"Vision is a creation, not a perception," declares New York artist and writer, Hugues de Montalembert, as he shares the manner in which his life and perceptions changed after being blinded by paint thinner during an attack in his apartment in 1978.
Black Sun is not your typical "talking head" documentary. Not even once do we see the film's subject. Rather, first-time director Gary Tarn provides images of people and places that are often hazy, sometimes kaleidoscopic while Hughes de Montalembert narrates his life post-blindness. The result is a fascinating, if sometimes uneven, addition to the genre.
De Montalembert tells us that when he had sight he didn't know any blind people, at least not socially, and asks, "Where are the blind people?" His answer is, "Society has dumped them into a dark pit," and this film pulls the audience into that pit, the mind of a person robbed of sight, though it is not as dark as we would imagine.
De Montalembert existence is not a world of total darkness; he can see light but not shapes or images. As he describes this, the camera creeps through a haze of colours without form, approximating the artist's sensations. In stark detail the artist describes the sensations as his brain tried to compensate for a lost sense. He talks of his brain "taking over...wanting to see images..." until his mind would begin to produce "visions" that seemed real. He could be talking to a person and suddenly disturbing or erotic images would form unbidden; strong images that made normal conversation both bizarre and unsettling.
While de Montalembert continues, Tarn, the director, does his best to put pictures to a blind man's mind and is, for the most part successful. We see a New York street - lamp posts, cars, scaffolding - that seems unordinary to a person with sight, but for a blind man is littered with obstacles and possible danger. We see what the blind can not and de Montalembert draws us into his world, not asking for sympathy, but, as an artist, "creating vision".
Where the film succeeds best is in de Montalembert's anecdotes. He spins tales of the day he suddenly decided to travel alone to Indonesia and takes us along on his sightless journey. He tells of friends confessing secrets that they would have never revealed when he had sight and of a jealous peer who wouldn't have dared to leave his gorgeous wife alone with a man who has vision but feels no threat in a sightless man. "It's a typical male reaction. Blindness equals castration," observes a wry de Montalembert suggesting that nothing could be further from the truth.
There are times when audience members may loose interest, as when de Montalembert talks of quantum physics and Plank theory, and perhaps sections like this could have been excised from the film. However, one could argue that Tarn is to be congratulated for refusing to dumb down the material for his audience. We are treated as intelligent, thoughtful adults.
How do we use our sight? Do most of us forget how valuable it is unless it's taken away? Are there any truly accurate observations or are our senses wholly subjective? When blinded, Hughes de Montalembert talks of "making films in (his) head" and this engaging project expands our perceptions of a mind without sight. Even better, it shows us how one person can not only endure, but flourish in a new reality.
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