TV Eye

Surviving High School Sightless

Chas Demus, a student at the Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired, is featured in the documentary <i>The Eyes 
of Me</i>, premiering March 2 on KLRU.
Chas Demus, a student at the Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired, is featured in the documentary The Eyes of Me, premiering March 2 on KLRU.

Promotional materials describe The Eyes of Me as "an extraordinary look at four blind teenagers," but it is the teenagers featured in this film who seem extraordinary. It's hard enough to be a teenager, but to be blind as well? That takes a special kind of determination and courage.

Filmed at the Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired in Austin over the course of a typical year, the next film in the PBS Independent Lens series features four students at various stages in their lives. Some have been blind since childhood; some are newly blind after a sighted life. In addition to learning how to cope with their blindness, they must cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood with all the challenges, fears, and boneheaded missteps that befall any teenager.

Filmmaker Keith Maitland, a University of Texas alum, has selected four very different and intriguing subjects for The Eyes of Me. Newly 17, Chas is more than ready to leave the residential high school and seek the independent living his age allows him. When the film begins, he's scored a small apartment he shares with a roommate and quickly sets up his ministudio to work on his lifelong passion: hip-hop poetry (the title of the film is taken from one of his pieces). But Chas ruefully discovers that independence is not all smooth sailing. The adorable Denise, from the Dallas area, comes from a loving, supporting family, but life for the 15-year-old at her old high school was traumatic. Teased and shunned, she sank into a depression. Moving to Austin to complete her high school years marks a huge emotional challenge for her and her family, but one that seems tailor-made for the shy girl ready to release her inner butterfly. As class valedictorian, Meagan is poised and ready to enter college, no matter what obstacles stand in her way. If there's a tragic situation in Maitland's film, it would be that of Isaac, a Paris, Texas, native. The newly blind freshman lost his sight due to a detached retina. The reason? The health insurance his grandparents and guardians had signed up for had not gone into effect at the time of his injury, and Isaac was refused treatment.

What makes The Eyes of Me stand apart from other documentaries is its use of digital rotoscopic animation. This type of animation is best described as a tracing of live-action footage, frame by frame, to give a graphic quality to the final moving images. (Examples of the technique that resembles what is seen in The Eyes of Me include the Charles Schwab "Talk to Chuck" commercials on TV and the Richard Linklater films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly). The shift from live-action to animation is seamless and works best when Chas or Isaac are talking about the transition from being sighted to how they now experience the world in blindness. Although visually interesting, the animation is not used all that often, and when it is used elsewhere in the film, it seems a shade gimmicky and unnecessary. But the animation is not the reason to view The Eyes of Me. It's the concurrent stories of four young people discovering a new vision of themselves as they approach adulthood that ultimately keep your interest.

In addition to its premiere on KLRU, The Eyes of Me will screen Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 7pm at the Austin City Limits Studio (Studio 4D on the fourth floor of the Communication Building on the University of Texas campus, on the corner of Guadalupe and Dean Keeton). Following the screening, a discussion of the film will occur with filmmaker Maitland, producer Patrick Floyd, and Chas Demus and Meagan McComic (two students featured in the film). Lisa McWilliams, executive director of the Mobile Film School, will moderate. The event is free and open to the public.

The Eyes of Me airs Tuesday, March 2, at 9pm on PBS.


Follow TV Eye on Twitter: @ChronicleTVEye.

E-mail Belinda Acosta at tveye@austinchronicle.com.

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