By Kemberlie Spivey
Australian-born independent filmmaker Patricia Zagarella has been creating documentaries for over ten years and co-produced the Emmy-award winning documentary Baring It All. That film followed fashion photographer David Jay into the worlds of four young breast cancer survivors, exploring their journeys as they were photographed for the SCAR Project. Patricia made her directorial debut with the social issue documentary, Walk Like a Man, which was a critics’ pick in the Herald Sun and The Sydney Morning Herald. Now, she makes her triumphant return with the seven-episode Independent Lens documentary series, Blind Love.
Patricia’s idea to create a documentary about the dating life of the visually impaired was sparked while attending a friend’s wedding (more on that below), and she discovered a new outlook on the unique obstacles blind and low vision people face when looking for a partnership. Blind Love dives into the dating lives of four millennials, by exploring the unexpected challenges of navigating life and creating meaningful relationships as part of the population for whom visual impressions aren’t part of the solution.
The series follows young adults in different cities (New York, Ocala, Florida, Austin, Texas, and Baltimore), all from different backgrounds, and acutely shows how the visually impaired live rich and full lives with the same hopes, dreams, and desires as anyone. Each individual has a unique story to tell, whether it’s connecting to the right people or changing their beliefs on race, or finding the right dance partner, to create a lasting partnership with someone special.
Zagarella connected with me over email about how she got the idea to make this series, the process of finding and working with her stars, what she hopes people take away from this documentary, and, you’ll be interested to know, some updates on how the people featured in the series are all doing now.
Update [July 2020]: Patty emailed us to say, “Solomon proposed to his girlfriend and she said yes. One down, three to go. :)”
Blind Love was amazing. Can you talk a little about how you first found and then worked with the four visually impaired young adults?
It was daunting at first because I only had an idea and knew no one from the visually impaired population, which was a different approach to my past films. With the help of national and local organizations for the visually impaired, and Christine Ha (The Blind Cook) who came on as the project’s Executive Producer, I started getting the word out that I was producing a documentary.
People then started reaching out to me sharing their stories of love and dating. This is how I met Joni and Solomon; I was drawn to both immediately. Joni because of her personality and independence, she knew who she was and was unapologetic about what she wanted.
Solomon on the flip side was not as confident having lost his sight only a few years before and was learning how to navigate life and love as a blind man. Solomon suggested I reach out to Mario, which I did. Mario was dynamic and wanted to participate to educate and dispel myths.
Simon, I met through Achilles International, a running group for people with disabilities, which I joined once I started delving into this world. I became Simon’s guide and during a few runs through Central Park I got to know him; his goals, dreams and desire to meet someone.
After having a conversation at a friend’s wedding, can you talk about why the question, “In a world consumed with physical beauty, was there something sighted people could learn from the blind and visually impaired” popped in your head? (As you said in this article.)
As mentioned, I didn’t know anyone from the visually impaired population. I came to this story after an Ophthalmologist friend told me about how a blind patient and friend of his had met a woman and had fallen in love after years of being single. This simple story sparked an interesting conversation about attraction and raised questions I had never previously considered, namely about attraction. Is attraction different in the absence of sight, and if so, how? And when love strikes, are those relationships deeper because they haven’t been formed on the physical? I wondered if in our world – one consumed with physical beauty and swiping left and right on attractive strangers – was there something sighted people could learn from blind and low vision people?
I had not given any thought to the subject matter prior and it piqued my interest. The conversation from that night and questions it raised kept playing on my mind, so I decided to dive into this unfamiliar world and see what I could learn.
When you put your advertisement and submission link on the national organization that helps the blind to float your doc-series concept, were you expecting such immediate responses?
I placed a call for participants unsure if anyone would respond, so I was pleasantly surprised when many people did; all ages, gender, race and sexual orientation, couples and singles. I discovered a population eager to share their experiences on love and dating – the joys, the heartbreak, the highs and the lows. I realized that I had uncovered an underrepresented group eager to share their story and have their voice heard. At that point, I knew this was a story I needed to tell and a population I wanted to get to know.
What is one thing you personally were surprised by or learned while exploring the lives of these four young adults?
I learned early on that fundamentally there is no difference. The question I set out to answer; is attraction different? It is and it isn’t.
Like sighted people, we’re all attracted to different characteristics, features, personality, voice, etc. It turned out that the universal themes of love and dating would allow me to highlight our similarities rather than our differences. So, I shifted direction from one of exploration to one of observation, and rather than use interview as exposition I focused on the subject’s interactions with their family and friends, which became a more dynamic way of telling this story, of educating and breaking stereotypes.
What perspective do you hope viewers get out of Blind Love, or what discussions do you hope will come of it for audiences?
I hope Blind Love shows how blindness does not define this underrepresented group, it’s one part of the whole but it’s not the whole. I hope people see that the visually impaired live rich and full lives with the same hopes, dreams and desires. They are fully functioning individuals with different abilities. I believe that exposure and understanding have the power to change hearts and minds, so I hope that Blind Love contributes in a small way to integrating this marginalized population into the mainstream. With unemployment at 80% for the visually impaired population, integration into mainstream and the workforce would be a step in the right direction.
The next time you see a blind person, don’t stare or feel sorry for them, go up and ask them a question, you may be surprised how much you have in common.
What do you have coming up next?
I’m producing a feature-length documentary, “The Accidental Activist” about Shamir Sanni, a 24-year-old Pakistani-English Muslim who was outed by 10 Downing Street in 2018 after he blew the whistle on the Brexit campaign for illegal over-spending, changing his life forever. The film delves into issues of identity, family secrecy, and individual privacy within democratic political structures.
Do you keep in touch with your characters and can you give us any updates on how they’re doing in love and life these days?
I’m in regular contact with my characters. Joni is in a relationship and dance remains her passion. She is focusing on West Coast Swing this year.
Solomon is happily in love and working on a job placement venture for the blind and low vision people.
Mario adopted his four foster children; he continues to write music and somehow still finds time to date.
Simon is speed-dating up a storm, he’s finishing his post-graduate studies and is in training for the NYC marathon.
Kemberlie Spivey is a freelance entertainment writer who loves comic books, traveling, and spending time with her family. She has a degree in Broadcast Journalism with a minor in Political Science. In her spare time, she loves watching shows like The Flash, MacGyver, and New Amsterdam.