Although more than a year has passed since La Jolla-raised filmmaker Daniel Jaffe saw his short documentary “Albert” — telling the story of an East Coast man’s transition into blindness as an adult — earn critical acclaim at the Austin Film Festival, the work’s recent public release, unintentionally, it seems, coincides with a much more current occasion: the 10-year anniversary of the hospital stay that ended with Albert Rizzi, the man behind the story, being completely blinded by meningitis.
When asked what the significance was for releasing the film for public viewing in recent weeks — after months of seeking further film festival interest — Jaffe said it just seemed like it was time. A filmmaker can only spend so long hoping, he said, for a work to keep traction among peers before realizing a time for public release has come — before it’s time for a larger audience to offer its critique. “Albert” has already connected with viewers, as it won the Documentary Short Film Audience Award at the 2014 Austin Film Festival.
To Rizzi, who is today still living in blindness but considers himself anything but disabled, the film illustrates Jaffe’s skill as a filmmaker — words that take a new meaning of sorts considering Rizzi has never seen “Albert,” or any of Jaffe’s other works.
“I was totally taken aback by it,” Rizzi said by phone from his East Coast home, where he had just been decorating his home with Christmas lights. “It’s funny. I’ve never seen his work, but I’ve listened to his work, and it’s remarkable, the talent that this young man has. I know I’m gonna see him on the red carpet one day.”
A 2012 film and television graduate of New York University who called La Jolla home in his youth and attended La Jolla High School, Jaffe said he was inspired to do the work initially by a question he asked himself: Being so reliant on vision as a filmmaker, what would happen if something dramatic happened to me, such as losing my sight?
Jaffe, who now lives in New York and has created a handful of other projects selected for viewing at various film festivals, said “Albert” met an intended purpose more than he could recall any of his other projects doing. “I think it did so more effectively than my other work,” he said. “I found myself, every time I sort of re-watched it, sort of moved at certain moments as well. Being a filmmaker and watching your own stuff — it’s so hard. You’re so critical.”
“Albert” was something that from the beginning was based on a “more thought-out” idea, Jaffe said. What the film succeeded in was capturing the essence of an intended idea and answering the questions inspiring the work in the first place.
Roughly 13 minutes long, “Albert” was intended to capture the struggles and strengths displayed by Rizzi following his becoming blind, from the relationships that fell out of his life to new ones forged with those Rizzi described as formerly there for the taking, but never embraced by a man so immersed in a fast New York life.
Recalling a segment of the film he found especially moving, Jaffe said “Albert” illustrated Rizzi’s recognition of his own reality, one in which he — though not living what would often be considered a perfect life — “is incredibly grateful” for the awareness and people his blindness brought to him.
The film explains Rizzi’s amazement at the connections that can be built with those he now sees as the most important in his life despite never having seen them.
In one scene, he recalls a dream he had, and the effect it had on his self-perception, with one figure in the dream whispering, “You’re not blind.”
“It’s really kind of a wild thing,” Jaffe said. “To still see in your dreams — it’s wild.” It took going blind, Rizzi said in the documentary, for him to see more clearly what he had been passing up all along.
“It’s true,” Rizzi said as he described himself as not disabled, but rather provided with a different viewpoint of life he hadn’t experienced before with his eyesight intact. “I always tell people, ‘Don’t diss my ability. I can see. I see very differently than the ‘normal people’ do. Normal is what we make it.”
Dec. 10, the day Rizzi spoke with La Jolla Light, marked 10 years to the day since he was hospitalized with the meningitis that would weeks later leave him blind. A decade into his “eye-blindness,” as he refers to it, Rizzi said he sees with his ears, his heart and his energy.
Although still dealing with the struggles stemming from losing his teaching job due to the condition (eventually having to rely on disability insurance to make ends meet, and years later finding that the advocacy he’s pursued since going blind could actually cause him to lose his disability insurance eligibility) Rizzi has kept in focus his new view of life.
He said he’s learned that in some ways, the new view is superior to the old.
Through the nonprofit organization he founded, My Blind Spot, Rizzi works to advance equal access and promote opportunity for those that are print disabled or visually impaired.
“It’s very interesting,” he said. “I’ve never seen more clearly my entire life as I have since losing my eyesight.”
And that’s the message Jaffe said he hopes viewers of “Albert” take from the film.
“He was a teacher, and they would not let him back,” Jaffe said. “It’s a sad story in a lot of ways. To me, it’s a film about, ‘Look, I still am alive, and I still experience the world.’”
“Albert,” along with Jaffe’s other publicly available works, can be seen on the video-sharing website Vimeo, at vimeo.com/danieljaffe