Art being subjective, the likelihood that each film released is going to be the latest masterpiece is small. Individuals may certainly feel that way, but, objectively, it’s far less likely. Odds are always on the side of familiar stories being told in a conventional way, even if crafted by a gifted writer, an exceptional director, and a tested cast. Then there’s the diamond in the rough, the film which takes the familiar and shifts the perspective into something unlikely, the proverbial “big swing.” It’s here that writer/director Teemu Nikki and his fifth feature film The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic resides. Having its North American premiere during SXSW 2022, this dramatic thriller does something few stories do and do well: place the audience firmly within the perspective of its lead character. With such a limited scope of observation, each moment is defined solely by the action or reaction of its lead actor, Petri Poikolainen, drawing us in further and further into a tale of love amid a trip gone wrong.
Visually and physically impaired, Jaakko (Poikolainen) alternates between sleeping, eating, smoking weed, and talking on the phone with his girlfriend Sirpka (Marjaana Maijala), whom he’s never met. He’s a homebody mostly because of the way people talk about or to him, their disdain at his existence or coddling toward him more devastating to his psyche than his aggressive multiple sclerosis. When Sirpka tells him some upsetting news regarding her health, Jaakko decides it’s time for them to meet in person, setting out on the three-hour journey to her apartment without his assistant. To do this, he need only rely on the kindness of five strangers, except all it takes is one opportunist to turn a day of joy into unabashed terror.
According to the press notes for The Blind Man, director Nikki and actor Poikolainen are old friends who reconnected and, through that renewed relationship, the idea for this film was born. Poikolainen is, himself, living with the same aggressive MS that Jaakko is, though Nikki insists that the story they present is entirely fictional. What’s fantastic about Nikki’s approach, both in the script and in the cinematography from DP Sari Aaltonen (Nimby), is that the basis for the film served as the catalyst for the perspective of the film rather than the characterization of the characters. Too many films have taken an ableist approach, turning people with disabilities into miraculous heroes or terrible villains, people to be uplifted or vilified, simply because of a disability. Here, Nikki not only avoids all of that by utilizing a documentary-like storytelling style, but Aaltonen almost never shows the audience anything beyond the perspective of Jaakko. Sometimes this presents in the form of blurred edges on the periphery or intense focus on an ear, hand, or back of the head, but not a single shot is further than a tight close-up and very little is clear beyond the center of the frame. This approach places the audience entirely on the locations where Jaakko is focused, while also keeping them within the same area of attention he is within. This also means that the onus for keeping the audience hooked is almost entirely Poikolainen’s performance and, damn, if it’s not one of the best performances I’ve seen this year. Every bit of joy and sorrow, fear and concern, dismay and confidence comes through in all aspects of his physical performance so that Jaakko looks small when overhearing his neighbors and their theories as to why he’s in a wheelchair or grand when laughing on the phone with Sirpka. This directorial approach also ensures that as open as things feel when Jaakko is safe, we, the audience, feel the intensity and terror, the claustrophobia when he is not.
It certainly helps that the script treats Jaakko as a person versus a disability, defining him by his personality strengths and faults, not his physical restraints. If one were to prescribe an identity, it would be cinephile. Based on one scene, Jaakko has a substantial physical media collection, including James Cameron’s Titanic, the very same one referenced in the film title. He calls his attendant by a cinema-related nickname, references various films (favoring John Carpenter quite bit), and has a touching moment with Sirpka via his thoughts on Cameron’s Titanic. What I, personally, enjoy about this character choice as a detail is it also provides, without an awkward exposition dump, a sense of timing regarding how long Jaakko’s been without his eye sight. A preference for early-90s films combined with the lack of Blu-rays in his collection (mentioned by him) implies that Jaakko’s been without sight for more than 20 years or so as it’s been roughly 16 years since the first Blu-ray hit shelves. Between this and showing the audience Jaakko’s morning rituals, it’s clear he’s comfortable within his own space and his body. The drama, then, doesn’t come from some irritation at not being able-bodied, but at the need to rely on others to get from his apartment to another. Intentionally or not, Nikki’s The Blind Man highlights just how much of the world is designed from an ableist POV versus a populist one. Though Jaakko can purchase tickets or call cabs, there’s no one available to assist him in his transportation. This would be fine in a world without opportunistic assholes, yet it’s not, therefore there’s an absence of support where it should be a necessity. Here again, Nikki side-steps the expected by making it Jaakko’s stubbornness to connect with Sirpka sooner and that same stubbornness to go on the trip alone (refusing to postpone until his assistant is available or ask family for help) which create the narrative space for his vulnerability to be taken advantage of. Thus, while there is evil in the world that he is helpless to prevent to a degree, like in any other drama, he’s in the situation because of his personal failings, *not* the disability.
As I write this, the embargo for Matt Reeves’s The Batman has lifted and critics are (mostly) praising the effort. I, myself, enjoyed it quite a bit (drafted this whole review to composer Michael Giacchino’s score) and look forward to seeing it again. Yet, there’s something to be said for a film which dares to be different, which dares to not just explore a different perspective, but use the camera lens to inhabit that perspective. Look for films like Teemu Nikki’s The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic. This isn’t an either/or situation, as there’s plenty of space for both big budget superhero stories and smaller dramas. The point is that, when considering what you’ll explore next, take the time to eschew major studio releases for something smaller. There you’ll see how creativity is tested and where the best stories rise up above the rest. The story within Nikki’s The Blind Man and Poikolainen’s often raw performance will be sticking with me far longer than the question of whether Gotham City is safe.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
* Saturday, March 12th, Screening @ 5:00pm at Alamo Lamar C
* Sunday, March 13th, On-line Screening @ 9:00am
* Tuesday, March 15th, Screening @ 6:15p at Violet Crown Cinema 2
* Tuesday, March 15th, Screening @ 6:45p at Violet Crown Cinema 4
* Friday, March 18th, Screening @ 11:30a at Alamo Lamar C
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.