"Blindsight" starts with voices and a black screen, voices discussing part of a high mountain climb that would be scary if we could see what was going on and feels downright terrifying because we can't. The people in "Blindsight," however, are not scared, not scared at all.
Directed by the gifted Lucy Walker, "Blindsight" is a documentary about what happens when six blind Tibetan teenagers set out to climb one of the highest mountains in the world. If this sounds like a heartening story, it is, but to describe it that way is to sell it seriously short. For this documentary turns out to be a complex drama about differing values and definitions of success, exploring the limits of transcendence as well as the transcending of limits.
The climber we encounter in the opening sequence is American Erik Weihenmayer, who in 2001 became the first blind mountaineer to summit Mt. Everest. That feat fascinated Sabriye Tenberken, herself a formidably accomplished blind person. She founded the first school for the blind in Tibet through her Braille Without Borders organization.
Because many Tibetan Buddhists believe that children become blind as a punishment for misdeeds in a previous life, these kids have an especially hard time in their country, as a scene in which a bystander curses them to "eat your father's corpse" demonstrates.
Since Tenberken's goal with her Braille Without Borders school is to give her students confidence in themselves, she wrote to Weihenmayer after his climb. He wrote back with the proposal to bring his climbing team to Lhasa and accompany six of the school's teenagers as they attempted to ascend 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri, the mountain next door to Everest.
Walker was the best choice to document this journey. For one thing, her first film, "Devil's Playground," and its examination of how Amish teenagers react when confronted with the outside world, showed her to be both curious and fearless. Plus, it turns out she is herself blind in one eye.
The first part of "Blindsight" focuses on the teenagers who will be making the trip. The one with the most unusual story turns out to be Tashi, a street kid who was sold by his Chinese parents to individuals who turned him out to beg and confiscated the proceeds. Then comes the climb itself, beautifully shot by cinematographer Petr Cikhart, who records the scenery as well as the conflicts that start to bedevil the team as the climbers progress.
Not only was tension present because of the considerable physical dangers, including altitude sickness, but also because of differing attitudes and perceptions among team members that surface as the kids go higher and higher.
On the one side are the Western climbers, who are completely devoted to the kids but at the same time zealously focused on getting to the top, period, end of story.
Educator Tenberken, on the other hand, not only worries about the children and about what a mishap would mean for her program, but about whether being too goal-oriented is really in tune with who these children are and what they need. To see how these conflicts play out, to see how both sides came to realize that they had unexpected things to learn from these remarkable young people, is where "Blindsight" really makes its mark.
"Blindsight." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. In limited release.