Picture This: Ways & Means
"This is excellent work!" Beth Haller, Mediadisdat, Professor of Journalism & New Media, Towson University
From the outset of this project, we wanted to tell Keller’s story from her own point of view. How could we represent Keller in a film? She spoke often in public but her speech was understood only by those who knew her well, and her speeches were always repeated by someone else. Yet on the page, Keller’s views, passions and critiques are perfectly clear, sometimes startlingly direct. To convey her tone, her sometimes biting wit, her passion for justice, and her rhetorical style, we asked the award winning and much respected stage actress Cherry Jones to read Keller’s written testimony straight to camera, and she agreed – insisting it be done without period costume. She is speaking Helen Keller, not being Helen Keller.
“It was so surprising, genuinely refreshing. This work is breaking some boundaries, not only with Keller’s story, but by bringing new life to the genre of the historical documentary!” Anne Marie Stein, Dean, MASS College of Art & Design
Keller’s story in its sentimental versions resonates uneasily with some members of the disability rights community today. We wanted to show Keller in the sometimes unsettling context of her time, but we wanted the contemporary perspective too. To achieve both goals, our onscreen narrator, Howie Seago, a renowned member of the Deaf theater community, tells stories to camera using American Sign Language (ASL – not the same as Keller’s tactile manual alphabet). He helps us include a Deaf perspective on Keller’s life and contested legacy. His voice-over interpreter then continues as our voice-over narration. The initial surprise that viewers feel at this singular device is – just what we intend.
A further challenge remained: making sure the audience never lost sight of the fact that Keller did not receive spoken language or express herself in a typical mode. It’s easy to forget! We developed a palette of visual motifs – the tactile manual alphabet, Braille, other forms of raised print – and we have woven these literally inside the scenes of the live re-enactments, as well as into the archival material. This means there is a lot of (expensive!) animation and graphic design in the program--one of the big finishing fund needs.
The camera loved Keller. The photographic record is vast – but was largely shot for publicity, and the consequence is that the photos have a certain sameness. The same poses repeat again and again through the decades. (In order not to “look blind” – which she and Anne Sullivan felt would have been off-putting at the time – Keller had her damaged eyes replaced with glass eyes, bright, open, and shining.) To offset the repetitive effect of the publicity poses, we designed re-enactments in historical dress and settings with actors portraying people central to Keller’s experience. They speak to camera with images projected over the sets to make it clear that the speakers aren’t “in the past”. They are commentators about the past.
We also enlisted interview subjects with special expertise to guide viewers through this multifarious life: not only academics but people from the disability community. Keller recognized that being a saintly celebrity icon gave her opportunities to do real work that no one else could do. Like Malala Yousafzai today, she turned her difficult circumstances and hunger for learning and justice into a powerful voice demanding change.
Sometimes Keller's rhetoric feels old fashioned, but her goals are not out of date. She appealed to legislators to vote for safety nets that provided more than income assistance. She advocated for desegregated schools and for inclusive job training programs. She demanded human rights for all. It would be up to a later generation to demand civil rights to access and equality for all, including all persons with disabilities.
Our goal in placing Helen Keller in historical context is to show that concepts of the public good can and do change over time, as do the means chosen to achieve it --and their consequences. Keller’s story makes visible how the “civic infrastructure” that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents built – from vocational rehabilitation to Social Security to ADA – came to be, and why.