allende's pre-coup Chile, which Larraín remembers fondly as a country on its way to becoming a socialist utopia. Her memory of her mother is mediated by material objects and cultural practices such as photographs, songs and mementos she brought from Chile, densely and semantically textured into the film, and often interpreted through senses other than sight. In that manner, both her national/diasporic identity as a displaced Chilean and her disability are presented as an inheritance, one that she did not choose but which she embraces. In Shadow Girl Larraín provides a profoundly personal and political self-portrait of loss and gain through a style that is intimate, close to the body, sensual but also blurry, jarring and imprecise, out-of-focus. Thus, by asserting a personal visual style that evokes vision loss while advocating for her rights as a blind artist, Larraín rebuilds her status as a filmmaker, and through her activism, renews her hope for Chile's future. In the process, she films Shadow Girl to disrupt the belief that vision is the predominant way of engaging with the cinema and the world-at-large, creating a transgressive movie in form and content.

Larraín's filming style is aesthetically striking. While many scenes are filmed from a seemingly objective point of view, the filmmaker's voice-over narration and her constant presence on-screen identify the film as a subjective documentary about Larraín. The camera often adopts her visual point-of-view. The film replicates the way the filmmaker sees, "playing with prisms to create what she recalls as a fist of colors or experimenting with reflections in the back of a spoon" (Larraín, "A Director"). A subjective perspective is maintained throughout, whether specific scenes simulate Larraín's physical sight or present something akin to an abled view free of visual or aural distortions. The contrast between these abled and disabled point-of-view shots underscores that Larraín's world is distinct, highly textured and audible, more embodied than vision-centric. The filmmaker perceives this difference as beauty, "this [way of seeing] could be quite beautiful […] I am not blind, I am seeing things. It is just a different way of seeing" (Larraín, "A Director"). Her approach as she attempts to duplicate her unique vision establishes a contrast between two ways of filming and seeing: first, an objectifying gaze that desires to make sense of the film's content from a detached perspective, but which then yields to a second, blind gaze that lingers on surfaces, textures and sounds and provides an affective viewing experience, even as it becomes more abstract and decidedly haptic. What I propose here is that the blind gaze, as implemented by Larraín and other blind filmmakers, makes use of techniques that have come to be associated with haptic visuality and certain types of sensorial filmmaking. At the same time, the blind gaze also makes available an understanding of the limits of haptic visuality, and therefore it sets up a fragile tension between what the eye can touch and not touch, and how the entire body may or may not function as a kind of eye. The blind gaze both pushes against and recognizes the difficulty in overcoming the limits of film as a visual medium.

How might Larraín's haptic filmmaking be theorized? In The Skin of the Film (2000) Laura U. Marks describes the cinematic experience of haptic visuality in ways that are evocative of visual impairment. Rather than ocularcentric styles that favor optical means of knowing, Marks promotes an embodied approach to making films that prioritizes other senses such as hearing, smell, touch, even taste. 12 Haptic cinema encourages "a bodily relationship between the viewer and the image" (Skin 164). Critics such as Marks, Jennifer Barker and Jonathan Crary argue that since the Enlightenment we have assumed the tactile is a poor substitute for the visual, a framework that has neglected other ways of perceiving. 13 Using techniques that enhance a sense of the haptic aligns with blind and visually impaired filmmakers' perception of the world and their desire to foreground a non-visual sensorium. There are many formal characteristics and techniques present in a haptic film style that evoke other senses for spectators, including changes in focus, decayed or faded images, over and underexposure, scratches and lines denoting old media (Super 8, VHS), extreme close-ups of objects, attention to the tactile (hands, fingers, touch, texture), proximity to skin, emphasis on sounds of breathing, fabric and movement, enhanced ambient sounds (rustling of leaves, sound of waves, street sounds), etc.

As I will show, Larraín employs these devices to great effect to demonstrate that seeing is not the only way, it is a way to relate to the world. Other senses may at times provide a better way to orient oneself toward both personal and political crises. I will lay out my analysis through several paradigmatic scenes, examining how the blind gaze informs Larraín's representation of key personal and political events in her life. The first scene I turn to is the death of Larraín's mother, which touches doubly on the personal dimension of tragedy and loss, since the filmmaker associates her mother's blindness with her own vision loss – as a kind of inheritance. Personal loss is also closely associated with political events in her narrative, as I will demonstrate.

A Mother's Death: The Personal is also Political

The scene begins at the shore of Toronto's Lake Ontario (00:15:46). Although the scene deals with grief and loss, the character (Larraín herself) is never portrayed as a victim, or as someone who is solely focused on her disability. Instead, viewers are presented with the portrait of a complex subject. Larraín's story is representative of other exile narratives, while offering a unique perspective on disability. In the scene, the filmmaker-narrator has just heard about her mother's death and is attempting to mourn. Her status as an exile prevents her from properly mourning, however, since she cannot attend her mother's funeral back in Chile. The filmmaker's melodic voice-over is not in her mother tongue, Spanish, but in an accented English. It is the language of a land she does not quite consider as home. The distance from home and her family renders the act of saying goodbye to her mother even more lonely and alienating. Through her monologue, Larraín attempts to establish an intimate connection with her mother and also with the spectator. The filmmaker's effort to link across time and distance and create a sense of proximity with her mother, with her homeland, with fellow Chileans, echoes the film's opening dedication written in her personal scrawl, "for you, mom."

As Ramón Soto-Crespo writes, "mourning the homeland is one way for the diaspora writer [or filmmaker] to maintain a connection with it. This mode of connectivity […] represents less nostalgia than an inherently political style of transcultural association" (342). For Larraín, mourning becomes more than an individual experience, it is a cultural and political recollection of the homeland that links her to her mother and also to fellow exiles. As Soto-Crespo observes, this type of mourning is not "a pathological state that must be overcome [… but a …] culturally normative yet highly political strategy" (371). This strategy plays out through recourse to the aural and tactile techniques already mentioned as characteristic of the blind gaze. As Larraín strolls by the lakeside, the camera plays with water images, filming the surface ripples of the waves and the light reflecting off of them. The lens fluidly shifts in and out of focus and the images embrace an indeterminacy of contours, as solid objects disappear into a tenuous light and shadow play. The camera position remains always uncertain, above, below, in the water, it is difficult to discern its exact location. The very first image is of waves (in focus) and a face in the extreme foreground (out of focus), presumably the filmmaker's as she stares out to the lake. The water images remind us, not only of Lake Ontario but also of the sea, the Pacific Ocean and the shores of her native Chile. Fluid images connect Larraín affectively to her mother and motherland, but also separate her, making the distance materially palpable (Fig. 3). Just like the handwritten note in the film's dedication is a material link to mother and homeland, water images and sounds also build affective layers and introduce texture for the viewer.

Still from the Shadow Girl film. More description below.

Fig. 3 Shadow Girl Water and Face Haptic Images – Extreme close-up of a face which appears completely blurred, in the background waves rippling, also slightly out of focus.

The visual emphasis is on texture and on creating a tactile experience through images. This technique was thematized in an earlier scene that shows the filmmaker touching a translucent curtain that stands in for a luminous film screen. The scene signals that for Larraín touch and sound complement and at times replace sight (00:15:19) (Fig. 4). It is not that aesthetic pleasure is absent from the visual image and is displaced onto the tactile, quite the contrary; the play with light and shapes provides an intensely pleasurable sensation throughout the film, a pleasure the spectator is allowed to feel – indeed encouraged, as such pleasure is necessary to grasp the textured richness of the filmmaker's imperfect vision. The sensation of texture is created, paradoxically, through the film's visual and aural layers. According to Larraín, her entry into blindness was accompanied by a realization of a new aesthetic experience that could be translated into cinema: "La luz se fue apagando de a poco y a medida que me adentraba en la niebla, me fui dando cuenta que aún había explosiones de luces, formas, color y movimiento. Entró a mi mundo el sonido, incluso el tacto, que también puede expresarse en una película" (Larraín "Se estrena"). [Light was gradually dimmed and as I entered into the fog, I realized there were still explosions of lights, shapes, colors, movement. Sound entered my universe, even touch, which can be expressed in a film]. Larraín's proposition to lessen the primacy of vision in cinema questions ocular imperatives inherited from the Enlightenment, challenging beliefs about how visual art should be made and experienced.

Still from the Shadow Girl film. More description below.

Fig. 4 Shadow Girl Touching/Feeling (for) the Screen – The filmmaker, located at the right edge of the frame, runs her hands along a translucent screen, possibly a window curtain, but also similar to a film screen.

The focus on tactility and sound captured by this scene aligns with the concept of the haptic. In haptic cinema figures and objects are not fully or clearly represented, but rather hinted at and obscured, as the camera often approaches objects so close as to render them unrecognizable. Haptic cinema casts doubt on what our eyes tell us, rejecting a full representation of objects and people. It expects viewers to engage imaginatively with the image, filling in the blanks, much as the visually impaired do as their imagination or their brain fills in areas of damaged vision. Extreme close-up shots of unrecognizable objects and materials, additionally, invite the appreciation of surface textures and can enhance images with their corresponding sounds. Thus, in the Lake Ontario scene, the clinking of a chain link fence is accompanied by the blurred image of Larraín's hand running along it, associating touch, sound, and image through a synesthetic effect that augments the emotive force of the moment. The metallic sound of the chain link fence is overlaid onto a soundscape that includes the filmmaker's mournful voice-over, the extradiegetic soundtrack, the ambient sound of the waves and seagulls, a rock striking the water. The sound layers create a veritable echo space which, when listened to attentively, suggests the relative positions of sound sources. In keeping with the scene's haptic style, the filmmaker's darkened silhouette stands starkly against the sunlight, as water trickles through her cupped hands. The camera lingers on the cool fluidity of the water as it escapes the filmmaker's grasp. The evanescence of this liquid moment doubles as a metaphor for time's passage, but also for the tenuous fragility of evoking touch through images (Fig. 5).

Still from the Shadow Girl film. More description below.

Fig. 5 Shadow Girl Grasping for Water – The filmmaker's hands in extreme close-up, attempting to cup some water which is escaping. Lake Ontario appears in the blurred background.

The scene then transitions to the filmmaker's Ontario home through a dissolve. The indoor space is lit with candles and set up for a memorial or wake, although the filmmaker's deceased mother is back in Chile. Larraín will not make the actual funeral on time, arriving to Chile shortly afterwards. Although this wake has no social component since Larraín is alone, it is an opportunity to express filial piety and sorrow. Ghostly flickering candles light her mother's photograph, providing an indexical referent – as the candles point to light, so the photograph points to her absent mother. When the image gradually fades to black, the spectator realizes that memory and sight will also fade with time. As Larraín mourns for her mother she also mourns for her declining eyesight and for the lost homeland. All three, the mother's death, blindness and exile, are presented as physical losses felt in the body. All three signal a severing or separation that entails a before and after. There is an inextricable association between vision loss and the memory or trauma resulting from exile. In the film Larraín's vision loss functions as a metaphor for collective and intergenerational loss, so that her personal mourning is also the nation's mourning. The personal becomes public and political. She will work through her losses, transforming them, on some level, into gains. 14

As part of her goodbye the filmmaker sings her mother's favorite song. Singing the 1927 Argentine tango "adios muchachos" [goodbye, my friends] popularized by Carlos Gardel, Larraín taps into a collective memory of exile, displacement, and loss. By connecting with a collective sentiment, she transcends her personal tragedy – her own declining vision, the death of her mother – and echoes the loss of a generation of Southern Cone political exiles. "How do you mourn your mother in another land?" she laments. The impossibility to grieve far from home impels the filmmaker to journey back to Chile to complete the work of mourning. Upon returning she redefines herself as an unapologetically blind filmmaker. As part of her artistic rebirth, she brings forth a distinct style, a new way to capture images, which culminates in the film we are viewing. She will also reengage with her former activism aimed at building a more egalitarian Chile.

By asserting her identity as a blind filmmaker and taking on an active role in political resistance through disability rights activism, Larraín succeeds in working through her bereavement. The filmmaker does not self-represent either as a victim or a supercrip, instead she documents how she copes with her challenges through creative workarounds. Throughout the film she questions imposed barriers but also the learned and accepted social roles, often passive, in which the visually impaired are inculcated – roles which seldom include that of filmmaker. Even though she recognizes this profession poses some additional difficulties for the blind, Larraín demonstrates that "limitations previously associated with blindness can be reframed" (Whitburn and Michalko 228). 15

Larraín depicts her struggles against bureaucratic systems (Canada's disability laws, Chile's neoliberal government) matter-of-factly, to avoid overly dramatizing her plight while still bringing attention to it. She refuses to engage in what disability advocate Stella Young has dubbed "inspiration porn," and which Jan Grue defines as works in which "people with impairment are not represented as disabled subjects, but as objects" (840). These works assume that the audience is abled, and they provide little ground for identification between the disabled subjects and the viewing public (840). In contrast, Larraín's sensitive self-portrayal establishes several possible grounds for identification with abled viewers, including exile, political activism, bereavement, and so on. 16 These other aspects of a shared human experience in turn facilitate a better understanding of disability for abled spectators, prompting a willingness toward social change. Despite her positive outlook the filmmaker does not obscure suffering and pain, which she believes Chileans are familiar with after a cruel dictatorship and a transition to democracy plagued by social inequality. But she refuses victimization, unequivocally stating, "I make a distinction between being a victim and talking about pain." Larraín reframes her pain and her visual impairment as political, deploying them in her film as a way to strike a blow against various forms of exclusion, as I show in the next section.

The Political is also Personal: Santiago's Blind Street Vendors

The next sequence I want to direct attention to takes place in Santiago, shortly after Larraín's arrival. Wandering through the Alameda avenue, Larraín finds community with a group of blind street vendors ("vendedores ambulantes"). 17 Today, La Alameda, a geo-political palimpsest of Chile's turbulent history, continues to be a site for protests as Chileans rage against ineffective governments and unequal economic conditions. Inevitably, Larraín rekindles her activism during her stay in Santiago and records various political processes in the film. Returning to Chile allows Larraín to redefine herself as a visually impaired filmmaker and as an activist for disability rights, as she learns resilience from the blind vendors. The filmmaker features several vendors in the documentary and invites them to the film's premier in Santiago, which they experience with audio-description. At times behind and at times in front of the camera, Larraín interviews the vendors as part of her process of coming to terms with blindness and as she learns from them how to turn this event into a positive force for personal growth and social change. The film narrates the blind vendors' demands for basic accessibility to improve their working conditions, to obtain permits and to end harassment by police. These are the same rights demanded by workers in other precarious sectors in Chilean society. It is noteworthy that Chile did not have a robust disability rights legislation until 2010, when the government approved the "Ley Nacional de Discapacidad" (National Disability Law), mandating social inclusion and equal opportunities for people with disabilities. The law was aimed at redressing the dire conditions the disabled had endured during the lengthy dictatorship, as well as the inadequate legislation passed after democracy returned in 1990 (Marfull-Jensen and Flanagan 144). 18

Larraín retells the vendors' struggles, ongoing since they arrived to the Alameda during the initial years of Pinochet's dictatorship. Typical of their harrowing tales, a vendor nicknamed the "Bird Man" describes stepping over the bodies of dissidents left in the street by Pinochet's police. The film shows how their fight for disability and human rights has continued into the democratic period, juxtaposing past and present footage. This particular scene opens with contemporary high-resolution digital footage of the vendors selling their wares in the Alameda, but then quickly switches to yellowish, degraded archival images inserted into the film without warning (00:38:00). Spectators will notice the diminished image quality and the sudden change in aspect ratio, characteristic of footage originally shot for television in the 1980s, and recorded as a homemade VHS bootleg (Fig. 6). The filmmaker includes the faded VHS footage of the blind vendors protesting during the dictatorship to emphasize their bravery and underscore the continuity of their struggle. As they march the vendors chant the evocative "poder popular" [power to the people] slogan coined by Salvador Allende's Unidad Popular party. The slogan, then and now, was meant to signify/forge working-class unity, and now it serves as a poignant reminder of that lost Allende utopia. The faded video footage functions, on the one hand, as documentary evidence of past protests, but on the other, the decaying and discolored images also allude to the nation's fading historical memory and even suggest the filmmaker's deteriorating sight. As Marks has suggested, the use of deteriorating stock, the "faded films, decaying videotapes, projected videos that flaunt their tenuous connection to the reality they index, all appeal to a look of love and loss" (Skin 94). As the tapes demagnetize, the damaged analog video with its washed-out hues calls attention, once again, to the surface texture and tactility of the image, signaling that we are in the presence of the blind gaze. The decomposition of the image highlights the overreliance on vision, captures the degradation of the ocular, but still maintains a certain persistence of vision or, perhaps, its trace. This persistence of the visual even in a decomposed state conveys the tension between seeing and feeling, between some form of detached vision and an impure comingling of the senses. VHS video, in a fashion, also disables the seeing spectator, since pixel size in the 1980s produced an image quality that was less than the degree of detail available to non-impaired human vision – even though this is a temporary and metaphoric impairment. This temporary disabling proves to be a productive challenge for sighted spectators, since "when vision yields to the diminished capacity of video, it must give up some degree of mastery; our vision dissolves in the unfulfilling or unsatisfactory space of video [… resulting in …] an invitation to perceive in a different way" (Marks, Skin 176).

The marginalization that comes with a loss of sight and the disintegrating memory of the past – as with her mother's faded photograph earlier, or the forgotten Allende period – in turn motivates Larraín's appeal for social justice, as she attempts to recompose the past with its faded fragments. The mourning for the Chilean Left's lost nation is bound up with the nostalgia associated with the passing of the VHS format. People of a certain age associate VHS with their youth, and some claim it is a warmer, more intimate format than HD digital video. For the filmmaker, the inserted VHS material functions as an index to the past but also as a marker of the continuity of oppression faced by the visually impaired under both authoritarian and democratic rule. The metaphor of vision she calls to mind – the degraded footage as visual impairment – does not disavow the complex, literal reality of what it means to be blind in favor of abstract generalizations and mere aesthetic experimentation, but rather retains the specificity of the blind vendors' daily struggles against structural oppression.

Still from the Shadow Girl film. More description below.

Fig 6. Shadow Girl Inserted VHS Footage of 1980s Street Protests – A low-grade VHS image showing blind vendors marching in Chile. Details are hard to see and the colors bleed into each other, denoting a poor-quality homemade recording.

Historical links between past and present are made patently explicit in a later part of the sequence. Larraín associates the struggles of the blind vendors for better working conditions with the 2011 student protests demanding greater investment in public education and a leveling of a stratified school system. She presents both the vendors' and students' plight as legacies of Pinochet's neoliberal economic policies that persist today, only now in a democracy whose egregious social inequality is being challenged by civil society. The opportunity to relate the political to the personal surfaces again through the tactile aesthetics of the sequence, a sequence that comes shortly after the inserted VHS footage from the 1980s (00:42:20). The scene is shot in HD video, as most of the film, and therefore visually marked as belonging to the present. Nonetheless, it is also signaled as a moment of continuity with the past, through its immediate juxtaposition with the VHS sequence, its location in the same Alameda, and on account of the voice-over narration which bridges both segments. Both scenes are identified as analogous instances of oppression and resistance. It is a chaotic scene, as riot police charge and tear-gas protesting students, reminiscent of the repression during military rule. Rather than playing the role of detached observer, Larraín participates and documents the protest, like a citizen journalist she is one of/with the people. The filmmaker becomes disoriented in the tumultuous fray, then blinded and reduced to tears by the thick smoke. As the scene grows anarchic the hand-held camerawork becomes unsteady and the images disappear in a haze of smoke and chaos. While the shooting style here, decidedly observational in the way that war reportage can be, may not be a conscious decision but the result of the melee, the filmmaker chooses to include the action footage in the final editing. By doing so she provides documentary evidence of the events and of her active participation, but also illustrates the frailty of vision (physical and political) in contemporary Chilean society. In a society in deep crisis suffering from profound inequality and social unrest, ability can unexpectedly become temporary or permanent disability. News reports indicate that in a single month in Santiago (October 2019) almost 300 protesters suffered severe eye injuries from hardened rubber bullets and tear gas canisters fired by Chilean security forces (McDonald). On a more metaphorical level, the images recorded by Larraín capture the dissolution of a progress narrative that has left most Chileans behind. I am referring to the now much maligned theory of the "Chilean miracle" espoused by proponents of the Chicago-School economic policies implemented in the aftermath of the coup. Although this neoliberal model is now mostly discredited, it was embraced by democratic governments. Just as problematic, the consensus-driven transition to democracy elided the trauma from the dictatorship and avoided making equitable economic reforms. But the film's political commentary is also personal, since through her participation in the protest and her role as a filmmaker documenting the event Larraín begins to construct her persona as a disabled activist and filmmaker and as a Chilean citizen.

The Final Scene: Toward an Aesthetic Theory of Blind Cinema?

The final scene I examine lays out the filmmaker's theoretical understanding of her own style, her blind gaze. There is something about film, perhaps also applicable to other audiovisual media, that triggers an embodied response. Phenomenological film theorist Vivian Sobchack places the body at the center of cinematic experience, asserting that film, more than any other medium, is particularly suited to provide viewers with an experience of embodiment, given that "the cinema uses modes of embodied existence (seeing, hearing, physical and reflective movement) as the vehicle, the 'stuff,' the substance of its language. It also uses the structures of direct experience (the 'centering' and bodily situating of experience in relation to the world of objects and others) as the basis for the structures of its language" (The Address of the Eye 4-5 emphasis in original). In other words, the modes of cinematic experience are analogous to the modes of being-in-the-world experienced by any subject. A capable filmmaker can enhance certain modes of somatic experience through film technique and style, making viewers feel as if they were really there.

The scene in question begins after Larraín arrives to Costa Rica to spend some time with her granddaughters and her son Nicolás. By this point in the documentary the filmmaker is nearly blind, seeing occasional bursts of light and only able to discern shadowy shapes. Larraín's voice-over self-reflexively muses about haptic ways of seeing as a montage of overlapping images evocatively illustrates how the visually impaired might perceive the world. The lyrical narration unfolds rhythmically for the duration of the scene, with several lengthy pauses as the filmmaker's breathing becomes audible. The words are synchronized to accompany the images, but not dependent on them for meaning – the visual images reinforce her statements but are not indispensable to her point. Her words familiarly echo Sobchack's phenomenological argument that it is not only through vision that we see, but also through touch, smell, taste and our being-in-the-world. Positioning optical visuality as potentially deceptive, Larraín states, "Nicolás told me once that he was happy that I had seen the girls before I went completely blind. And I asked him, Nicolás, do we know people only through our eyes? … Many times, our eyes deceive us …. We can know people not only through our eyes … We can know them through touch … Our hands … Through sound … In terms of knowing people, our whole body can be an eye" (00:58:29). No doubt, other senses can be deceptive, and Larraín's enthusiasm prevents her from problematizing these other forms of knowledge. But her point about becoming permeable to a whole-body, more inclusive way of filmmaking, rings true.

The scene is overloaded with visual, aural and tactile input, and with semiotic references and allusions. It opens with a translucent curtain fluttering in the wind, bright daylight streaming through it, once again a stand-in for the cinema screen itself – the term screen is richly polysemic in that it can mean either to project a film, or the surface that the film is projected onto; but a screen can also serve to block, to shield or impair view/sight; to conceal, but also to examine and scrutinize, as in to screen for something. The ripples and subtle changes of this particular curtain-screen remind us of the visual distortions in the filmmaker's own field of vision, but also point to the complexity of any film screen, as a device that indicates at once surface and depth, a rectangle of white material that allows for the projection of light and dark shapes onto its surface (shadow play), a projection that is both real and illusionary, embodied and metaphoric, objective and subjective, material and light, solid and evanescent. But this projection also indicates texture, suggests depth, evokes tastes, smells, and captures movement. As with any film or representation, it is always already mediated, it allows for deception, as Larraín asserts, "Many times, our eyes deceive us." The images that follow the fluttering curtain shot are composed of extreme close-ups, superimpositions and fragmented views through various light effects, filters and editing distortions. These are the visual devices through which spectators perceive Larraín's granddaughters in a series of disjointed and incomplete but affectively loaded glimpses.

Still from the Shadow Girl film. More description below.

Fig. 7 Shadow Girl The Haptic Instance of Touching the Screen – Close up image of a child's hand against the screen, the blurry image of the child behind.

Still from the Shadow Girl film. More description below.

Fig. 8 Persona Bergman's Emblematic Shot – Seen from behind against a lit screen, a boy touches the large projected image of a woman's face, diffuse and grainy.

In one powerful image (Fig. 7) a child's small hand is seemingly placed against the screen itself, as if she were trying to touch the spectators, to reach through and bridge the gap in space and time. The gesture is an intended or unintended citation of a similar shot in the poetic opening scene in Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966). A boy, darkly silhouetted against a brightly lit screen, caresses its whitewashed surface and places his hand on the out of focus extreme close-up of a woman's face (Fig. 8). This iconic image is followed by a reverse-shot in which the boy, now facing us, touches the screen with his hand in an identical shot to Larraín's. Bergman will repeat the same exact gesture of a hand placed against the screen in other films, perpetuating a recurring motif that is deeply reflexive about the nature of cinema. The gesture also points to other ontological questions about the separation between filmic and lived experience, metaphor and reality. 19 On an embodied level, the gesture also signals tactility. Images of hands evoke the sense of touch, although for Marks this occurs through identification with the person or with the hand doing the touching, rather than through a strict sense of hapticity. The haptic, she insists "bypasses such identification and the distance from the image it requires" (Skin 171). Yet these scenes are haptic in other, more direct ways: in the graininess and out of focus nature of the face in the Bergman scene, or in Larraín's. These images are haptic by the very ontological questions they raise about the medium. They are so in the way haptic images include and combine other media or are self-referential (VHS within film, film within film). The images are haptic in the way film material whether celluloid, VHS or even digital is shown to decay, decompose and, like our organic bodies, die, which is "especially significant for emigrants and exiles who treasure old, hard-to-get or boot-legged tapes from 'back home'" (Marks, Skin 172). And they are haptic in the sense of the loss and nostalgia these scenes elicit, despite, or because of, the specific embodiment they suggest.

Beyond their desperate longing for touch, intimacy and human contact and for home, these scenes of caressing hands point to a paradox at the core of haptic visuality: while the screen allows for a sense of tactility to be portrayed/evoked/suggested, it relies on the visual, so that those who are completely or mostly blind cannot marshal the sense of vision necessary to have an experience of touch. Therefore, it would seem that for the blind, the visual forecloses entry into the full cinematic experience. They must instead rely on sound, on audio-description if available, on dialogue, on music, on memory and imagination, to provide that sense of tactility, of texture, of visuality – as images are migrated or translated into voice and sound. Haptic visuality, for all its virtues and metaphoric heft, encounters its limits and must be supplemented via the aural dimension, with sound, although sound is always/already included in the complete definition of haptic visuality. 20

The image of the hand touching the screen brings up another troubling paradox, which is the impossibility for anyone to fully experience touch as touch in cinema. The grief expressed by Bergman's boy as he seeks unsuccessfully to feel the superimposed onscreen image (possibly his mother's), triggers a sense of the unreachable or untouchable that cannot be dismissed through theories of embodied spectatorship or of tactile visuality. The attempt to caress the image, to touch the screen, reflects a desire to understand across a gap, across a barrier or surface that divides different subjectivities and ontologies – this is also the gap that triggers a desire for metaphor. This gap or impossibility to touch can also serve as an analogy about the difficulty of dialogue and understanding between the visually impaired and the sighted. Or the impossibility for any two individual subjectivities to ever truly connect. Perhaps sound can bridge the gap left by image. Sound, in Shadow Girl, offers a potential for greater inclusivity, even for connection, for sound does not stop at the surface of the screen, and it can occupy the same space inhabited by the spectators.

Larraín is aware of the inherent contradiction of the medium and the difficulties of representing the tactile through the visual. She does turn to the auratic for assistance. In the scene with her granddaughters, she complements the intense haptic visuality of her images with a lavishness of sound, including music, the pitter-patter of feet and the rustling of clothes, the joyous screams of her grandchildren, her breathing, and of course her intimate voice over, "We can know people not only through our eyes … we can know them through touch. Our hands … through sound… in terms of knowing people, our whole body can be an eye." In effect, she turns the screen itself into a window, a two-directional surface that is meant to enable communication, rather than obstruction or division. At times it seems as if she would intermingle the onscreen diegesis and the very cinematic material it is composed of (HD video) with our flesh and blood world. Puncturing through the gap is the vulnerability of the characters as they stare at the camera directly or touch the screen, signs of the ease with which the transparent barrier might almost be broken, and the ontological divide between the film's reality and ours dissolved. Almost.

Concluding Remarks

Larraín's documentary and other films that activate the blind gaze are liminal and transgressive in part because they are, and are not, realist representations. Shadow Girl relies on haptic techniques that bring it close to the aesthetic of experimental cinema, and yet these strategies seek to provide a realistic first-person point-of-view depiction of visual impairment. The link between hapticity and visual impairment is not an unusual one to make. Marks makes that association when she muses that "any of us with moderately impaired vision can have a haptic viewing experience by removing our glasses when we go to the movies" (Skin 170). While the comment is unforgivably flippant in its failure to recognize that the visually impaired cannot then choose to simply put their glasses back on to resume 20/20 vision, her point about the haptic remains valid. The capacity for hapticity can be located either within the techniques and style of the film itself, or in the spectator's predisposition toward viewing cinema haptically, that is by paying close attention to textures, sounds, and the way images evoke other senses. Blind and visually impaired filmmakers seem preoccupied with creating the kind of cinema that solicits haptic viewing, even as they are aware of the contradictions such cinematic experiments hold. It could be argued that their efforts to stretch the limits of haptic visuality are analogous to how they wrestle with a medium that also resists them. These efforts have political consequences. Their choice to evoke or mimic vision loss and visual distortion results in creating images that demand a fundamentally haptic engagement from sighted spectators. It places these otherwise abled viewers in a position of visual otherness. Whether these spectators choose to empathize with that subject position or not responds to a set of individual factors, such as their life experience, their sensibility toward understanding otherness, their exposure to haptic filmmaking, etc. Non-fully sighted spectators – wherever they may be situated in the spectrum of visual impairment – will also relate to these films in particular ways. For some, they may identify with the narrative content, see some reflection of their own life experience. Others, those who retain some sight, may identify with the way the images reflect their own visual kaleidoscope – that has been my own experience. These spectators will superimpose their own physical vision, with its particular filters, distortions, veils and hazes, onto those deployed by the filmmaker, creating their own densely layered version of the film. Blind and visually impaired spectators will access other elements of the film through voice, sound, vibration. They may benefit from audio-description, or the description by someone sitting next to them. Their relation to the film will be different from that of a sighted spectator, but no less intense. These spectators may need to sit within inches of a screen and see details and perspectives that no sighted spectator would see, but their relation to the full image may also be restricted in ways similar to Georgina Kleege's experience of paintings in art museums. At such close proximity to the screen their experience may engulf them, their entire body becoming like an eye. In all cases the relation between spectator and film is a collaborative and intersubjective one. Haptic cinema resides both in the style and formal qualities of the film and in the way the spectator relates to the image with their entire body.

Larraín's Shadow Girl is one among many films by blind filmmakers that invite sighted spectators to experience cinema in a different way. It also allows the visually impaired to sense their own reflection on film. It is an embodied cinematography that longs to transcend the audiovisual. It encourages spectators to experience a sense of loss and wonderment, but also gain. It allows spectators a certain openness to reinterpret the image through their own life experience and sensory capabilities, encouraging them to fill in the gaps and visual indeterminacies with their own imagination, becoming co-creators of the work. For the filmmaker this is a personal style that stems from her choice to embrace her visual impairment as the lens through which she reflects (on) the world around her. It is at once a personal and a political decision. And this is also the kind of freedom of choice that Larraín desires for post-transition Chile.

Works Cited

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  • Barasch, Moshe. Blindness: The History of a Mental Image in Western Thought. Routledge, 2001. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203827215
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  • Bergman, Ingmar, director. Persona. Svensk Filmindutri, 1966.
  • Bolt, David. The Metanarrative of Blindness. University of Michigan Press, 2013. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.5725818
  • Buñuel, Luis, director. Los olvidados [The Young and the Damned]. Óscar Dancigers, 1950.
  • —-. Un chien andalou [An Andalusian Dog]. Luis Buñuel, 1929.
  • Cheu, Johnson "Seeing Blindness on Screen: The Cinematic Gaze of Blind Female Protagonists," The Journal of Popular Culture vol. 42, no. 3, 2009, pp. 480-496. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2009.00691.x
  • Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century. The MIT Press, 1990.
  • Deutsch, Helen and Felicity Nussbaum. "Introduction." Defects: Engendering the Modern Body, edited by Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum, University of Michigan Press, 2000. 1-28. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.10866
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  • Jarman, Derek, director. Blue. Basilisk Communications Ltd, 1993.
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  1. While the preferred term to refer to individuals with different degrees of visual disability is people who have visual impairments, rather than the blind or the visually impaired, which could seem to reduce such individuals to their impairment as their main defining characteristic, I opt for the shorter terms and use them interchangeably to indicate a broad continuum of seeing ability (if I refer to someone as blind, that does not entail a complete lack of sight).
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  2. For a lengthy discussion on the origins of ocularcentric bias see Martin Jay's Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (1993), especially his "Introduction."
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  3. For in-depth discussions on blindness and metaphor see Kleege's Sight Unseen, Michalko's The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness, Bolt's The Metanarrative of Blindness, Kuusisto's Planet of the Blind: A Memoir, and Barasch's Blindness: The History of a Mental Image in Western Thought.
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  4. These filmmakers have varying degrees of visual impairment, from partially sighted to completely blind. Some of them include Michael Schwartz (USA), David Block (USA), Rodney Evans (USA), João Júlio Antunes (Brazil), Joseph M. Monks (USA), Leon Tidwell (USA) and Eileen Harrington (USA). Some, like Joseph Lovett (USA) or Tony Sarre (Australia) were filmmakers who kept working after going blind. Others, such as James Rath (USA), began their filmmaking already blind. There are a handful of prominent filmmakers who have made a film specifically about sight loss after lengthy careers, for instance Derek Jarman's film Blue (USA, 1993) deals with his sight loss due to HIV complications, or Agnès Varda's film Faces Places (France, 2017), about her age-related macular degeneration. Some lesser-known films by amateurs are only available in YouTube, Vimeo and other video sharing sites, some can only be accessed at disability film festivals such as Melbourne's The Other Film Festival, Calgary's Picture this… film festival, Austin's Cinema Touching Disability, Brazil's Assim Vivemos festival, and Barcelona's Inclús' festival.
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  5. In film theory the term "gaze" dates to 1970s psychoanalytic criticism and is used to describe how viewers engage with visual representations and the ways such filmic representations are constructed to elicit a conscious or unconscious exchange with spectators. The paradigmatic (and most oft-cited) contribution to gaze theory is Laura Mulvey's seminal 1975 essay "Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema" which sought to expose the pervasiveness of the male gaze in Hollywood cinema and its oppressive patriarchal nature. Subsequent theorists examined notions of the gaze with regard to race, gender and ethnicity, and other considerations, with an aim to decenter universalizing approaches to film theory, filmmaking and film spectatorship.
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  6. Although they remain in a marginalized position vis-à-vis the film industry, there is a substantial number of films by blind filmmakers: to date I identified several dozen films that have had commercial distribution, and the number grows when considering self-produced works and if we include movies that are collaborations between blind and sighted filmmakers. There are also thousands of YouTube videos by visually impaired individuals who chronicle their lives online.
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  7. Thompson argues that "blind and partially blind people benefit from access to a multisensory way of being which celebrates inventiveness, imagination and creativity. Non-visual living is an art. But 'blindness gain' is also about how blindness can benefit non-blind people" ("Blindness Gain"). It is in this spirit of understanding the inherent power of visual impairment to show the way to a new type of filmmaking and to re-focus sighted spectators to a multisensorial and non-normative appreciation for film art that I direct attention to a filmic blind gaze, patently emergent in films by the blind and visually impaired.
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  8. Difference in terms of spectators can entail class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability and so on. Although this essay is focused mainly on disability, there are other identity categories at play in this film, especially gender and ethnicity. Due to space constraints, I do not analyze in depth how gender and ethnicity interact with disability in the film, leaving that task for future research.
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  9. There are cultural differences in attitudes toward blindness in Chile versus the USA or Canada, for example, as Marisol Marfull-Jensen and Tara Flanagan have observed, in particular related to Chile being a more collectivistic society versus our more individualistic one. This translates into more emphasis on dependence for the visually impaired in Chile. That said, the similarities between Western attitudes toward blindness are much greater than the differences. More important are generational differences, given that, as Barasch points out, "As matters of culture, the interpretation of blindness and the social attitude toward the blind are, of course, prone to historical change" (3). Moreover Larraín displays a mix of North American and Chilean attitudes toward blindness, as someone who is bicultural.
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  10. The positive reframing of vision loss does not deny the reality of loss, even tragedy, in the filmmaker's life, but rather it comments on her ability to creatively refashion such experiences, transforming them into aesthetic form and representations of embodied living.
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  11. Eventually she returned to Canada and received her benefits.
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  12. Jennifer Barker makes a similar case in The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (2009).
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  13. See for example Crary's Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (1990).
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  14. As film theorist Vivian Sobchack demonstrated in relation to disability and to prosthetics, there is "both an oppositional tension and a dynamic connection" between disability, say blindness, "as a tropological figure" and blindness as something "material" but also "phenomenologically lived" ("A Leg" 18), or echoing Sobchack as she quotes Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum's text Defects, such a tension-connection can be seen in the conflict between "a cultural trope and a material condition that indelibly affects people's lives" ("A Leg" 18).
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  15. The super crip is an ableist trope in which a disabled character garners the admiration of abled spectators through amazing feats of overcoming. These feats situate the disabled as other, even by well-intentioned filmmakers. Unlike disability overcoming narratives, Larraín's story is not a glossy tale of surmounting all odds, a cultural trope repeated in depoliticized disability melodrama. These melodramatic narratives mobilize sympathy from spectators and align with the medical model of disability which typically places the problem of an impairment with the individual rather than with social constructionism and visual ableism (lack of accessible fonts, braille and audio-description, unfriendly work environments, prevalence of small print, obstructions to mobility).
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  16. Grue also states that "inspiration porn represents disability as a problem located in individual bodies, to be overcome through individual efforts. By constructing disability as an objectively available, visually distinct, individual impairment, inspiration porn obscures structural and systemic causes of disability" (840).
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  17. La Alameda, the city's central artery, is a wide avenue lined by poplar trees whose grandiloquent official name is Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins, named for the founder of the nation. It is a street that carries heavy symbolic value for Chileans of all political stripes. It is also the street where many government buildings are located, including the Palacio de La Moneda, the presidential palace infamously bombed during the September 11, 1973 military coup, and the place where Allende lost his life.
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  18. A previous law from 1994 had been insufficient in promoting disability rights (Marfull-Jensen and Flanagan 145).
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  19. A similar moment occurs in Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces (Spain, 2009), as the protagonist (a blind script writer) caresses the image of his deceased lover on a television screen, wanting to feel the texture of her body once again, but unable to see it or to feel anything other than the smooth and inorganic surface of the screen.
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  20. Both silent and sound cinema have dealt with translation and sound-image relations, including the use of intertitles (sound to image), audio-description (image to sound), the inclusion of written text, gesture and sign language within the diegesis, sonification (using non-speech sounds to manifest a phenomenon, for example the clicking of a Geiger counter to signal radiation), and other ways to recreate visual experiences through audio. Audio-description (or video description) is required by law at movie theaters in the US (via headsets), and more DVDs are carrying an audio-description track. Audio-description is narrated in the pauses between the film's dialogue, synchronized with the film, and represents an art form in itself, a meta-narrative intervention. Moreover, theorists such as Jay Dolmage in his Disability Rhetoric (2014) suggest that audio-description can become an aesthetic experience akin to ekphrasis, so that "'accommodations' for people with disabilities [can be seen] as adding artistic and rhetorical value, not simply transposing or distilling meanings" (5). Audio-description is a process of translation (from image to sound, visual to verbal) that transforms, merges with the film, adding artistic value to it. The sighted spectator who may only rarely choose to use audio-description, may be at a disadvantage to their non-sighted counterpart, who benefits from an enhanced audio experience.
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