Features

Seeing with Detective Antoine

Antoine is playful, intelligent and blind. His story animates Laura Bari’s new EyeSteel documentary

Antoine, dir. Laura Bari (2009)

A heartbeat pounds like an African drum in the darkness. Guided by his hands and ears, a five-year-old boy named Antoine finds the windows inside a closed room and unfurls the blinds. Instantly, light erases the darkness within those four walls as well as his imagination. Antoine eagerly touches the windowpane, which separates him from the outside world he craves to explore.

“Souvenirs,” he whispers in French into a microphone as he punches a Braille typewriter. “I remember when I was in my mother’s belly, and I remember when I was in the incubator as well.” After a pause, Antoine announces, “I don’t remember anymore.” Instead, he begins to list his “non-memories” starting with his retina detaching because too much oxygen was pumped into his incubator. So, his eyes, he explains, ended up on his fingertips, ears, nose and mouth which altogether allow Antoine to search for the “thread” that connects all his ideas, both real and imagined…

Laura Bari had been a college professor in child education for 15 years when she was assigned to supervise students at École Saint- Enfant-Jésus de Montréal in the city’s multicultural Plateau community. This class was a little different in that it included a number of handicapped children. At gym, she discovered a blind five-year-old boy of Vietnamese descent looking sad among the deaf children playing basketball. The Argentinean-born filmmaker experienced a “frisson” that compelled her to approach the child. “Hey you!” she asked in her Spanish-tinged French, “Why do you have such an unhappy face?” He answered, “because I want to play the walking stilts game.”

After the boy introduced himself as Antoine, he took his teacher’s hand and dashed across the gym, then with his teacher’s help fearlessly grabbed the stilts and walked on them. “He fell,” recalls Bari, “but stood up, again…and again. Obviously, he was enjoying hearing the sound he was creating with his own little steps.” In that moment, Bari was inspired to make a film about this “blind, little human being who was able to run with so much determination.”

Antoine proved extraordinary to Bari given the circumstances of his birth. The child was born one hundred days premature. The majority of such infants suffer mental or physical handicaps, but Antoine was an exception. He was “only” blind, a result of receiving too much oxygen in his incubator at the age of three months. Everything else with Antoine, including his cognitive abilities, was intact.

When Bari met him, Antoine was five, that magical age when a child’s identity takes shape. She had wanted to explore the role of imagination on early identity, and found the right subject in Antoine. She recalls that a key question emerged: “how does Antoine construct his imaginary worlds without being able to see?”

“I was attracted by his strong personality,” Bari recalls of the day she first saw Antoine in the gym. “That was evident right away. I was in front of a tremendous force of life, like a little, strong and thin gold shaft of wheat, who shines without any doubts.”

Bari also liked the backdrop of the progressive, mixed handicapped and nonhandicapped classroom of Antoine’s. She immediately wrote the school and proposed the film, then met with the teachers and Antoine’s parents. Remarkably, there was little resistance, though boundaries were set concerning access to Antoine. Bari agreed with Antoine’s parents and teachers that the boy would not talk to her during school hours. Instead, two or three days a month were devoted to shooting with him.

Antoine, dir. Laura Bari (2009)

“Using the Arts, I proposed different hypothetical situations,” she recalls, “and eventually we settled on the private eye game” which freed Antoine’s imagination. Even though English is not her native tongue, Bari’s academic background colours her conversations as she explains: “Formulating a hypothesis allowed him to validate or invalidate his procedures. For instance, Antoine would imagine that a woman has ‘disappeared’ in the rain which he heard falling, so he would ‘follow’ a drop of rain. That not only allowed him to learn something about rainfall and water cycles, but also encouraged him to socialize in a new way by enlisting two collaborators in his detective search game.”

Indeed, Detective Antoine explores the world driven by a curiousity that only a young child can possess. Bari’s film succeeds in taking us into Antoine’s real and imaginary worlds by allowing us to eavesdrop on his private thoughts. However, at times, those glimpses are too fleeting and random to make an impression, and the film lacks an overall shape. Then again, Bari’s intent is to paint a portrait of an extraordinary child and not weave a narrative.

For young Antoine himself, being on camera was pure fun. That joy imbues the entire film. “He was so proud to have a microphone and so excited to hear himself on his headphones that he wore them even during school time (which was forbidden). Often, he would whisper into the little microphone, ‘Laura, can you hear me?’”

Antoine brushes the smooth, brown skin of a horse inside a barn. “Fear,” he reminds himself. He’s now tickling the keys of an electric piano to weave a plaintive melody. “I was afraid, very afraid,” he confides in his microphone. As a remedy, he heads out the door and announces to his father, “I am off on a mission…”

“Clue number 20-102—the snow,” Detective Antoine reports from inside a car covered in a film of freshly fallen snow like a womb. The car travels to a park where the detective taps a hollow metal sculpture and feels its irregular shape. He has cast off his fear and “sees” the world around him with his fingertips, ears and mouth again. He runs across the snow, calls his friends on a cell phone and pretends to drive a car through the snowy environs of suburban Montreal. He’s six now, he announces with pride.

Before embarking on two years of shooting, Bari established a post-production plan. The key was to cover all “aspects of a person” including the cognitive, the socio-affective, the psycho-motricity (body movements), plus language and expression. In other words, Antoine playing, thinking, speaking, and moving both indoors and out.

Bari stuck to strict filmmaking rules that resemble von Trier’s Dogma 95 Manifesto: no voice-overs, no artificial light, no footage of herself and the use of only one handheld HD camera. She planned how the camera was used with Antoine and he helped design the sound.

The finished film is true verité and fly on- the-wall reminiscent of the Maysles brothers. Antoine is a welcome change from today’s first-person docs, which smother the viewer with the subject’s inner thoughts and commentaries.

Although this approach serves Antoine well, there isn’t enough of Antoine’s family in the film to paint a fuller picture of the boy’s life. His parents are peripheral figures who enter and exit the film briefly. Though they are undoubtedly a major influence in Antoine’s life, they remain an enigma. We don’t know how they cope with Antoine’s blindness, how they came to this country from Vietnam, or how they related to their child. Bari wishes she had more access to their home, but explains that “his parents are very shy and busy.” Tellingly, Bari reveals that “Antoine was like a little king. He decides everything, and parents follow.”

Antoine and a classmate crawl inside some large concrete pipes on a street. “Water,” he philosophizes, “flows in the pipes of the houses and in the cities.” Antoine’s fingertips then glide along the rough-edged wall of a building, then across the drawing of a face he has painted with one hand leading the brush hand around the sheet of paper. Seeing with his fingers, Antoine draws the eyes.

“Water flows everywhere,” he whispers like some mysterious haiku, “all over the world.”