Director: Tuna Tunaboylu
Running time: 23mins
Any art stunt worth its while walks an ethical tightrope – it comes with the territory. You might have the best will in the world, but the nature of a stunt with pre-defined barriers means that, whenever the arbitrary end-date comes, you can go ‘back to normal’ – or your comfortable, personal definition of reality – while those your stunt was designed to raise awareness of do not. You also run the risk of ‘making it all about you’ – deploying the real struggles of other people to gain public notoriety, or to provide yourself with a personal learning experience that makes you ‘a better person’ – and in a world where that is what a great many people want, more often than not this is where a majority of art stunts plummet from the high wire.
Art student Tuna Tunaboylu admirably faces all these criticisms head-on, and though he might not have an entirely satisfactory answer for all of them, he does at least try. By some miracle, in I Closed My Eyes, he just about pulls off the ethical balancing act of the art stunt – and he does it all literally blindfolded.
The film centres on Tuna’s decision to live for 30 days without vision. The seed of the idea was planted one day when the Amsterdam-based director was riding the metro, and saw a young woman with a cane striding confidently off the carriage, and down the platform. The moment is recreated in a vivid animation sequence – the style is striking, and it is a shame there is not a little more of it used throughout, as it would provide a nice visual contrast to the dingey interior of student apartments where the camera spends most of its time. Thinking back on it, Tuna was unsure he could have done that himself – and so he decided to see what life would be like if he were to suddenly lose the sense which he is perhaps most dependent on in his vocation.
To begin with then, this act does seem to fall into the self-centred part of the art stunt spectrum. We have initially established blindness as a kind of challenge, which our protagonist is going to measure his talents against. With Tunaboylu having also directed and edited the film, I would be lying if I didn’t have concerns that the unfolding story would be geared toward justifying or absolving this initial approach to blindness. Happily, this is not the case.
First, talking heads from Tuna’s school are regularly included – and some of them politely allude toward ideas that he has always been fond of attention, and that they suspect he might be using the stunt as a cynical attempt at obtaining it. These discussions are not resolved; and nor should they be. Even after the project evolves in different directions, it would be just as cynical to pretend these questions simply don’t apply.
Second, and most important, Tuna does make contact with someone who has had to adapt to life without vision. At the mid-point of the film, it has become a real concern that this will not happen – especially after the somewhat tone-deaf assertion of one of Tuna’s teachers that when you suddenly become blind that can be “quite an experience,” before asserting “nobody knows how the mind will react” to that. Well, there are plenty of people who can tell you they very much do know how their mind reacted.
As it happens, it does not seem like Tuna actually planned to ask anyone living with visual impairments their experiences. A chance meeting with a woman named Anouschka changes that, thankfully. After Tuna bumps into her friend in a snack bar, she is only too happy to give her thoughts on the project, as well as what learning to live without sight has been like for her.
Unfortunately, the questions she has been fed seem to point more heavily to whether she is in favour of Tuna’s experiment (she thinks it’s a great idea) – but she still gives small insights into her own experience, like the lengthy process of learning to cook, and the help she received from friends and social organisations along the way.
This does bring up some questions when it comes to the life Tuna lives during his 30 days in a blindfold. We don’t see an awful lot of how he gets through his daily tasks, besides riding on public transport, and feeding himself. Perhaps it might have been nice to couple Anouschka’s insights with Tuna adjusting to the kitchen without his sight? At the same time, what about his hygiene routines? Did he wash with the blindfold on? He must have washed beneath it because when he finally takes it off, his eyes are pretty clean. At the same time, we see all this traveling, but never get an understanding of where he is going. How do things go for him there? Is the location’s accessibility actually accommodating of the visually impaired?
This aside, the traveling is important in its own right, especially for a student. When you still occupy that cosy academic bubble, you operate in spheres that are slightly aloof from the rest of the world: you’re either on campus, or surrounded by friends – both of which can see you sheltered by some lofty ideals that don’t always exist elsewhere. The commute between those places often serves as the chief public sphere, where you encounter ‘the real world.’
In this case, Tuna finds that people are extremely kind and helpful; sometimes to a fault. Because they can see his cane and blindfold, they look to support him – asking him how his day is, if he needs a seat, and at one point, even disregarding his friend riding the tube without a ticket. This last point sets Tuna’s mind to work, as the woman sitting behind him does the same thing, but receives a fine. But who is to say what difficulties she might be facing? After all, does someone fare dodge when they don’t actually need to?
This is probably the most important takeaway from Tuna’s experiences. People are inherently good natured and supportive – but they are also raised with prejudices which blindside them to each other’s problems. If someone does not have a visible disability, we often assume that they have been dealt the same hand as us – and condemn them for not playing it as well as us. We need to take a step back and think about our biases on that front – and to try to reach a point of understanding and accommodation with everyone.
Whether this is a lesson you should need to performatively blind yourself to learn is up for debate. And the performative element of the stunt is what ends up taking hold for the climactic sequence of the movie. You can determine for yourself whether – like some of Tuna’s classmates – it overshadows any message regarding living with a sensory impairment in modern society. But for what it’s worth, whatever Tuna’s initial intents, I think it is worth noting his willingness to include critique of his work within his work. He begins the film simply viewing this as a frivolous challenge, but ends in a more reflective mood on how he approaches other people. That is important, because it serves as the biggest prompt in the film – we should take Tuna’s lead, and reflect on our own attitudes to disabilities, health and mental health, in how we interact with other people.
I Closed My Eyes is a solid piece of artistic self-reflection: it is not myopically geared toward teaching its creator to be a better person, but rather looks to encourage its audience to look at themselves, and try to be kinder. I can’t see a problem with that.