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Portland Filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky On Her Latest Documentaries


Irene Taylor Brodsky and the individuals from her film "Open Your Eyes."

Irene Taylor Brodsky and the individuals from her film "Open Your Eyes."

Irene Taylor Brodsky

Irene Taylor Brodsky has made a number of award-winning documentaries, ranging from “Hear and Now,” which followed her deaf parents as they heard for the first time after cochlear implants, to “Saving Pelican 895,” which tracked the rescue of a single pelican from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Now, Brodsky has two very different films coming out in quick succession. The first, “Open Your Eyes,” is about a blind Nepali couple who see for the first time after unexpected cataract treatment. It screens at the Portland International Film Festival on Sunday at 3:30 pm and airs on HBO on July 18 at 7:30 pm.

The second, “Beware the Slenderman,” tells the story of two 12-year-old girls who attacked their friend after being inspired by the horror meme of Slender Man. The film premieres at South By Southwest in March and will air later this year on HBO.

Here are edited highlights from Irene Taylor Brodsky’s conversation with OPB’s Aaron Scott.

Until the cataract surgery that filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky follows in "Open Your Eyes," Manisara had never seen her granddaughter.

Until the cataract surgery that filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky follows in "Open Your Eyes," Manisara had never seen her granddaughter.

Irene Taylor Brodsky

On why she decided to make “Open Your Eyes”
I would not have made the film if it weren’t for this couple [Manisara and Durga]. I was just taking a week for myself in this one particular region of Nepal when I was there a couple years ago, and I happened to be with a bunch of eye-care workers who basically comb the mountainside looking for people who are candidates for cataract surgery.

In Nepal, you’d be stunned to see how blind people become from cataracts simply because they don’t know or they aren’t willing or their [families] aren’t able to take them down to a hospital. The couple in my film lived about a six-hour hike and a two-hour drive from a hospital that could radically change their life. I was filming a little bit in the beginning, and then about five minutes into the conversation, I kicked into gear. I was like “wow, this is actually a film,” and I just stopped what I was doing and followed them on this journey.

On how her first documentary, “Hear and Now,” about her deaf parents hearing for the first time after receiving cochlear implants, affected her approach to making “Open Your Eyes”
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for transformation. As a storyteller, any time something jumps out at me as potentially transformative, I think there’s something to be said — I think there’s a film to be made.

On her approach to filming the blind
I didn’t realize it at the time, but really there was no boundary for me. I could have the camera right up in their face — I mean literally two feet from their nose. The funny thing was once I started filming them with their sight, there was a little bit more of a startle reflex. The mother said “oh, little sister, you’re so close!” And it was so lovely because then I started to realize what a privilege it had been for the first two days to be able to be so close. I mean, you can count the wrinkles in their face.

On dealing with their emotions
I really had no expectations for what their reactions would be once they got the bandages off. Of course, I knew they’d be happy. What I wasn’t prepared for was really what they were remarking on was their own body. They just hold their hands up in front of their eyes, and they can’t believe how many more wrinkles they had than the last time they looked at their hands, which was probably 15 or 20 years earlier. You see the old personalities come back that were underneath this subdued, perhaps clinically depressed, affect that they had developed from their debilitating blindness. You see that so much of our joy in life does come from our senses.

The movie poster for "Beware the Slenderman"

The movie poster for "Beware the Slenderman"

Irene Taylor Brodsky

On what inspired her to make “Beware the Slenderman”
For several months I had been very interested in researching a film on the brain and the digital age and sort of how our brains are adapting. I just got a “New York Times” link to one story, and it was just a little blurb, about these two 12-year-old girls. They’d never been in trouble with the law. They’d never been in trouble at school. In fact, one of them was in the gifted program. And they were found to have almost killed their best friend because they were enthralled with Slenderman.

I just thought there’s probably a lot going on in these families that none of us know about. But the real question of the film is the ability we give our kids to access the Internet. We give them this key to the Internet, and they can get to the basement in like three clicks. So how much as a society can we hold them responsible for what they find? And they found Slenderman. And a lot of young kids have found Slenderman; he’s like a religion to some kids.

On the origins of Slenderman
Slenderman is a fictional character. He was born on the Internet in a Photoshop contest on a website called Creepy Pasta, which is sort of a horror fan website. And the challenge was to create a new horror figure.

Slenderman is a tall, faceless man who is always wearing a black suit. So really, Slenderman can be whatever your worst fear is. I think children are sort of enthralled by him, because they’re scared of him, and they know he kills children, but he’s also kind of a guardian angel. For children who are isolated, bullied, or really living their lives online, I think he can have a very complicated and attractive pull. And these kids were attracted to him.

On how the incident at the center of “Beware the Slenderman” has impacted her as a parent
Oddly my takeaway was that I can’t police everything, and I can’t control what my child’s going to see on the Internet fully. This film has actually been great for me and my kids because we talk about Slenderman at the dinner table now, and that it could be us; it could be someone we know. So it’s important to go and talk to your friends or your peers or your parents if you’re not sure about something.

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