Driving Blind feels like it's teetering on a precipice. The documentary chronicles two 30-something brothers diagnosed with choroideremia, a degenerative eye disease. They decide to take a road trip from coast to coastincluding a stop in Montanato see the United States before they can't see anything at all. The unknown hasn't happened yet, but it's looming. Still, somehow, this is a light film, mostly because it's heavy-handed about living in the moment and emphasizing the journey over the destination. It shows the brothers, Justin and Tod Purvis, jumping off cliffs together into fresh lakes, walking around old train cars in Anaconda and staring up through a massive grove of redwoods just outside of San Francisco. For a story that relies on the tension of people losing their sight, it spends very little time in metaphorical darkness.
"I saw it as all positive," says director Brian Griffo. "It was an opportunity to create a project that just makes everyone think about appreciating what they have while they have it, no matter what their problem is."
Griffo uses time-lapse video and fast-motion, up-close shots and color editing effects to give the film a slick look. It's not always clear what the brothers are feeling on the inside, but Griffo has created a visual feast to characterize the drama of seeing things for the last time.
"For me it was an awesome opportunity with cinematography," Griffo says. "How do you show two brothers basically losing eyesight at the same time as gaining vision?"
The tone and glossiness of Driving Blind isn't that surprising when you know that Griffo's past camera work isn't in documentary but on television shows like "The Biggest Loser" and "The X-Factor." There's a lot more manufactured drama on those shows than in Driving Blind, but they share both the cinematic sheen and the ultimate hook for audiences: living vicariously through people who apparently get a chance to change their lives for the better.
Griffo, who lives in Los Angeles, heard about the brothers in the summer of 2010 through a mutual friend who regularly did improv in Washington, D.C., with Justin. "Justin had found out he was going to lose his eyesight," Griffo says. "He wanted to do this road trip of a lifetime with his brother, Tod, to see everything they could before they went blind and he said maybe it would be good fodder for a film. It turned out that Tod lived in LA and we had a mutual friend, which was kind of weird, so we got together at a coffee shop and laid down the plans for the film rather hastily."
Within five weeks they had fitted a van with equipment and brought on two of Griffo's friends as a director of photography and an audio mixer. In late August, they began the 12,000-mile trek.
Oddly enough, Driving Blind gives very little background on the brothers' lives before the road trip. We don't know who they love and what they do for work. We don't know what their childhood was like. The absence of these elements is a kind of blind spot for the documentary that manages to do two things, one positive and one negative: It promotes the idea of living in the moment and not thinking about the past. But it also keeps viewers from feeling fully invested in the brothers' plight.
Choroideremia is a rare, inherited disorder that affects only 6,000 people in the countryalmost exclusively men. It begins with night blindness and expands over time from the outer edges of the eye.
"I had never heard of it before this," Griffo says. "It basically has this effect where they lose their eyesight from the outside in, kind of like donut vision. And so that was the ideato travel around the country from the outside in." Though the film is meant to boost awareness about choroideremiathey've raised about $70,000 for research so farthere isn't much in the film about the disease. Griffo says he wanted to keep the documentary visceral rather than informational. We get bits and pieces about choroideremia as the brothers meet up with a few people on the road who are also affected, including a sweet older man who has the disease and whose grandkids have been diagnosed, too.
Action-wise, Montana plays a significant role in the film. At the Rock Creek Lodge the brothers sit with a young woman and get their first, and perhaps last, taste of Rocky Mountain oysters. They also go to West Glacier where they visit some family friends. It's probably the funniest part of the documentary when Justin and Tod knock on the door of the cabin and an old man shows up groggy and without his pants on. Interspersed with those weirder aspects of Montana is the landscape, which Griffo captures magnificently.
"It was definitely one of the most beautiful parts of the road trip," Griffo says.
Griffo calls the end of Driving Blind "the reveal." We see Justin and Tod return home after the road trip and take an eye test to find out how much sight they have left. (Let's just say it's chilling that they didn't take the eye test before the road trip.) Still, "the reveal" isn't quite as interesting as other aspects of the film, like when they travel to Portland, Ore., and experience a sensory deprivation chamber, which digs up some heavy feelings. But the other aspect that gives this film emotion is how Griffo intersperses interviews he did along the way with random people, young and old. He asks them one question: If you knew you were going blind, what would be the last thing you would want to see before everything went dark? The question elicits some answers that seem cheesy and obvious at first, like "a sunset over the ocean." One old man says "the smile of a child." Another says "the face of my wife." But as you hear more answers and think about your own, it all becomes more moving. Of course these answers are obvious.
In some ways, Driving Blind can't possibly match what must have been an incredible adventure for the brothers and the crew. We get to watch them drive across the country, but they are the ones who experience it. If nothing else, it makes you want to drive across the country, too.
"We were a tight bunch," Griffo says. "We didn't have a lot of money but we were sleeping under the stars, we were cooking breakfast in the van. It was pretty rough from a logistical standpoint, but we got into it. It was the time of my life."
For more info visit drivingblindfilm.com or go to Vimeo to watch the film.