“The Home for Blind Women” is the title of a short documentary motion picture about a home for women who are blind (go figure!). Established near Windsor, Ontario, the home since the 1950s was well known for a particular style of blankets. Made by the women residents, each was a masterful, artistic creation and became a valued and prized collector’s item. The blanket-making also served as a front for the REAL activities of the women (very few of whom were, in fact, actually blind): operating a house of “ill repute”!

Little wonder that a brothel, such as this was, should fall under provincial investigation. The film includes actual footage of the residence, shot in the 1950s by a government cinematographer and recently unearthed in the Ontario Social Services archives. Central to the film are interviews with two of the former residents, now living in a subsidized retirement home in London, Ontario.

The deception of the House of Blind Women was an attempt by these women to survive during extremely difficult times — the depression — and demonstrates the “ingenuity of the powerless in arousing the benevolent instincts of those with power to help them,” explains the film’s notes.

What’s more, after you wrap your head around this hoax, you may discover that the actors portraying the fake-blind women are, in real life, blind!

“I loved the idea of subverting an inspirational story,” says first-time director Sandra Kybartas about her film.

The actors loved the subversion as well. “People who are blind rarely act with sighted people,” says Kybartas. “They tend to be ghettoized, and the material for them, if there ever is any given to them by the mainstream, is always ’sensitive’ material. It’s never going to be funny, it’s never going to be irreverent. They are sick of that; they are sick of the lack of self-irony on the entire subject.”

Kybartas came up with the idea while taking a professional development course at the Canadian Film Centre. An accomplished film designer, she was encouraged and assisted in this direction by her colleagues from previous films she had worked on, including “Camilla.” For one of the exercises, she drew on a play by Raymond Carver for inspiration. “It’s about a man who’s blind who teaches a seeing man how to see.”

This turned out to be natural material for her to draw from for the final film proposal, which would be one of only six to be accepted for production. “I had this fascination for blindness, because it’s self-referencing film material, since it’s about seeing,” she explains.

She turned to long-time friend and colleague Barbara Nichol for assistance with the script, which had to fit into a 15-to-20-minute framework. “Barbara has one of the most brilliant, fertile, talented brains around.” Nichol has also been nominated for an Emmy.

It was Nichol who came up with the idea of a “home for blind women,” where the women weren’t actually blind. It took off from there.

Kybartas was soon meeting with public relations personnel at the CNIB who put her in contact with some women who were blind. From there, the story evolved further. “I realized as I wasloo k at the faces of these women I was meeting, that these were the faces of my film. REAL
faces.”

Eventually, 18 women were brought together for a reading, though Kybartas was warned that this could be her ” Waterloo … because they get really touchy about the portrayal of blindness in films. If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t back it up.” She wasn’t sure what to expect, but by the end of the reading, everyone was giggling, and full approval was given.

The film brought with it some interesting challenges, not the least of which was inventing how the blankets were to look and how they were made.

For other members of the crew, this film turned ingrained practices upside down; the costume designer had to resist the temptation to colour-coordinate, “because it’s a subsidized home, in this case — most of the clothes would be donated.” The production designer had to create a place that didn’t exist; and the cinematographer had to forgo good lighting and good cinematography. “He had to play the part of a cinematographer who was there for a day, worked for the government, wasn’t very good, was fed up with his job, wasn’t prepared and had neither the technical skills nor support.”

Although the film was turned down by the Toronto International Film Festival, it received the Gold Spire Award at the San Francisco Film Festival for Best Film Under 15 Minutes, Drama or Comedy. Kybartas believes in “The Home for Blind Women.” She knows it goes beyond just
another film that plays a trick on the audience.

“I know it’s a really good film, because it comes from some basis of absolute bedrock truth and it comes from love. It comes from a real enchantment with these women, and who they are, and their ability to live. They’re a great success at living, and that’s what makes it successful.”

And Kybartas got more out of making this film than just a great first-time directing experience: “I had never known any people who were blind in my life. These people didn’t seem to me to have a disability in any way.”

The encounter with these women was very revealing for her. She realized that life is a series of “firsts” for them that will continue to happen all their lives because they are open to it.

“I expected everyone deep down inside to be unhappy, but it just isn’t so. They’re really funny and they make blind jokes… [because] this doesn’t matter to them. Life is life.”

For more information about “The Home for Blind Women,” contact the Canadian Film Centre, 2489 Bayview Ave., North York, ON M2L 1A8; tel.: (416) 445-1446; fax: (416) 445-9481.

(Kate George is a freelance writer living in Toronto, Ontario.)