It was a blind street vendor in Santiago who first told filmmaker Maria Teresa Larrain that her next project would be autobiographical. The Chilean-Canadian documentarian had come to film on the Alameda, Santiago's main avenue, where blind vendors supplement meagre disability pensions by selling toys, clothes and even hardware from makeshift stalls. One of them told her that he would only appear in her film if she did.
"I said, 'Why? I am not blind.' Not yet, I thought, not yet. But he said, 'If you are not blind, why do you carry that little cane?' I was still in denial. And then he said, 'You were sighted. You come from the world of the sighted, when you come to us, people will follow you.'"
The vendor had seen through Larrain's subterfuges: She had left behind the world of the sighted and was travelling ever deeper into that of the blind. Nine years ago, when she started tentatively making the film that would become Shadow Girl, she could still see the freshness of footage shot in the Alameda and edit using powerful magnifying glasses.
Today, a year after she launched the film, she perceives only light, colours and deconstructed shapes, which she describes as looking like things are melting into each other. She has become a paradoxical artist, a blind filmmaker committed to creating images she can no longer see.
"I made this film out of desperation," she said during a recent interview in her Toronto apartment, where she lives when not visiting Santiago. "If I was not an artist, I don't know how I would have gone through this. 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 film making."
Shadow Girl, which was produced by Storyline Entertainment and will be broadcast on CBC's Documentary channel throughout the summer, is full of traditionally filmed scenes with the blind street vendors and conversations with Larrain in Santiago and in Toronto, but it also includes other images – sharp shadows, blurred faces, refracted light, sparkling reflections and a black dot blocking a kaleidoscopic background – as the film seeks to reproduce the filmmaker's sight.
Larrain suffers from hereditary macular degeneration and degenerative myopia; her mother eventually lost all her sight and used to complain that her vision got worse during her 10 pregnancies. Of Larrain's eight surviving siblings, only one brother has similar problems, but his sight has recently improved and he still drives. When her mother died at 95, she knew her son might eventually lose his sight, but Larrain herself had never told the old woman that her middle-aged daughter was almost blind.
Most of Larrain's family remains in Chile, but she was forced to leave during the brutal years of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. She had studied drama and was finishing law school in the mid-1970s when Salvador Allende was overthrown and Pinochet came to power. Her husband was a civil-rights lawyer and her own name was, at one point, on a list of political dissidents fingered by other students. The couple lost many friends and they left for Canada in 1976.
She initially settled in Regina, where they had friends, and where she worked in a legal-aid clinic, but when her marriage broke up, she moved to Toronto with her son. She ran an organization for immigrant women for several years before she enrolled in the radio and television program at Ryerson University and began to make documentaries. She has concentrated on social-justice issues – prior to Shadow Girl, her most recent film was the 2007 doc Besieged Land, about an Indigenous land dispute in Chile – but she also performed as a tango dancer and worked for a period in the 1990s as an artist's model.
It was a film she made about that experience, Dolores: The Art of Art Modelling (2000), that convinced her that she had to move resolutely in front of the camera as she approached the topic of blindness. She now regrets Dolores, a love story about narcissism that told its tale through images of the models' bodies (including hers), because she feels she hid behind other characters when she should merely have told her own story: It was as though in avoiding narcissism, she had became trapped in dishonesty.
So, the words of the blind street vendor hit home.
"I was pitying myself; I was victimizing myself and I hated that," she says of that period when she first had to accept that she was losing her sight. "But I said, this is part of the process. I had better accept it; I had better take the whole thing, even if I don't [appear] in a good light.
"And," she continues, "I make a distinction between being a victim and talking about pain."
Larrain figures that as a Chilean, she is more comfortable with that task than many Canadians; Chile has such a sorrowful modern history.
"In Canada, you want to be more polite, more accepted. … People don't want to go into it. In Chile, we look into pain because we have been through pain as a culture. But so has Canada! Native people have gone through pain, poor people also."
Larrain, who returned for a period to live with relatives in Chile when she first began losing her sight, had encountered the street vendors in Santiago and introduced herself. During a visit from a Canadian friend who wanted to make a doc about Chilean filmmakers in exile, she agreed to participate if he came with her to the Alameda and brought his camera.
"It wasn't really a decision I made; I didn't say I am going to make a film and I am going to be in it," she recalls. "I just wanted to be with the blind street vendors. In Canada, I didn't know any blind people."
The footage they got that day persuaded Larrain to apply to a Chilean film fund for money and to return again to the street, where she met Guillermo Sepulveda, the vendor who told her that her film was about herself.
And so, Larrain's adaptation to her gradual loss of vision – you are always training and retraining, she says – became also a process of readapting her medium. She asked her director of photography, Daniel Grant, and another DOP, Nick Wilson, to help with her attempts to replicate her shifting vision on screen, playing with prisms to create what she recalls as a fist of colours or experimenting with reflections in the back of a spoon. "This could be quite beautiful … I said I am not blind, I am seeing things. It is just a different way of seeing."
Eventually, she came to shoot with her directors of photography – Grant in Canada; Arnaldo Rodriguez in Chile – describing to her exactly what they saw in the viewfinder. She trained them to describe images in detail rather than relying on vague terms like foggy or hazy. She says her vision changes all the time – she can see better on sunnier days but bright light can also blind her – and she points out that the street vendors in the film all have different vision; one sees though a fog; another lacks an optical nerve and has no sight at all; a third can see only through the corner of one eye.
At a festival screening of Shadow Girl in Santiago, interpreters described the imagery for the vendors; afterward, Larrain called them up on stage to share in the applause. But she sensed that they were all standing facing in different directions, not looking out at the audience that was greeting them, so she gathered everybody together and they all helped each other face the right way. Larrain's own training includes making "eye contact" by turning her head toward a person's voice, thus avoiding the blank look that betrays that blindness the sighted can find so disconcerting. Sepulveda, who insisted Larrain appear in her own film, had also said: "If you had known us before, you would never have wanted to get to know us."
"People pass by them; you become invisible," Larrain explains. "People see the cane, they don't see me."
For a long time, Larrain believed that Shadow Girl would be her last film; she says so in the film itself. She took it to several international festivals last year, and toured it around Chile on a community circuit that brings films to schools, hospitals and cultural centres; she hopes it might be screened the same way in Canada.
The filmmaker, meanwhile, is working toward a master's in disability studies at Ryerson – she is interested in how an aging society is going to define normalcy – but she is also planning her next film. Beyond the Shadows will be an accessible interactive Web documentary in which blind people describe their sight and discuss disability; Larrain was in Spain this week pitching the new project at the Docs Barcelona festival.
Still, she confesses: "I don't know how much beyond the shadows I am … I have accepted who I am now, but will I accept total darkness?"
Shadow Girl airs on CBC's Documentary channel June 17, July 29 and Aug. 8 (cbc.ca/documentarychannel).