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"you Don't Need Sight--Just Vision": The Story of a Blind Filmmaker

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Voice of the Nation's Blind, March 1, 2005.

Can a blind person be a film director? After all, doesn't one really need sight in order to look through a camera lens? Directors typically analyze a scene visually, and then they instruct the actors on where to stand, how much body language is needed, and other actions that seem to require sight.

But Australia's Tony Sarre, whose vision deteriorated from 60 percent to 3 percent "within a three-month period" from retinitis pigmentosa when he was 16, doesn't buy the notion that a film director must have sight, despite the lack of encouragement from one of his professors in film school, who told Tony that he would not make it without sight in the film industry. In 1999, Tony proved that professor wrong.

A little more than 20 years ago, a doctor told Tony that he would be totally blind someday. Unfortunately, his high school teachers were of little help, and Tony decided to drop out of school. Luckily, Tony met Ron Anderson, a Western Australia Association for the Blind worker. Ron encouraged Tony to perform to his utmost potential.

He trained Tony in tandem cycling, a sport in which Tony has excelled. In fact, he is ranked in the top four in Australia in tandem cycling. Tony also mastered Tae Kwan Do, becoming a black belt in the sport. At the age of 19, Tony decided to travel the world, beginning with his home country. Armed with his white cane, he hitchhiked around Australia, where he worked as a fruit picker, a kitchen hand, a cattle driver, and other positions involving physical labour. He also climbed "Uluru", the world's largest monolith.

After he had explored his home country, he backpacked through England, the mainland of Europe, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia. Soon after returning to Western Australia, he enrolled in a media degree program at Murdoch University, where he majored in film and Asian studies.

In 1999, while accompanying his English wife, Sue, on a film shoot for a class she was taking, Tony realized that he was taking over the shoot himself. He found that he had a talent for figuring out the right camera angles and for improving the narrative in his mind. He also had a knack for relaying the information from his head to the film crew. Tony was hooked; he changed his major to screen production and never looked back.

That same year he wrote and directed the short film, Black Dance, which was nominated for six awards and won the prize for Best Script at the 1999 Multimedia Festival. In 2000, he wrote and directed the short documentary, Miles to Go, which was nominated for Best Editing at the Western Australia Screen Awards ceremony.

In 2001, he completed his "most ambitious project to date". This task included a trip to East Timor, which resulted in the ten-minute documentary, Through Other People's Eyes.

This short film was meant to be a part of a much larger project, but Tony relates how he realized that his vision had deteriorated even more; with his vision now at just one percent, he was almost totally blind. The further loss of his vision broke his confidence, and as a result he kept his film projects smaller until he felt capable of approaching larger projects.

Tony's trepidation about his blindness caused him to enter a period of severe depression.

It wasn't long, however, before Tony decided not to let his blindness hinder his success as a filmmaker. In 2001, he was involved in the creation of a half-hour program, entitled Chung Wa (which means "middle way" in Chinese) for a community television station. The show was sponsored by and completed with the involvement of the Chinese community in Perth.

In 2002, Tony worked in the Public Relations department at the Association for the Blind of Western Australia. He wrote and directed two advertisements, entitled Dog's Big Day Out and Pass the Puppy. Both of these advertisements were screened on a commercial television station.

In 2002, Tony moved to a different department of the organization, becoming a script consultant and production assistant for the 20-minute video, Off the Side Lines. This corporate video was produced to encourage inclusive sports and recreation opportunities for blind students.

In early 2004, Tony became part of a team involved in developing the Inclusive Filmmaking Project. This project involves a series of workshops designed to enable disabled people to learn about the various aspects of filmmaking, including writing, directing and cinematography.

Two of Tony's films were recently screened at the inaugural international disability film festival, called The Other Film Festival, which was held in Melbourne in early December, 2004.

Currently, Tony is working on a script for a short film, which will be the true story of a blind hitchhiker who finds himself stranded at a deserted roadhouse in the middle of the Nullabore plain. Baking hot by day and freezing cold at night, the hitchhiker is a castaway in an ocean of desert, with few possessions besides his white cane. This plot sounds like a scene from a movie, and indeed it will be, but it also mirrors an experience Tony had while he himself was hitchhiking through Australia.

To some, the idea of a blind filmmaker sounds as bizarre as a deaf music conductor, a six-foot-three jockey or a colour-blind painter. But Tony Sarre is proving that blindness is not a hindrance to doing what you dream. Before Beethoven, most people probably assumed that the ability to hear was a prerequisite to composing great symphonies, but we all know how that story goes.

Tony hopes that The Other Film Festival will push people with all disabilities to pursue their dreams of "making it" in the film business. With Tony as a role model, perhaps other blind people who are interested in film will realize that it definitely can be done, with or without sight, as long as you have a vision.

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