Braille Monitor April 2008
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by Margaret M. Quinlan, J. Webster Smith, and Casey Hayward
From the Editor: Dr. J.W. Smith is a professor of communication studies
at Ohio University. He is also first vice president of the National Federation
of the Blind of Ohio. Margaret Quinlan is a doctoral candidate in the OU School
of Communication Studies, and Casey Hayward is a documentary filmmaker based
in southeast Ohio.
Ed Marko redefines what it means to be not only an auto mechanic but a person who is blind. At the age of twenty he lost his sight from a degenerative disease called infantile glaucoma. However, he has surpassed what we traditionally think of as the capabilities of blind people. Now in his late sixties, he was once a rehabilitation counselor, but he also enjoyed working on cars. Then he decided to open his own shop, Community Car Care, in Columbus, Ohio. Plan F, a twenty-seven-minute documentary awarded the 2007 Oxford International Film Festival Award in cinematography and nominated for best short documentary at the Southern Winds Film Festival, takes us through a day in Ed’s life as we watch him work on cars and interact with his partner Brad and his cat. Ed teaches us that one does not need to see to work on cars as he uses his fingers and tongue to manipulate bolts, nuts, and bearings. The ways Marko navigates the auto shop demonstrate how he approaches life. If plan A does not work, he moves on to plan B. Flexibility and a sense of humor allow him to switch to a new plan when the first one does not work out. In this review of Plan F we begin with summaries of the nine major scenes of the documentary, followed by reviews by a blind and a sighted person. The piece concludes with comments from the director.
Plan F opens with a shot of the shop exterior. The scene cuts to black while Ed talks to himself as he works on cars. He calls to Brad. The camera then cuts to Ed shuffling his feet as he walks into a wall, and the screen goes black, the first clue that Ed is blind. The second scene shows him seated at his desk saying that he is not sure why anyone would be interested in his story. He then explains how he became a mechanic. He says he does not need much because all he really has to take care of is his cat. In scene three Ed explains that he has been blind since the 1950s and was a rehabilitation counselor most of his working life. He tells humorously of a time when a client's father accused him of pretending to be blind. He got burned out in that occupation because he was always hearing bad news.
In scene four Ed says that his customers expect him to perform miracles even when they have been to other mechanics. He makes a crack about customers who don’t get regular tune-ups. In scene five Ed talks about one of his customers, a German girl, who looks good and must have no idea how good looking she is. He blames her for distracting his workers. Then Brad and Ed go through his mail, and Ed comments that he only "reads" NPR and the BBC. In scene six, Brad and Ed go over finances, and Ed holds firm on the low prices he wants to charge. This frustrates Brad, who thinks they should charge for the services other auto mechanics do. The seventh scene reveals Ed's history with infantile glaucoma. He was born with vision that slowly deteriorated. This scene is important because we observe the shop’s messiness and the way he navigates it. He talks about his photographic memory and the way he uses his tongue to feel things and a rubber mat to organize parts. Scene seven closes with a funny exchange between Ed and Brad about forgetting the rug and not being able to find a nut even though he has buckets of nuts and bolts. Ed tries to start a car with a spark plug wire attached incorrectly. He and Brad bicker about what is wrong with the car. Ed fixes the problem and talks about how much work people are able to do without being able to see.
The documentary concludes with Ed contemplating whether he is burned out on
cars. He is not. Instead he is willing to try to do whatever he can. At the
end he says he is giving up, but we know that is not true. The film ends with
the words: "This car seems to be alive."
A Federation View of Plan F
I've always approached films and media depictions that focus on blind characters with ambivalence at best and, in many cases, trepidation. Two of the more realistic depictions, for me at least, were Butterflies Are Free (1972) and Scent of a Woman (1992). I probably like these films because they show blind people as complete individuals, foibles and all. With this context in mind I approached Plan F. When I was presented with the opportunity to view the film, I thought, "Oh, no. Here we go again!" However, from the opening scene I am pleased to say that this was not the case, and, as I watched the film, I was immediately drawn to the experiences of Ed Marko, who just happened to be blind. Furthermore, I was pleased to learn that the person who shot the film intentionally chose to feature Ed "in his own words." I understand that this is an edited version, but at least no commentator was attempting to tell us what Ed really meant, or to give the audience his or her interpretation of Ed's comments. In my opinion Federationists would find this film refreshing for at least three reasons.
First, the documentary is about Ed, told by Ed. In short, it is Ed speaking for himself, and as Federationists we know how important it is for blind people to speak for ourselves. How often have we been told to sit in a corner, wait our turn, and let someone else speak for us. One of the tenets of our movement is that "We are the blind speaking for ourselves," thus the National Federation of the Blind. I don't know if Ed has ever been a Federationist, but I was proud to see him speak assertively about his likes and dislikes, even with his business partner, and in this forcefulness he demands respect.
Next, the focus of the film is on Ed's work and not his worth. He is portrayed as a dedicated businessman doing a job he loves and, by his own account, doing it fairly successfully. The film does not preach about the "laudatory benefits of the blind man at work." In fact, parts of the film might be viewed as boring at times, but isn't that the case with most of our lives? We are not better or worse for the particular jobs we have; they do not determine who we are, just what we do. I am often fascinated when I meet people while traveling, and I observe how they treat me when they don't know what I do for a living. Many times, when they discover that I am a university professor, their entire attitude and assessment of my worth drastically change. I become more human in their minds and of course “normal.” I'm sure that this probably happens to TABs as well (the Temporarily Able-Bodied), but I wonder to what degree and how often.
The film depicts a man doing a job that he loves, and, I might add, that he has chosen. It is ironic that, according to Ed, he was a rehabilitation counselor at one time. As many of us know, even the rehabilitation system often tries to force blind people into the jobs and training programs that the professionals think are best for us. I am fortunate that, like Ed, I was given a chance to pursue my career goals and to do what I wanted to do, not what others wanted me to do and, more to the point, what others thought I could do. In the Federation and in the blind community in general, we are just people from all walks of life trying to live as productively as we can in society. We don't want nor do we need bonus points or additional barriers based solely on our blindness.
Finally, blindness is not a big deal when appropriate alternative techniques are introduced and applied. Here is a man who is blind, who doesn't think that the fact that he is a mechanic warrants a CNN crew or even this film. Ed can't even understand "why anyone would be interested in his story." Fellow Federationists, isn't this refreshing? While others are fascinated by the way Ed gets around his shop, identifies his tools, and implements his strategy for working on engines, it's no big deal to Ed because these are just the alternative techniques he uses to do a job he loves as efficiently as possible. In the Federation we believe that with proper training and the right attitude, what many view as miraculous and superhuman can be reduced to the boring, mundane, and matter-of-fact world of human existence. I really appreciate Ed's attitude throughout the film. He is not looking for a stop-the-presses outcome. In fact he seems almost bored with his own commentary at times.
Let me be careful here not to minimize the impact of the onset of blindness
or any other disability. It can in fact be life-altering and even devastating,
depending on the context and the circumstances, but I think those who view this
film will understand that the real issue of blindness is not blindness itself,
but people's attitudes about it. Ed is a great role model for the philosophy
that blindness need not be the end of the world and that with proper training,
appropriate role models, and equal opportunity people can live productive and
positive lives. In short, this film says to me that Ed is the expert on blindness
as it relates to him. It is honest and straightforward, and the depiction rings
true to me. As I watched it, I thought to myself, "I don't know this man,
but I'm pleased that he is doing what he wants to do and that he is not using
his blindness as an excuse one way or the other." Maybe that's the crux
of it all: as blind people we often try plans A and B, and sometimes C and D
are forced on us, but we decide that the best way to get the job done is to
try plan F.
A Sighted Perspective on Plan F
What I took away from this film was the resiliency of the human spirit. Even though Ed does not view his life as remarkable, he is a reminder that we have to be flexible because our lives do not always take us in our planned direction. Anyone may end up at plan F. I appreciated the focus on the beauty in the mundane-ness of Ed's life. The shop had rusty cars, old parts, and grease stains everywhere. However, the dark and dreary lighting of the film helped to capture the feeling of what it would be like for me to be in the shop, and the director did not make any effort to transform the scene. We must acknowledge that Casey's presence in the shop changed the ways in which Ed navigated. For example, Ed is talking with Casey while he is working on cars and makes a few mistakes. It is possible that, because Ed was distracted, he may have made more mistakes than he would have if he had not been concentrating on the interview.
As an aspiring disability scholar I believe that it is important that we pay
attention to the negative ways individuals with disabilities are portrayed in
the media. Although Plan F did not glorify Ed’s life, it did show him
as a complex character with humor and humanity in addition to his business skills.
In many ways Ed's story is redefining what it means to be blind when one can
be employed and doing what he or she loves.
The Director's Perspective on Plan F
I first heard about Ed while I was at a charity dinner and was sitting across from some people I did not know. During our conversation over dinner, we talked about my work as a documentary filmmaker. The man said, "I have a great subject for you," and he proceeded to tell about his son, who worked for a blind auto mechanic in Columbus, Ohio. I was intrigued by this, but I was not sure it was necessarily a film for me to make. It was fascinating, but I could not fully comprehend a blind person working on cars. But over the next few days my wife (and now co-producer) continued to ask me if I was going to follow up on this documentary idea. The more she asked, the more I asked my own questions already having some background working on cars about what it would be like to be blind and an auto mechanic. So I met with Ed at his shop, and I realized fairly quickly that he would be an interesting subject for a documentary. However, I would not be able to romanticize his situation. He was open to having a documentary made about him, but he did not think anyone would be interested in who he was or what he did. To him his life was completely normal, so I knew that was how I would portray it.
The main thing I learned from making this documentary, when dealing with a film subject with disabilities, is not to overdramatize the situation, not to play up the challenges anymore than I would anyone else's experiences, and to show the good with the bad. I think humor also played an important role—I needed to avoid taking Ed's life too seriously simply because he was disabled. In working on location in Ed's shop, for the first time in my life I shot with no additional lighting in a space that Ed obviously keeps very dimly lit. This situation forced me to understand, in some very small way, what it's like to perform intense technical tasks without being able to see what you're doing. In turn this informed my aesthetic decisions about the film, specifically to have the film look dim and out of focus so that viewers must work to see and not take the very sense that Ed lacks for granted.
I hope other people can see Ed as an active, engaged member of society, rather than a category or a charity case. But I hope they will also see blindness in a less noble light--as though Ed had special status or insight simply because he could not see. We seem to deal with disability in one of two ways. Either we feel pity or are overawed by a disabled person's achievements in everyday life. I wanted the film about Ed to resist both of these extremities.