Blindsight: Docu Set in Himalayas

Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Himalayas, the new documentary “Blindsight” follows the gripping adventure of six Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb the 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. The dangerous journey soon becomes a seemingly impossible challenge–made all the more remarkable by the fact that the teenagers are blind.

At first, it’s easy to dismiss “Blindsight” as yet another docu about disabled children accomplishing extraordinary tasks, like “Spellbound,” a docu about winning spelling bees. And on a certain level, the feature offers a similar nobel account, drawing on the arduous experience of blind Tibetan youngsters helped of American mountaineers to climb the Himalayan peak.

However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that director Lucy Walker has deeper ideas and broader goals on her mind, such as the cultural collision between East and West. Indeed, the deceptively simple “Blindsight” gradually becomes more complex in trading spectacular vistas of cliffs and snowballs for a more resonant study of culture clash.

“Blindsight,” the sophomore feature from Walker, who made an impression with her study of Amish teens, “Devil’s Playground,” begins by introducing the leader, the German-born Sabriye Tenberken, who lost her sight age 12, and runs a school in Lhasa, Tibet, for local blind children with boyfriend Paul Kronenberg, who’s not blind.

The kids’ disability is all the more apparent due to prevalent Tibetan superstitions that being blind is a punishment some for past sins. Indeed, believed by many Tibetans to be possessed by demons, the children are shunned by their parents, scorned by their village, and rejected by society at large.

The kids are rescued by the heroic Tenberken, a blind educator and adventurer who established the first and only school for the blind in Tibet. In 2001, Tenberken wrote to the visually impaired mountain-climber Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to climb Mt. Everest, inviting him to visit her school. Sabriye had earlier read Erik’s book “Touch of the Top of the World,” to the students in the school, and was inspired to get in touch with him following the incredible news of his summit.

In 2004, Erik arrives with an entourage of helpers, determined to get six of Tenberken’s pupils–Sonam Bhumtso, Gyenshen, Dachung, Kyila, Tenzin, and Tashi Pasang–to the top of Mt. Everest’s 23,000-foot neighbour, Lhakpa Ri. At one point, Erik says, “Just because you lose your sight, doesn’t mean you lose your vision,” an ideology shared by the other blind climbers. The resulting 3-week journey is beyond anything any of them could have predicted.

As the small clique climbs and struggles with altitude sickness, bad weather and other harsh conditions, differences of approach, based on varying belief systems, come to the fore. For Tenberken and Kronenberg, it’s the process, the journey itself that matters, not just the goal of reaching the top. In contrast, for Weihenmayer and others, it’s the conviction and commitment that count the most. The clash evokes larger dichotomies, such as values of intellect and indoor, protective education vs. outdoor activities and physical sports. There’s also the question of whether disabled children need an altogether different instructional approach.

Walker refuses to take a clear stance on whether the adventure was rational or even advisable. She sticks to chronicling the thrilling events without passing subjective judgements-sort of let the viewers decide for themselves if the effort was worthy.

Modest and matter-of-fact, Walker demonstrates empathy if not sympathy for Tenberken and Weihenmayer’s approaches, showing candid courage in asking some difficult questions and expecting answers for them, and recording reactions that are more spontaneous (or less guarded) and might not always be utterly flattering.