"Blindsight" has all the conventional trappings of an inspirational documentary. It's about six sightless Chinese and Tibetan teenagers who, in 2004, scaled part of Mount Everest. The movie is about hope and courage and fortitude. It's about beating the odds and defying expectations. But Lucy Walker's movie is also about whether the trip was a good idea in the first place. The answer is compellingly complicated.
The kids are students in Sabriye Tenberken's Braille Without Borders school for the blind. Tenberken, a lauded German writer and adventurer who herself is blind, wanted to reinforce the self-esteem of blind boys and girls, particularly those living in Tibetan culture. In Tibet, she tells us, blindness is a punishment, and the blind are sinners. As an educator, she wanted to dispel that myth. She also wanted to show what the blind are capable of. She invited to the school Erik Weihenmayer, the American who's climbed the Seven Summits, the world's highest mountain peaks, including Everest, in 2001.
The kids clearly found him inspiring. And when Weihenmayer proposed leading them on an expedition up Everest, they said yes. The movie presents the trip as an opportunity of almost Wonka-esque proportions: Practical considerations run a distant second to the possibility for fun and excitement. Unlike Weihenmayer, none of Tenberken's students is a skilled climber. But professional (sighted) outdoorsmen, from England and the United States, accompany them on the trek, and that appears to be where the trouble begins.
The guides don't necessarily agree on what's best for the amateurs. Eventually, the tension among the eventual factions becomes cultural, with Tenbenken unenviably in the middle. Westerners love reaching summits. They feel like they've conquered something. That kind of triumph, she says, isn't so important for Asians. The drama of the film is not simply whether the students will make it up 23,000 feet, but what it will mean if they don't. Weihenmayer sounds like he's more interested in the symbolism of getting to the top. Tenberken, of course, thinks the journey itself is what's important. Arguments, tears, and health problems ensue. And the discourses that emerge from these sorts of differences make for a more bracingly transparent movie. Really, "Blindsight" is a kitchen-sink movie: It doesn't feel as if Walker left anything out.
During the hike, the film cuts away for retrofitted looks at the kids' lives. Without making a second film, there was probably no way to dramatize the climb and profile the climbers without this kind of crosscutting. It's intrusive, but it does give a vivid sense of who Tenberken's students are, where they've come from, and what they're up against. No one seems to have had it as rough as the lovable and volatile 19-year-old Tashi, who was sold to a Chinese family when he was 10 and lived for years on the streets. Crammed amid everything else in this movie is a moving, emotionally complex family reunion.
The film overcomes its crude production values and awkward structuring. It stirs you. It might be so inspirational that it's demoralizing. By the time we reach the "here's what Tenberken and her kids are up to now" epilogue, you're fairly convinced that regardless of what you're doing with your life it's probably not enough.