Meeting the Eye

By Young Film Critic Archana Nathan

An eye surgeon, an astronomer, a lawyer and a filmmaker had an unusual meeting. The first three happened to be subjects of a film by the filmmaker, but they realized that that wasn’t the only thing they shared in common. There was something else that bound them together – something linked to each of their practices. They were all in the business of looking, or of examining if you prefer, and it was the manner in which they ‘looked’ that linked them together.

Call it his epiphany, farsightedness or simply an interesting experiment, but filmmaker/artist Dryden Goodwin recognized the commonality between these four ways of looking and the result was Unseen: The Lives of Looking, a feature-length film on the art of inspection, screening as part of the Blind Spots programme in IFFR’s Perspectives section. 

Simply put, Goodwin interviews the three others, but in a very specific manner. We don’t see any of their faces. Of course, we hear them talking to Goodwin, and see what they are doing. We even see the materials they work with. But as Goodwin listens to them, he sketches their portraits, and it is here we truly see who Goodwin’s subjects are. "By offering up the whole face, I feel that the sense of discovery is lost. For me, the blueprint of the film is in the way a drawing is made. You begin by sampling details and then, gradually and schematically, you suggest a whole," Goodwin says of his method.

Each of his subjects, we discover, has a dualistic relationship with sight. The eye surgeon looks for a living, and people depend on him to continue to be able to see. Slowly, with a surgical precision identical to that of the surgeon, Goodwin teases out the element of empathy that accompanies the surgeon’s job. 

Incidentally, it was only after the film was completed that the astronomer, surgeon and lawyer finally met

Then, we meet the astronomer. Goodwin’s method is the same. We see him handling, examining and studying rocks. We hear him speak about the search for life on Mars and slowly we grasp the astronomer’s idea of looking too. "I like that sense of the landscape and that sense of uncertainty and discovery," says the astronomer. His idea of looking also involves using the brain to join the missing links, of piecing together a landscape and, most importantly, taking a leap of faith. We have empathy here too – an empathy towards the limits of human intelligence. 

Then comes the human rights lawyer. She deals with the government’s mass surveillance programme, teasing out the ethical dimension of looking. The lawyer’s idea of looking is enveloped in the element of trust. She looks where the client points – another interpretation of empathy, you could say. Goodwin himself indulges in the fourth kind of looking, which involves listening, observing and interpreting.

At no point in the film is looking a simplistic exercise. The viewer too is made aware of his act of looking. Large parts of the film are devoted to indulging the viewer’s eye, drawing it towards the screen and guiding it, with the help of a laser beam.

The artist in Goodwin dictates the filmmaker in him, for it is by means of pen and paper that Goodwin communicates with us. The camera stands over his shoulder and patiently records as he draws, erases and teases out his thesis on the various ways of looking. "Incidentally, it was only after the film was completed that the astronomer, surgeon and lawyer finally met. They were surprised by the many cross-overs in their conceptual thinking," Goodwin explains.