SXSW Review: Imagine



The aptly titled movie Imagine is about blind people imagining what they cannot see, but it also encourages sighted people to imagine what life is like for the blind.

Set and filmed in Lisbon, Portugal, Polish filmmaker Andrzej Jakimowski's lyrical feature film tells the story of Ian (Edward Hogg), a British spatial orientation instructor who works with blind and visually impaired patients living at a renowned Lisbon clinic. The patients are an international group of children and young adults; Ian's job is to teach them mobility skills and help them gain the confidence to explore their surroundings.

Blind himself, Ian navigates using echolocation, which relies on acoustic echoes to define the positions and sizes of objects. Similar to the way bats and dolphins use ultrasonic sound to navigate, Ian locates obstacles in his path by listening for echoes while clicking his tongue, snapping his fingers and walking in special shoes that create loud footsteps.

From the time he arrives at the clinic, Ian's habits and teaching methods are controversial. The doctor in charge is dismayed when Ian refuses to walk with a cane. Ian also rejects the doctor's traditional practices, preferring free-form instruction that stimulates curiosity and imagination by presenting the world as a series of puzzles and mysteries; by solving them, the students begin to understand how the world works. Above all, Ian encourages exploration rather than instilling fear; this approach also angers the doctor, who -- fearing a scandal that could shut down the clinic -- wants the patients to avoid any possible harm.

When not helping the patients, Ian befriends Eva (Alexandra Maria Lara), a reclusive adult patient from Germany who seldom leaves her room or talks to anyone. As the two work together to help Eva conquer her fears, their relationship hints at romance, although Imagine is far too sophisticated a film to take the romance in any predictable direction.

While a fictional story, Imagine is realistic to the degree that an international cast of blind and visually impaired kids, none professional actors, play the clinic's young patients. Hogg isn't blind, but wears opaque contacts that render him nearly so; he also trained extensively with a blind consultant who has used echolocation since childhood. (Imagine viewers may be surprised to learn that echolocation is real, if very rare.) This realism heightens the film's appeal and impact; parts of it feel like a documentary, especially scenes where the patients struggle with ordinary tasks like pouring glasses of water.

Beyond the realism is a solid and often moving story about the power of imagination as a learning tool for both blind and sighted people. Imagine explores the obvious notion that the blind rely heavily on their other senses to interact with their surroundings. But the film also digs deeper into the patients' psyches, telling us that while lack of sight is an obvious challenge to leading a fulfilling life, self-doubt and fear of the unknown may be much greater challenges. Lack of trust also plays a role; there are many instances when the patients doubt Ian's honesty, suspecting that he actually can see and wondering if he's lying about the wonders beyond the clinic gates.

As Ian, Hogg carries Imagine with a memorable performance that is believable in every physical and psychological detail. Convincingly sightless, Ian is mostly sympathetic; this may be inherent in any blind character. But he's also arrogant and reckless when he crosses the line between helping his patients and putting them in needless danger. In Hogg's capable hands, Ian is well meaning and inspirational, but he's hardly the blind saint we've seen in too many other films. Sometimes he's downright foolish; other times we would call him obnoxious if we didn't a bit guilty about it, for we know his arrogance compensates for frustration (and, ironically, for a hint of self doubt).

Relative to Ian, Eva is an underwritten character. But Lara (best known for playing Hitler's loyal secretary in Downfall) is no less convincing than Hogg, nailing the look and awkward movements of a timid blind woman and fleshing out Eva's personality as best she can. There is much we don't know about Eva, but Lara plays up this mystery to great effect. She's the film's most inspirational character, starting her journey beyond her cloistered existence with help from Ian, but continuing it as if she needs no help from anyone.

As poignant and affecting as Imagine is, it's overly slow at times. The third act takes too long to reach its captivating resolution, making Imagine feel 20 minutes longer than it is. I'd normally forgive this fault in light of the film's many charms. But some earlier moments also are leisurely and oddly paced, and I sensed some restlessness in the audience. Some judicious trimming would make the pacing more bearable.

Pacing aside, Imagine is terrific cinema. Thoughtfully written, unfailingly real and anchored by the bravura of Hogg's performance, the film is a worthwhile look at a world that sighted people often struggle to understand.

Imagine screens at SXSW again at the Violet Crown on Tuesday, March 12 at 6:15 pm and Thursday, March 14 at 10:45 pm.