As author and medico, Dr Oliver Sacks would have preferred "more ophthalmology,
more detail and less romance," in the film At First Sight, but all in all, he’s
happy with the result. Based on real events described in his book, To See and Not See, the
film reinvents the real people with characters played by Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino.
"I had no say on casting the actors," observes Dr Sacks, a quietly eloquent,
low key sort of man with grey hair and beard, a rounded voice and a brilliant mind. We
meet in a swank hotel room in Sydney – far too large for a conversation between two
people – his sneakers, cream trousers and white shirt somewhat at odds with the
upbeat ambiance of the room. (Room courtesy UIP, the film’s distributors and Hotel
"Do we have the right to call blind people
Using his expressive, sculpted hands, Dr Sacks tries to describe the indescribable
– the experience of first gaining sight after growing up blind. (Not him, but his
patients…) This is the focus of the film: what happens to Virgil (Kilmer) when his
new girlfriend May (Sorvino) encourages him to try a new operation and it is successful in
giving him sight for the first time.
The real Virgil and real May (both older than the characters in the film) apparently
enjoyed the film’s Los Angeles premiere, and as Dr Sacks says, they weren’t the
subject of the film so much as the incident. And the difficulties that this sort of
experience brings with it.
Instead of the expected whoops of joy, the newly sighted man finds the world confusing,
frightening – and unrecognisable. His eyes may see, but his brain hasn’t learnt
to translate what he sees. Consequently, he can’t tell between his dog and his cat,
his sister or his girlfriend… faces are a blur, distance and perspective don’t
The rarity of this experience doesn’t lessen its importance and relevance, says Dr
Sacks. In a way it raises fundamental issues about human nature. What is health? What is
identity? "Do we have the right to call blind people defective? All sighted people
naturally assume that blind people have a lesser experience and need sight to be happy.
But that’s not necessarily so."
"a different centre"
He recalls a woman friend once describing the difference between deaf or blind people
as having "a different centre".
Dr Sacks worked with a colleague once who was colourblind. "I kept prodding him
and asking what he thought colour may be and how he imagined them. After a while to stop
me pestering me he turned round and asked if I’d like to have X ray vision. I thought
about it, thinking of looking at people as skeletons, and I said no thanks, I’m happy
as I am. And he said, likewise."
Another friend, who was deaf (with whom Dr Sacks deals more than with the blind) wrote
a book titled Let Me Be Deaf. "You could just delete the word ‘deaf’ –
that’s the thing."
Happiness is not always equal to what we individually think is standard or normal.
Trying to impose even such gifts as our senses on those who are missing one or other of
them is not always the way to their happiness.
"Gaining sight later creates massive complications
But as technology advances and we can give Virgil sight, Dr Sacks wonders whether
enough preparation was undertaken. "He should have been better prepared. There should
have been more discussion…there should be a whole team to help someone in that
situation if they do want to try…it’s a very different thing if you go blind
after your brain has learnt see, than if you never did see. Gaining sight later creates
massive complications …"
In At First Sight, we see what these are; and Kilmer "worked very hard," says
Dr Sacks, "to try and imagine what it would be like first to be blind, then to be
agostic (the term used for those with his condition). In fact I used to think he was a bit
of a snob on set because he never seemed to take note of me unless I went very close to
him. But then I discovered he was wearing opaque contact lenses and couldn’t see