In the dark, Michelle Smith asks her mom to teach her how to light a match. She attempts to bring the flame to the wick, but tells her mom she can’t see it; she says she is scared. The camera blurs the candle in order to emphasize Smith’s blindness. After a while, she successfully lights it.
This scene in Best and Most Beautiful Things previews how Smith, 24, attempts to live independently as a legally blind and autistic woman. The film was directed by Emerson alumnus Garrett Zevgetis, who graduated with a degree in visual and media arts in 2005. The film begins with Smith’s graduation from Perkins School for the Blind and follows her endeavors to experience life in spite of her disabilities.
The idea for the film started at Smith’s school. Kevin Bright, ‘76, vice president and founding director of Emerson Los Angeles, taught a film class at Perkins and had Smith as his student. Zevgetis, who volunteered at Perkins at the same time, was developing a short film on Helen Keller. Bright suggested Zevgetis focus the film on Smith instead, and he later went on to be the film’s executive producer.
“Kevin Bright was the link to every aspect of this,” Consiglio said. “He was so instrumental in this film creatively and, in addition, [financed] this film. We would not be able to do this without him.”
Consiglio and Bright both helped Zevgetis keep the film on focus.
“Every time I wanted to go off for some bigger story on Helen Keller, or blindness in our country, we’d remind ourselves that it is [about] Michelle,” Zevgetis said at the panel. “We were telling this story from Michelle’s perspective.”
To help achieve this, the team made certain scenes appear blurry by adjusting the camera’s focus. This enabled viewers to experience sight like Smith.
Additionally, it shows more complex sides of Smith. For example, it explores Smith’s involvement in the “kink” community. In the movie, Smith said she enjoys role-playing and feels liberated by it.
“People don’t seem to see people with disabilities as being sexual, and, trust me, I am,” Smith said. “I know other blind people, people with autism, people in wheelchairs and all sorts of disabilities who are into kinky things and are sexually active.”
Jeffrey Migliozzi, Smith’s old teacher from Perkins who is also featured in the documentary, deems this an essential part of the documentary.
“I think being able to see Michelle as a whole person, being able to see the sexual side of her, is most important.” Migliozzi said at the panel. “Being able to get the conversation going not just in the film, but [focus on] how Michelle speaks about sex positivity and is not afraid to take that issue head on. It’s a champion for that. The disability community has totally embraced this film.”
Emmett Foss, a junior visual and media arts major, said he agrees with Migliozzi about how the film eradicates stigmas about disabled people through Michelle’s interests.
“Small moments like Michelle talking about her first job, or showing her with her doll collection, or watching cartoons, or in the BDSM community, come together throughout the film to paint a larger picture of her as a human being,” Foss said.
Moreover, Zevgetis hopes this film connects with viewers that feel depressed. He recounted how Amarate, a girl who appears in his film, committed suicide six months ago due to bullying.
“I just want this film, for young people but young women especially, to see this film just to hear Michelle’s message of empowerment and that you are not alone.” Zevgetis said.
A main theme in the movie revolves around Smith’s desire to “unlearn normal.” Her Asperger’s syndrome causes her to be obsessed with hobbies others might find unusual, such as collecting dolls at age 24. Instead of shaming herself or conforming to the “norms,” Smith chooses to accept herself.
“Unlearning normal basically means, ‘Don’t feel like you have to be like everyone else,’” Smith said at the panel. “People like to make that joke and say, ‘Oh, so you think you’re some special snowflake?’” Smith merely responds, “Yes, I am! And so are you!”
Foss said he felt personally impacted by the film.
“As someone who has struggled with Asperger’s syndrome myself, the anxieties presented in the film were familiar to me,” Foss said in an interview. “While my case is not nearly as severe as Michelle’s, I felt I certainly could relate to some of the things she was going through regarding the struggle to find community.”
The film will continue to make appearances at national film festivals until Dec. 9. It will then premiere on PBS’s Independent Lens on Jan. 2.