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SACKS, DR OLIVER; AT FIRST SIGHT

We think sight and hearing are essential to be able to fully take part in this world; not necessarily so, says Dr Oliver Sacks, whose book was the basis for the film At First Sight. The story raises some profound questions about ‘normal’ life. He talks to ANDREW L. URBAN.

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 InterContinental.)

"Do we have the right to call blind people defective?"

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 exist.

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 much."

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Extract from
To See and Not See
By Dr Oliver Sacks
"Amy had commented in her journal on how even the most obvious connections – visually and logically obvious – had to be learned. Thus, she told us, a few days after the operation "he said that trees didn’t look like anything on earth, but in her entry for October 21, a month after the opeartion, shenoted, "Virgil finally put a tree together – he now knows that the trunk and leaves go together to form a complete unit."

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