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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Movie Review: 'Blindsight'

June 4, 2008

This documentary about six blind Tibetan teenagers climbing one of
the highest mountains in the world is heartening but also complex and dramatic.
By Kenneth Turan, kenneth.turan@latimes.com
The Los Angeles Times
May 30, 2008

Blindsight" starts with voices and a black screen, voices discussing
part of a high mountain climb that would be scary if we could see
what was going on and feels downright terrifying because we can't.
The people in "Blindsight," however, are not scared, not scared at all.

Directed by the gifted Lucy Walker, "Blindsight" is a documentary
about what happens when six blind Tibetan teenagers set out to climb
one of the highest mountains in the world. If this sounds like a
heartening story, it is, but to describe it that way is to sell it
seriously short. For this documentary turns out to be a complex drama
about differing values and definitions of success, exploring the
limits of transcendence as well as the transcending of limits.

The climber we encounter in the opening sequence is American Erik
Weihenmayer, who in 2001 became the first blind mountaineer to summit
Mt. Everest. That feat fascinated Sabriye Tenberken, herself a
formidably accomplished blind person. She founded the first school
for the blind in Tibet through her Braille Without Borders organization.

Because many Tibetan Buddhists believe that children become blind as
a punishment for misdeeds in a previous life, these kids have an
especially hard time in their country, as a scene in which a
bystander curses them to "eat your father's corpse" demonstrates.

Since Tenberken's goal with her Braille Without Borders school is to
give her students confidence in themselves, she wrote to Weihenmayer
after his climb. He wrote back with the proposal to bring his
climbing team to Lhasa and accompany six of the school's teenagers as
they attempted to ascend 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri, the mountain next
door to Everest.

Walker was the best choice to document this journey. For one thing,
her first film, "Devil's Playground," and its examination of how
Amish teenagers react when confronted with the outside world, showed
her to be both curious and fearless. Plus, it turns out she is
herself blind in one eye.

The first part of "Blindsight" focuses on the teenagers who will be
making the trip. The one with the most unusual story turns out to be
Tashi, a street kid who was sold by his Chinese parents to
individuals who turned him out to beg and confiscated the proceeds.
Then comes the climb itself, beautifully shot by cinematographer Petr
Cikhart, who records the scenery as well as the conflicts that start
to bedevil the team as the climbers progress.

Not only was tension present because of the considerable physical
dangers, including altitude sickness, but also because of differing
attitudes and perceptions among team members that surface as the kids
go higher and higher.

On the one side are the Western climbers, who are completely devoted
to the kids but at the same time zealously focused on getting to the
top, period, end of story.

Educator Tenberken, on the other hand, not only worries about the
children and about what a mishap would mean for her program, but
about whether being too goal-oriented is really in tune with who
these children are and what they need. To see how these conflicts
play out, to see how both sides came to realize that they had
unexpected things to learn from these remarkable young people, is
where "Blindsight" really makes its mark.
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