Documentary Envisions What the Blind Can Teach the Sighted About Truly Seeing

Garrett Zevgetis met a young woman around whom he felt a dramatic narrative could be built to tell a story about something more than beauty -- something about facing fear, facing down fear and finally of overcoming whatever obstacles life hurls at us.
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"The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart." -- Helen Keller

After making a darkly moving documentary about a military mercenary training camp, Navy vet turned filmmaker Garrett Zevgetis wanted to focus his unblinking lens on something positive for his next project. Exploring the subject of beauty, he stumbled upon the above quote from the woman who has come to symbolize the human capacity to overcome life's most challenging "disabilities" and "disadvantages" -- whether they be blindness or one's own internalized limitations.

As it so happened, Zevgetis lives very near the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, whose most famous pupil was Helen Keller. After volunteering at the school for several months, he met a young woman around whom he felt a dramatic narrative could be built to tell a story about something more than beauty -- something about facing fear, facing down fear and finally of overcoming whatever obstacles life hurls at us.

The work in progress, Three Days to See turns out to be a film about that kind of beauty, he says. As he and his production team seek the funding to complete editing, through a Kickstarter campaign that ends February 3, the film's unlikely heroine, 20-year-old Michelle Smith, is taking her upcoming star turn in stride and with pride as well. Mainly because, as she says in one promotional video clip: "It's not about blindness -- it's about a girl who happens to be blind and happens to have Asperger syndrome. The movie has some good lessons, the main one being that you shouldn't judge people by the way they look. It's also about being passionate about the things you like."

As she told Maine's state newspaper, the Bangor Daily News in her hometown, "Whoever you are, you should always be yourself. The only thing more dangerous than lying to others is lying to yourself."

The coming-of-age film follows her as she's about to graduate from the relative womb of Perkins and take her first precarious steps into an independent life, dealing with her troubled past, confronting her innermost fears and eventually recognizing her own inner strength. As of now, she is living in Bangor at home with Mom and considering a future in writing or publishing after college. That alone is a huge step for a legally blind person who, statistics suggest, could have a blank screen for her future; up to 75 percent of legally blind Americans are unemployed, according to the American Federation of the Blind.

Director Zevgetis traces the origins of his own metamorphosis from military man to moviemaker to a chance listen to a Miles Davis track on NPR radio. The instrumental was from the jazz trumpeter's 1959 album "Kind of Blue," regarded by many critics as the greatest jazz album of all time and Davis's masterpiece. Sitting in his car, Zevgetis was suddenly overwhelmed by such emotion that this former crusty squid shed a tear.

It was his bolt.

"If music without words can speak so deeply to a guy like me, then all the arts can inspire everyone to feel something very strong and do something greater and beyond themselves," he vividly recalls thinking.

The direction of his life changed: Now he wanted to join the brigade of activists working for civil rights by showing what we all have in common rather than what separates us. He gravitated to the documentary film form interning at the Boston PBS station's Frontline, where the show creator David Fanning gave him the credo by which he works: "Narrative journalism is the high calling."

The film project has garnered the enthusiastic support of the American Foundation for the Blind, the Asperger Women's Association and the National Braille Press, the last of which sponsored rewards for Kickstarter backers. Braille Design, of Jonesboro, Arkansas, donated custom bracelets for backers who donate $250. For those who contribute $2,000 to the campaign, the Charles Hotel, a AAA Four Diamond in Cambridge, Massachusetts, contributed three one-night stays, including dinner for two at Henrietta's Table and cocktails served by director Zevgetis himself, who happens to hold down a job there as a bartender.

Their generosity is being matched by others in perhaps smaller financial ways but with large shares of heart. Like from the mother who lost her seven-year-old son, who with four other moms facing family health challenges or loss sent a pledge with this note: "Thank you for the opportunity from all of us who make a pledge that celebrates meaning in our lives."

The film title comes from an essay Keller wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in 1933, "Three Days to See." In it she imagines what she would want to see if she had sight for just three days. She invites people with sight to imagine themselves in the same situation and concludes, "Your eyes would touch and embrace every object that came within your range of vision. Then, at last, you would really see, and a new world of beauty would open itself before you." She suggests if everyone could maintain that level of appreciation to every moment of life, what a wonderful world this would indeed be.

This sentiment was poignantly echoed in an English gentleman's note to Garrett's Facebook page: "Hi Garrett, you don't know me but I saw your appeal and donated what I could. I lost my sight two years ago and I really feel for those who have never had the privilege of sight and those who have sight but don't see."

For more by Perry Garfinkel, click here.