Filmfest Kansas City movies see with better eyes.

None So Blind 

Filmfest Kansas City movies see with better eyes.

A hoary old movie cliché -- blindness as both affliction and metaphor -- is in the midst of a comeback that would make Bette Davis proud: Dancer in the Dark won Best Film and Best Actress honors at Cannes, positing Bjork as the going-blind factory worker Selma, whose son is similarly cursed (see review on page 37). And this year's Filmfest Kansas City, opening October 6, finds blindness figuring in no less than three films: Lovers on the Bridge, in which Juliette Binoche slowly loses her sight; The Silence from Iran, with a 10-year-old blind boy as its plucky little hero; and A Time to Dance, Ian Brownell's documentary about Norma Canner, a pioneer in dance therapy for disabled children -- a film coproduced by the local not-for-profit Accessible Arts. Housed on the campus of the State School for the Blind in Kansas City, Kansas, Accessible Arts' mission is to incorporate arts education into existing disability programs.

Canner, who is now in her 80s, began her career in New York. Affiliated with the left-wing theater movement, she scored with bit parts on Broadway and a role in Mark Blitzstein's post-Cradle Will Rock show, No For an Answer. What started as an acting hiatus turned into a whole new career -- conducting dance therapy with disabled people. Her style was an outgrowth of creative dance, which she says was aggressively antichoreography. "It was all about improvisation. With children with cerebral palsy, who were usually incredibly intelligent, we worked with breathing and in minute movements -- 'Feel that breath in your body.' With adolescents, though, structure was helpful in getting them to create a movement, remember it, and then reproduce it."

The film is a mix of talking heads and valuable footage from the 1960s that shows Canner working with the blind, the mentally retarded, and "neurotic adults." One segment is from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and was filmed the day of Bobby Kennedy's assassination -- a little boy seems to have absorbed the violence of the day, wishing to turn his musical prop into an ax "to chop up people." It's an eerie twist to Canner's motto: "There is no failure. Just being involved is a success." But didn't she find some of the work frustrating? "I'm sure I did," she says. "But most of the time, I had to learn what to accept and what not to expect. For good or bad, it was always real."

Canner and Brownell will be in Kansas City to introduce A Time to Dance on the day of the Filmfest's opening at Cinemark Palace. Films with the most buzz prior to the weeklong festival? Two Family House, which won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival; Water Drops on Burning Rock, a May-December romance between two men that comes from a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; and Bookwars, Jason Rosette's highly praised documentary about those ubiquitous used-book peddlers along New York's sidewalks, whose wares lately are heavily skewed with vintage pornography. Other names to look for include Tobe Hooper, James Earl Jones, and this band you may have heard of called The Beatles, whose A Hard Day's Night gets the prime Saturday-night spot.

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