Bangor woman featured in documentary about beauty, trials of a life without sight

Posted Jan. 17, 2013, at 2:16 p.m.
Michelle Smith is the subject of the documentary film &quotThree Days to See." The film chronicles her life at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass.
Carter F. McCall | BDN
Michelle Smith is the subject of the documentary film "Three Days to See." The film chronicles her life at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass.
Michelle Smith leans in close to her computer screen to read a fan fiction forum she frequents. Michelle is legally blind and the subject of the documentary film &quotThree Days to See."
Carter F. McCall | BDN
Michelle Smith leans in close to her computer screen to read a fan fiction forum she frequents. Michelle is legally blind and the subject of the documentary film "Three Days to See."

BANGOR, Maine — Michelle Smith hunches over, nose nearly touching the glowing laptop screen in front of her. With the text blown up and her eyes inches from the screen, she can make out letters well enough to catch up on her favorite online fan fiction forum, which is based on a former MTV show, “Daria.”

The legally blind 20-year-old, who was raised in Bradford and now lives with her mother in Bangor, said she wishes she could just lay back in bed, relax and read without putting her nose to a screen. She wishes she could look out the window and know what’s going on outside, or that she could gauge the expressions on people’s faces.

Smith’s struggles with severely limited vision and Asperger syndrome are at the center of an in-the-works documentary film exploring what it means to find beauty without vision.

“It’s not about blindness,” Smith said while describing the film Wednesday during an interview at her mother’s home in Bangor. “It’s not about, ‘Oh, you’re blind and you can still do stuff.’ It’s about a girl who happens to be blind.”

The documentary, “Three Days to See,” shares its title with a 1933 essay written by Helen Keller, a famed author and political activist who was left deaf and blind after falling ill as a baby. In the essay, Keller outlines what she would like to do if she were given just three days of sight. She also contemplates the meaning of beauty and urges people who have all their senses to take full advantage and cherish them every day.

“I who am blind can give one hint to those who see — one admonition to those who would make full use of the gift of sight: Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind,” Keller wrote. “And the same method can be applied to other senses. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. Make the most of every sense; glory in all the facets of pleasure and beauty which the world reveals to you through the several means of contact which Nature provides. But of all the senses, I am sure that sight must be the most delightful.”

Keller’s words inspired Garrett Zevgetis, a Boston-based filmmaker and Navy veteran, to give attention to a school just a few miles to the west that he believed hadn’t been put into the spotlight it deserves — the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass.

“I figured there must be so many great stories there on a daily basis,” Zevgetis said.

Three years ago, Zevgetis began visiting the Perkins school to plot out how he might approach a documentary. That’s where he met Smith, who graduated from Perkins this past summer.

During one of his early visits to the 180-plus-year-old school that counts Keller among its alumni, he attended an open mic night and listened to students perform. Smith said she saw Zevgetis sitting alone at the event and went over to introduce herself and see who this newcomer was.

“Michelle stuck out right away,” Zevgetis said. “She’s just a magnetic personality and was something of a star at Perkins.”

That first conversation sparked two years of filming by Zevgetis and producer and cinematographer Jordan Salvatoriello. Smith, who was in her late-teens during filming, became the documentary’s focal point.

Prior to moving to Massachusetts in 2007 to attend Perkins, Smith had gone to public school in Maine. With her impaired vision and struggles with Asperger syndrome, Smith “didn’t fit in,” she said. When Smith was 11, her 5-year-old brother passed away and her parents went through a messy divorce.

“So I asked my mom to go to Perkins, and her first response was to cry because she was sad I was going to be leaving,” Smith said.

When she started at Perkins, she “immediately started making friends and having a lot more success in my schoolwork,” she said.

The cost of tuition at Perkins School for the Blind is covered by a student’s previous school district or the state if that district finds it doesn’t have the resources to adequately fulfill the educational needs of a student with disabilities, according to Perkins spokeswoman Marilyn Rea Beyer. The remainder of attendance costs, such as room and board, are covered through private donations taken in by the nonprofit school. Cost of attendance can range from $50,000 to $250,000 based on an individual student’s needs and what services they require from the school, according to Beyer.

But Perkins didn’t solve all Smith’s struggles and concerns. In the documentary, she grapples with worries about what she’ll do after leaving school and what her future will look like. But her perception of her disabilities also changes.

Smith said that people who watch the finished film likely will see a different Michelle Smith from the one that exists today.

“I was kind of stuck in this idea that I had to run away from the stigmas that were thrown at me,” Smith said. “I had to try to fight them with my own personality by being contrary to what people say about me because of my own disabilities.”

Today, thanks in part to the lessons she learned at Perkins, she said she’s comfortable in her own skin.

During the time of filming, Perkins teacher Jeff Migliozzi taught students about the life and work of Helen Keller. Her words and lessons about finding beauty and light even when it can’t be seen will appear throughout the documentary, according to Zevgetis.

Smith said “people were astonished” when they learned that Keller, in spite of her disabilities, had a beautiful mind that produced deep thoughts about the world around her, which she could neither see nor hear.

She said it’s sometimes frustrating to be compared to well known blind people, such as Keller or Stevie Wonder.

“Not everyone who’s blind is a musical savant; and not everyone who is blind has a beautiful mind like Helen Keller,” she said.

“Whoever you are, you should always be yourself,” Smith said. “The only thing more dangerous than lying to others is lying to yourself.”

Smith said one of the lessons she gleaned from learning about Keller is the power of the written word.

“The written word is just so amazing,” Smith said. “It’s just black text on a white background … but it can convey so much emotion and so much feeling.”

She said she might be interested in pursuing a career in writing or publishing.

The film footage has been captured, but now the project needs funding to move forward with the expensive and time-consuming editing process. The cost of shooting the film, probably between $15,000 and $20,000, came out of the pockets of the crew, according to Zevgetis.

Zevgetis started an account for the project on Kickstarter, a Web-based platform that gives producers of art and technology a place to seek financial pledges from the public to move their projects forward.

On Thursday, the project had 17 days remaining to reach its goal of $20,000. It has passed the halfway point, closing in on $11,000 pledged by 138 backers. The deadline is Sunday, Feb. 3. Zevgetis said most pledges have come from the parents of children with disabilities.

For more information about the documentary or to contribute to its completion, visit its Kickstarter site at www.kickstarter.com/projects/threedaystosee/three-days-to-see.

If the fundraising effort falls short, Zevgetis said he will seek a grant or some other funding source to complete the project.

The documentary also has a Facebook page, under “Three Days to See Documentary.”

Zevgetis said he wants this work to be seen in its final form and that he hopes word about the film will spread and that it will reach its fundraising goal.

“[Michelle] is very special. She has a lot to teach the world,” he said. “Michelle is someone that Bangor should be proud of.”

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