Braille Monitor                                                    December 2008

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NFB Protests Opening of Blindness in 37 States

by Barbara Pierce

Ed Morman and Ellen Ringlein picket the movie, Blindness.When the NFB announced in late September that we planned to conduct informational pickets at movie theaters across the nation when the Fernando Meirelles adaptation of José Saramago’s 1995 novel, Blindness, opened on October 3, a wave of comment washed across the blindness listservs and into the national press. Of course lots of folks cheered, but we also read lots of comments ranging from Miramax’s condescending expression of “sadness” that we had so misunderstood its high-minded artistic statement of dismay at the crudeness and barbarism of human nature to grumpy dismissals of our outrage as childish tantrums. Many of our critics, particularly those in the blindness community, criticized us for raising the subject only when the film was about to open. These folks had forgotten, if they had ever bothered to learn, that we passed a condemnatory resolution about the plans for this film at our 2007 convention, soon after plans for its production were announced. Miramax completely disregarded our objections at the time and carried on with making the film.

We began making plans to conduct informational pickets on October 3 everywhere we could find space to do so. On September 25 seven members of the national staff went to see a preview screening of the film in Baltimore. When the film ended, a Miramax employee asked if the group had enjoyed the movie. They commented that it was not an experience one was likely to enjoy. She agreed and volunteered that they were promoting it as a horror film. The NFB members agreed that it was indeed pretty horrifying. They went on to point out that its portrayal of blindness was hugely inaccurate, a concept that obviously surprised the young woman.

In fact, the film was exactly what anyone who had read the book might have expected it to be. Clearly efforts to warn the public that the film was damaging to blind people had to go forward.

Affiliate presidents were encouraged to make protest plans. So in seventy-two locations around the nation organizers ordered brochures and picket signs from the national office. Volunteers rounded up sticks and stapled the signs to them so that marchers had something to hold up. We modified the national press release and circulated it to local media so that they would know where to find blind people objecting to being depicted as an allegory for everything that is depraved and base in human nature. The Associated Press published a story on September 30 that was picked up across the country. This is what it said:

Blind Activists Plan Protest of Movie, Blindness
by Ben Nuckols

Blind people quarantined in a mental asylum, attacking each other, soiling themselves, trading sex for food. For Marc Maurer, who's blind, such a scenario—as shown in the movie Blindness—is not a clever allegory for a breakdown in society. Instead it's an offensive and chilling depiction that Maurer fears could undermine efforts to integrate blind people into the mainstream. "The movie portrays blind people as monsters, and I believe it to be a lie," said Maurer, president of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind. "Blindness doesn't turn decent people into monsters."

The organization plans to protest the movie, released by Miramax Films, at seventy-five theaters around the country when it's released Friday. Blind people and their allies will hand out fliers and carry signs. Among the slogans: "I'm not an actor. But I play a blind person in real life." The movie reinforces inaccurate stereotypes, including that the blind cannot care for themselves and are perpetually disoriented, according to the NFB. "We face a 70 percent unemployment rate and other social problems because people don't think we can do anything, and this movie is not going to help—at all," said Christopher Danielsen, a spokesman for the organization.

Blindness director Fernando Meirelles, an Academy Award nominee for City of God, was shooting on location Thursday and unavailable for comment, according to Miramax. The studio released a statement that read, in part, "We are saddened to learn that the National Federation of the Blind plans to protest the film Blindness." The NFB began planning the protests after seven staffers, including Danielsen, attended a screening of the movie in Baltimore last week. The group included three sighted employees. "Everybody was offended," Danielsen said.

Based on the 1995 novel by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, Blindness imagines a mysterious epidemic that causes people to see nothing but fuzzy white light—resulting in a collapse of the social order in an unnamed city. Julianne Moore stars as the wife of an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who loses his sight; she feigns blindness to stay with her husband and eventually leads a revolt of the quarantined patients.

The book was praised for its use of blindness as a metaphor for the lack of clear communication and respect for human dignity in modern society.

Miramax said in its statement that Meirelles had "worked diligently to preserve the intent and resonance of the acclaimed book," which it described as "a courageous parable about the triumph of the human spirit when civilization breaks down."

Maurer will have none of it. "I think that failing to understand each other is a significant problem," he said. "I think that portraying it as associated with blindness is just incorrect."

The protest will include pickets at theaters in at least twenty-one states, some with dozens of participants, timed to coincide with evening showtimes. Maurer said it would be the largest protest in the sixty-eight-year history of the NFB, which has 50,000 members and works to improve blind people's lives through advocacy, education, and other ways.

The film was the opening-night entry at the Cannes Film Festival, where many critics were unimpressed. After Cannes Meirelles retooled the film, removing a voice-over that some critics felt spelled out its themes too explicitly. Meirelles told the Associated Press at Cannes that the film draws parallels to such disasters as Hurricane Katrina, the global food shortage, and the cyclone in Myanmar. "There are different kinds of blindness. There's two billion people that are starving in the world," Meirelles said. "This is happening. It doesn't need a catastrophe. It's happening, and because there isn't an event like Katrina, we don't see."

Miramax is a division of The Walt Disney Company.

Between the AP story and the individual articles in papers across the country covering local protests, hundreds of newspaper articles were published, and more than fifty TV stories aired our position on this film. We are pleased to report that, according to David Germain, AP movie writer, “Miramax's Blindness, featuring Julianne Moore, Danny Glover, and Mark Ruffalo in a nightmare tale about a plague of sightlessness, took in just $2 million, averaging an anemic $1,185 in 1,690 theaters,” during its all-important first weekend. We don’t wish to claim more effectiveness than is justified. Clearly Blindness is an unsuccessful and disturbingly depressing film in its own right, but it can’t hurt that blind people across the country stepped forward to register our anger at being used as an allegory for all that is depraved and base in human nature. Lest you conclude that we are making too much of the implications of this movie, here is an accurate plot summary of the film:

Blindness is based on a novel of the same name by the Portuguese writer José Saramago. The premise of the movie is that unnamed residents of an unnamed city in an unnamed country suddenly and mysteriously become blind. Those who experience the blindness see only a white glare, so the blindness is sometimes called the “white sickness.” The blindness is contagious, and the government immediately quarantines the victims in an abandoned and dilapidated mental asylum, with orders that anyone attempting to leave is to be killed.

The prisoners are given food and supplies, but deliveries are inadequate and become increasingly irregular. The asylum also becomes filthy because the blind inmates, as portrayed in the movie, cannot find their way to the bathroom and simply relieve themselves on the floor or in their own beds. Some of the inmates die from infection or disease or are shot by guards when they try to escape or when they simply become disoriented and wander too close to the fence.

The inmates of Ward One, led by an ophthalmologist’s wife, who can still see but feigns blindness to remain with her husband, fare slightly better than the rest; the implication is that this is solely because she assists the blind, portrayed as being unable to do anything for themselves. As food supplies dwindle, another group of blind inmates whose leader has acquired a gun and dubbed himself “the King of Ward Three” begins to terrorize the others. The armed clique in Ward Three hoards all the food, extorting money and valuables from the other inmates and eventually demanding sex with the women from other wards in exchange for allowing the rest of the inmates to eat. One of the members of this clique who was born blind and is not a victim of the white sickness knows how to read and write Braille and is given the task of taking inventory of the valuables stolen from the other inmates.

When the women from Ward One go to ward three to exchange sex for food, one of them is beaten to death as she is raped. The doctor’s wife later kills the King of Ward Three, but the man who was born blind takes his place as leader of the armed gang and threatens to avenge the king by killing the doctor’s wife. Being blind, however, he is unable to shoot her, and she escapes unharmed. The rest of the inmates finally decide to do battle with the gang in Ward Three; just before the showdown someone sets a pile of bedding alight, starting a fire that soon engulfs the entire asylum. During the ensuing confusion the man who was born blind shoots himself. When the surviving inmates, including the group led by the doctor’s wife, escape the burning asylum, they discover that no soldiers are standing guard and they are free.

Outside the makeshift prison everyone has become blind, and the city has descended into total chaos. No government services or businesses are functioning, and nomadic groups of mostly naked blind people wander through the streets, squatting in abandoned houses and shops for shelter and taking food where they can find it—including in rubbish heaps. There is no electricity or running water, so the streets and buildings of the city are as filthy as the asylum was. Dogs that people used to keep as pets have gone wild and roam in packs, feeding on refuse and human corpses. The home of the doctor and his wife, however, is intact, and their group sets up residence there. The movie ends just as they regain their sight—as suddenly and mysteriously as they had lost it.

We conclude this summary of the October 3 protest with two further documents. The first is a review of the film. The second is a post to an NFB listserv. It is only one of many on this topic, but it does a remarkable job of articulating the views of blind protesters.
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