Gay Director Rodney Evans Hid His Vision Loss for Years. Now He’s Made a Movie About It.

The award-winning filmmaker's new documentary, "Vision Portraits," chronicles the lives and creative paths of four visually impaired artists.

Filmmaker Rodney Evans focused his lens on the experience of gay black American men and culture in 2013’s The Happy Sad and in his assured 2004 feature debut, Brother to Brother, which starred a pre-Marvel Anthony Mackie as a gay college student who learns of the Harlem Renaissance and its queer figureheads through a homeless elderly man (via black-and-white flashbacks to those golden literary days).

However, at the same time Evans was writing Brother to Brother, he realized his eyesight was literally starting to narrow. This was due to retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that causes the loss of peripheral vision as the retina deteriorates and, eventually, blindness. After years of trying to conceal his visual impairment, fearing it would be a detriment his career, Evans has “come out” with a powerful, deeply personal, award-winning documentary, Vision Portraits.
 

Evans previously bared his truth, coming out to a conservative Jamaican family, in his 1998 short, Close to Home, but in Vision Portraits he also captures others’ stories, profiling three visually impaired artists—HIV-positive photographer John Dugdale, Canadian writer Ryan Knighton, and dancer Kayla Hamilton)—and interspersing the film with his poetry. Evans spoke with NewNowNext about making the movie and whether a last-chance medical procedure he pursued in Berlin has had any effects.

Thanks for being so brave and giving blind people and those going blind a cinematic touchstone, especially artists.

I felt there were no films that gave me that information of how my life would be, and that was the impetus of making this film. My initial work, which culminated in Brother to Brother, was inspired by the lack of black gay representation in cinema. In college I was showed Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied and Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston, and told that was the end of black gay representation in film and media. I thought, Whoah, that’s insane, and I’m not going to sit around and whine about it. I’m going to take that on, because if nobody will make films that reflect my experience then I will do that because that’s absurd. It’s a similar situation with visibility and blindness and the arts. There’s so much fear and stigma attached to disability.

Rodney Evans
Kjerstin Rossi
Rodney Evans.

How have you found people’s reactions since you “came out” as visually impaired?

It’s hard to say. A lot of things are unspoken, right? I was afraid to talk about it for fear of not being hired as a filmmaker or graphic designer, and I’ve been told I’m brave and “thank you for the work you’re doing.” There have been a myriad of reactions, and an unspoken one that’s probably just as strong is, “That’s so sad, Rodney’s going blind, he won’t make any more films,” or “We won’t take the chance of hiring this person—filmmaking is such a visual field.” But those conversations happen behind closed doors, because it would be illegal to say it to my face, but that’s the reality of the film and TV industry in a capitalist structure.

A week before he premiered his film Lucid last year, director Adam Morse admitted that he’s blind due to a mitochondrial disease. Have you learned of more filmmakers and visual artists who are blind since Vision Portraits started playing festivals?

I have not, and I’m curious to see that film. What people usually ask me about is Derek Jarman’s Blue [the late gay U.K. filmmaker and activist made the film while he was going blind from AIDS and only able to see the color blue], but I haven’t seen it yet because I want to experience it on a big screen. It feels like a crime to watch it at home on a computer screen.

John Dugdale in Vision Portraits
John Dugdale
Photographer and Vision Portraits subject John Dugdale.

How does visual impairment affect your ability to conjure images? Does it free you up to go beyond traditional composition and framing?

Well yeah, a huge aspect of the film is expanding the definition of what vision is, from what people typically think of as an ocular experience of absorbing information through your eyes and going through the optic nerve and brain and understanding that image. It’s an intense amalgamation and combination of forces between the ocular and heart and mind, and one’s entire body of experiences and imagination affects how we read images and what we see. That was one of the main themes I wanted to draw out in the film, and I do feel more free to work in a more abstract way where people don’t immediately have to know what an image is. They can be stuck in a moment of confusion, and images can become clearer as time progresses. So the film has loosened me up in terms of aesthetics and how you can push cinematic language.

Podcasts like John Cameron Mitchell’s Homunculus have ushered in a rebirth of aural storytelling. Have you considered making one?

Yeah. I have thought about it, but for now it’s not something I’m actively pursuing because there are movies I want to make. There are stories I can add to in which my visual impairment has a relationship to the impairment of the main character. That would be an asset to the actor to tell the story more authentically. One is based on a memoir about a young woman who is diagnosed with Usher syndrome, which is similar to retinitis—you lose peripheral vision but also lose your hearing at the same time. Another is a script I wrote called Daydream that focuses on openly gay black jazz composer Billy Strayhorn and him living in the shadow of Duke Ellington. Killer Films and SimonSays Entertainment are producers on that, so I’m hoping to shoot in 2020.

Kayla Hamilton in Vision Portraits
Kjerstin Rossi
Dancer and Vision Portraits subject Kayla Hamilton.

You mention your concerns about dating in the film, and how the prospect of being a caretaker could be a turnoff for guys you meet.

Maybe that part of the film has been misinterpreted. I feel super independent and not in need of a caretaker. That’s other people’s misconception of what it would be to date someone visually impaired, that they would need to take care of them. I’m proudly and fully independent, and spent five years making this film, from first penny raised to its opening at the Metrograph in NYC. I think that shows a fierce independence. I don’t feel the need to be taken care of, just to put that very much out there, and I’m wide open to different people and experiences, whether artists in some capacity or academics or people I get along with who see the world in a similar way. I’ve had four dates with someone I find kind and generous and lovely, so we’ll see where that goes. I’m maybe less pessimistic than I was in 2017 while shooting the movie.

Speaking of, in the film you pursue a medical treatment in Berlin with hopes of restoring your sight before it’s completely gone. Has your vision improved since?

There has been a significant improvement, and my peripheral vision has expanded and the signal from optic nerve to brain has strengthened a lot. My retinal doctor in New York says what I did expanded my vision and “good fucking job because we don’t know that technology here, and good on you for seeking it out and improving your vision.” Another indication I’m improving is that he wanted to see me six months later instead of three.

Vision Portraits opens August 9 at New York’s Metrograph and August 23 at Los Angeles’ Laemmle Royal.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.
@LawrenceFerber