Seán Crosson reviews Jennifer Redfearn’s inspiring documentary Touch the Light (Tocando la Luz), which had its European premiere at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
Touch the Light is an inspiring, sensitively shot and moving depiction of the lives of three blind women in Cuba. The film had its European premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh in June, where it shared the award for Best International Feature Documentary. Galway was a particularly appropriate location for the European premiere and important for director Jennifer Redfearn as her great-grandmother Sabina Hernon grew up in the Claddagh and emigrated to the United States in the 1920s. The film is dedicated to Sabina’s daughter Margaret, Redfearn’s much loved grandmother, who sadly passed away during the making the film.
Redfearn and producer and DOP Tim Metzger were fortunate to find such extraordinary women for their production, made over a period of three years. While focusing on the three central female subjects, the film also touches upon Cuba’s turbulent history and finds resonances between personal and political struggles, featuring photos and other archive from the Cuban revolution intercut with contemporary commentary from the women depicted. This is particularly evident in the film’s focus on one of its older subjects, Maragarita, who became involved in the revolutionary struggle through her membership of an army battalion of blind recruits and who is now finding her own personal independence after the death of her husband. Metzger and Redfearn have described Margarita as ‘a kindred spirit’ of Redfearn’s grandmother.
The film’s other subjects include Mily, a young black woman who lives at home with her over protective parents and Lis, a talented singer who supports her family through her art, but doubts her own ability. Each is grappling with personal crises as the film develops – Mily wants to marry and have children, but may not be able to do so, while Lis is unsure (despite her obvious talent and success) that she wants to pursue a career as a singer. The film offers no simplistic resolutions to what are complex familial and personal challenges but patiently documents the lives of all three women and their relationships. A particular strength in all of this is that the documentary is largely told from the perspective of each of the blind women featured; it is their voices we hear on the soundtrack (no ‘voice-of-God’ narration here) and it is primarily they who bring us into the various challenges they face in their lives in contemporary Havana.
As well as providing insight into the lives of the women featured and contemporary Cuba, Tough the Light also foregrounds (perhaps surprisingly for a film concerned centrally with blind people) the important place of the cinema today in Cuba. A crucial cultural program that brings the blind community of Havana together is a cinema club for the blind, which screens Cuban films with audio-description. Over the course of Tough the Light, Magarita attends the cinema several times, watching classic Cuban films such as Humberto Solás’ Lucía (1968) and Fernando Pérez’s Clandestinos (1987). Significantly, each film foregrounds the Cuban struggle for independence, a recurring theme within the film itself in its meshing of the personal and political. For Margarita in particular, the cinema provides her with one of the few outlets for independence; as she remarks ‘As a blind person I depend on other people to do many things. But in the cinema, for a moment, I feel completely independent.’
Touch the Light is perhaps all the more important given the changes Cuba is undergoing today; in its rendering of what may well be the final years “Castro’s Cuba”, it is an important documenting of a unique and extraordinary society and its people.
Touch the Light screened on Friday, 10th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)
Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS)