Seeing beyond sight. By Maurizio Pasetti

Maurizio Pasetti, author and screenwriter

A person devoid of sight, or with a serious visual impairment, can use audiovisual language to communicate their relationship with the world and give poetic expression to their inner world, contributing – through their specific modes of perception – to a perspectival innovation in terms both of the structuring of audiovisual language and of the practical, operational aspects of the language itself.
This claim, which may seem paradoxical or even absurd, is based on a real experience, one undergone at first hand, lived through and processed over ten years with the association and production company to which I belong.
My training in the cinema began in 1989, as a sighted person, when I attended Ipotesi Cinema, Ermanno Olmi’s film school in Bassano del Grappa. What made that workshop different from traditional cinema schools was basically the absolute attention to listening to reality in all its manifestations and the concrete practice of cinema, in the sense that cinema, as we were constantly told, is something you learn by living. Through the work of hundreds of participants from all over Italy, these practices have led to the formulation of a method called “Postazione per la Memoria” (PpM) (“Workspace for Memory”). In order to recount authentically and originally it is necessary to have the humility and intelligence to observe reality with all our senses and later to process it, but only after having understood it without prejudice or presumption.
“Workspace for Memory” (PpM) consists of a technique of film-making which eliminates pre-established semiological doctrines. The exploration of reality is attuned to the natural length of the gaze. It results from listening attentively to reality and from carefully examining the filmed material so as to extract from it sequences which are significant and emblematic. The awareness acquired through this observation enables close interaction with the observed world and is the prerequisite for the Shared Listening Technique (TAC – Tecnica dell’Ascolto Condiviso). It is by means of this technique that the observer enters into an avowed and searching relationship with existence, setting up a reciprocity of intentions and emotions. This empathic approach ensures that the interaction between author and reality yields highly significant forms of narration.

My years at Ipotesi Cinema, thanks to the experimental philosophy underpinning it, taught me a number of skills concerning not only the language of cinema but also life on the set and the countless tasks which make it possible: from helping the stage technician or the electricians to the important job of assistant director.
It was also an opportunity to gain a thorough knowledge of editing with the classic moviola which, with the advent of digital, has now been consigned to the museum of industrial archeology, eliminating the need for manual dexterity and tactile sensitivity, so necessary for the task.
During this learning process, adopting the methods I have mentioned, I was given the chance to make fiction films and documentaries. I shall mention three that I am particularly fond of: “L’intero giorno sento rumore di acque” (“All day I hear the sound of water”), shot in Trieste in hangar 26 at Porto Vecchio which contained the household goods of the Istrian profugees, forced to leave their homes as a result of the controversial events of the Second World War; “Silvia” which deals with the difficult relations between mother and daughter in a mountainous region where work and the desire to get on cause tension and suffering in a context of impoverishment and depopulation; “Camuni”, a documentary about two shepherds in the upper Valle Camonica who, on the threshold of the third millennium, still practise alpine pasturage according to the traditional customs and methods.
Audiovisual communication conducted according to the methods outlined above allows everybody, whether neurotypical or with special needs, to seek their own “voice”, and enables people to achieve expression in relation to their specific perceptual condition.
In the video connected to the following link, “Saper ascoltare” (“Knowing how to listen”), I explain how we went from the Ipotesi Cinema experience to the Workspace for Memory method and then the Shared Listening Technique, from which we developed Multisensory Video Literacy (Video AlfabetizzazioneMultisensoriale) which I shall talk about later.
At the centre of everything is LISTENING
After the seminal experience of Ipotesi Cinema, research into and experimentation with audiovisual film language proceeded through Kineo and Kinefilm with the Paduan director, Rodolfo Bisatti, and in time with other very valuable colleagues. 2010 was the year in which our work took a decisive multi-sensory turn, with the making of Rodolfo Bisatti’s film “Voci nel buio” (“Voices in the dark”) for which I was co-screenwriter and assistant director.
This film is a “war story”: one war, in the former Jugoslavia, is evoked; the other is an inner struggle played out in the present-day in the reinforced concrete monolith of Rozzol Melara in Trieste. It is here that Angelo – a former university teacher and founder of an association in support of Jugoslav refugees at the time of the Balcan conflict – decided to abandon his job and his commitments when his son, Giovanni, then aged four, lost his sight after a serious illness. Giovanni is now an intelligent, enterprising adolescent, but suffers as a result of the continuing remorse of his father, who is unable to communicate with him.
Giovanni is played by a boy, Giuseppe Cocevari from Trieste, who really is blind. In our screenplay we had imagined that, in trying to communicate with his father (who works at night and sleeps during the day), Giovanni might make some sound recordings to tell him about his time at school, at the gym, the piano lesson, and his adventures with a female friend. But Giuseppe surprised us by saying that he would prefer to employ a video camera, given that he already used one. This insight set us thinking about the possibility of organizing some workshops in which the so-called disability might serve as a stimulus and provide a prospect of achieving real progress -significant and innovative – in audiovisual language.
These experiences proved important and stimulating, in terms both of group bonding and the practical results achieved. Subsequently we extended the application of Workspace for Memory (PpM) and the Shared Listening Technique by developing a third research path: Multisensory Video Literacy (Video Alfabetizzazione Multisensoriale – VAM).
As the title Multisensory Video Literacy indicates, it is by working through our available senses that we learn the basics of audiovisual and film language. The various codes which make up this language – the visual, the acoustic, sign language through mime and gesture, the linguistic, the rhythmic, the psychological – are studied, interpreted, processed through the modes of perception specific to each person. The sightless person will shape the codes which make up the film language by going beyond the loss of the visual code, and whoever has a sensory deficit (hearing, movement, or another) will act in the same way.
Above all, it is not new – quite the opposite; it is firmly anchored to the past.
We could say that it is a CODE. Code comes from “tree trunk” and we think that VAM is very close to this original meaning. Code like genetic code, the code of a language, machine code, and for us above all (to quote James Hillman) the code of the soul. A code is a shared channel connecting speaker and listener. For our code the crucial reference is the person and the complex, interconnected relations which he or she establishes in society. We are interested in the person in his or her wholeness.
In Multisensory Video Literacy (VAM) the differences and diversities which emerge both within and among individuals are investigated and assessed in their uniqueness and specificity as rich sources of opportunity which a community needs to welcome, consider, learn to know and make the best use of, if it does not want to disintegrate once and for all. Much of the information provided so far is taken from “VAM videoalfabetizzazione multisensoriale istruzioni per l’uso” (“VAM – instructions for use”) by the Kineo team.
VAM is a mutimedia and multisensory workshop which can affect all available artistic techniques, from the audiovisual to the theatre, through events, poetry, painting, sound environments, writing, music, digital arts, photography.
If there is an unsighted person in the group when the VAM workshop is engaged in drafting a screenplay, their specific contribution will be extremely useful because their descriptions of space and gesture will take on a necessary and meaningful form.
Let us look at an example. During one of the workshops organized in Trieste, the participants were asked to remember the sensory details of some of their childhood experiences. Nicola, a young man blind from birth, made a valuable contribution by describing his classroom and desk in this way: “It was a room with very high walls and it smelt of moss, not of mould, which is why it wasn’t so unpleasant. With my fingertips I could feel the well-worn grain of the desk above the wooden bench, I used to trace the marks which had been etched in the wood over a period of years with the tips of biros…”.
While society often looks on specific perceptual conditions as anomalies that need treating, we look on them as precious resources, fundamental to the success of the formative, introspective and artistic process.
VAM is consistent with the spirit of the Charter of Communication Rights, unanimously adopted at the 31st session of the UNESCO General Conference in Paris, 2 November 2001. In the same year, to our great satisfaction, the VAM method was sponsored by UNESCO as one of the most advanced systems developing digital democracy.
The workshops conducted with unsighted or hearing-impaired people, autistic or illiterate children, have taught us the strategic importance of VAM’s audiovisual mediation in the processes of social and linguistic interaction. In fact, the activities are designed jointly for people with and without disabilities. Included in the process of developing this method, progressively honed and enhanced in the course of the VAM workshop sessions, lies my own experience.
Starting in 2015 there was a rapid and unexpected deterioration in the myopia which I had always suffered from, until I was gradually brought to my present condition of low vision, with minimal visual residue. Initially it was obviously a time of depression, feeling that everything I had managed to build up, especially in the areas of teaching and film, had come crashing down. In fact, though, during this first really tough stage, all the interpersonal relations I had forged, all the activities I had engaged in since 2010, proved decisive for my comeback and, above all, essential in clarifying what, in concrete terms, my role and working relations could now be.
In essence, I needed to pass from a theoretical awareness (albeit sympathetic) of the blindness from which our workshop participants suffered, to direct, first-hand experience of what it means to be deprived of sight. Everything I had learnt during our VAM workshops from the information volunteered by course members, and especially the feedback from unsighted people, represented a precious resource of sensory and emotional data crucial to enabling me to continue my audiovisual work. And so I found myself in the role of teacher and pupil at the same time, establishing an empathic relationship and a sort of “perceptual complicity” with the blind participants. This experience has also proved valuable in conducting courses or seminars for teachers, social workers, and communication professionals without specific disabilities.
I expected my work as a screenwriter to be impoverished as a result of my visual deficit, but, in fact, the other senses, especially touch and hearing, have honed my descriptive abilities considerably. Gradually, in my writing, I have tried to render what I “saw” through what I touched and heard. The acoustic and tactile images constituted a new “viewpoint” for what I was recounting.
In my latest cinema venture, in 2018, working on Rodolfo Bisatti’s film “Al Dio Ignoto” (“To the Unknown God”), my contribution as co-screenwriter drew directly upon my specific perceptual experiences. By way of example, I would like to mention one key scene in the film in which it was important for me to rummage around among my tactile memories from childhood. At the beginning of the film, the main female character digs a hole in the garden in order to bury a cake with sixteen candles. What appears to be a pointless action is in fact related to a dramatic event which she had experienced years before. After lowering the cake into the hole, I suggested that it should be covered, not by using the spade to shovel the earth back in, but by picking up the clods and gently refilling the hole by hand. Many viewers later told us that they had experienced an almost physical sense of the smell of the grass and the dampness of the soil which smeared the character’s hands.
The other exceptionally important aspect of film language is the whole question of sound. It is one that interests me and to which I have devoted specific attention. After losing my sight, exploring the world of sound proved really decisive. It was while we were preparing “Al Dio Ignoto” that, thanks to a meeting with Angelo Farina, Professor of Physics and Applied Acoustics at Parma University, I had the opportunity to rediscover Ambisonics, a recording technique known since the 1970s but only recently re-attracting the attention of musicians, sound technicians and cinema people. Ambisonics uses equipment which records full-sphere surround sound at the source, reproducing the spatial properties of the sounds themselves faithfully and naturally.
Another experimental project which I am carrying forward with Kineo, using the Ambisonics technique, is the VAM-Camera AUscura project which we want to recommend to exhibitions, museums, art galleries and scientific and artistic high schools.
VAM-Camera AUscura offers a sensory-perceptive experience which triggers creative introspection through concentrated listening awakened by specifically devised sound compositions broadcast inside a technically modified camera obscura.
By way of winding up this brief overview, I would say that my experience of developing and applying research in the field of Multisensory Video Literacy (VAM) has enabled me not only to get over the grief at losing my sight, but to embark on a fruitful journey of exploration towards further horizons of audiovisual and film language suggested by my current perceptual condition.