Filmmaker Interview with Director Stefano Levi

OUT OF THE DARKNESS, Production Still

More than half of the world’s preventable blindness is caused by cataract disease, a clouding of the clear lens of the eye. In developing countries like Nepal, it is not only a personal tragedy, but can devastate the economy of entire communities. Fortunately, it is also easy to cure. Cataract surgery is one of the most effective medical interventions on earth, but until recently was considered too expensive to provide to the rural poor. Most of the world’s blind people live in remote, impoverished areas. The majority of doctors able to cure them work in cities.

Dr. Sanduk Ruit from Nepal, and his American partner, Dr. Geoff Tabin, have made perfecting a portable low cost surgical procedure to restore sight their life‘s work. OUT OF THE DARKNESS follows them as they trek to Nepal’s remote Northeast, carrying an entire hospital on porters’ backs. Their mission: bring the needlessly blind out of the darkness.

OUT OF THE DARKNESS will be featured on SIMA RAMA May 7–14, 2017. Join The Club.

Director Stefano Levi, in Nepal shooting OUT OF THE DARKNESS

What motivated you to make this film?

[Stefano Levi] In 2007 I had the opportunity to join one of the Cataract Outreach Programs organized by Dr. Ruit as a documentary photographer. That one experience had impressed me beyond my imagination. I witnessed blind people regain their sight thanks to a simple, single procedure that costs $25 and only lasts 5 minutes.

The emotions I felt when the bandages were removed and the blind could see again, were beyond what I could capture with still photography.

Understanding all the elements connected with the humanitarian program and the tremendous impact on thousands of lives and the local economy made me realize that the story had to reach a broader audience. This is when I decided that a documentary would probably be the better way of transmitting these emotions to the audience. “Out of the Darkness” was my debut film.

OUT OF THE DARKNESS, Production Still with Dr. Geoff Tabin

Any recent developments on the project or characters?

The Himalayan Cataract Project (Cureblindness.org) is the humanitarian organization founded by the protagonists Dr. Tabin and Dr. Ruit. They have helped over 600,000 people regaining their sight over the last 15 years. The NGO has been recently nominated as one of the 8 semi-finalists for a 100 Million Grant by the MacArthur Foundation that aims to solve a substantial problem of our times (www.100andchange.org). Now more than ever the organization needs support from donors and volunteers to step change their impact and provide a global solution to the problem of avoidable blindness.

What do you want audiences to take away after watching your film?

A journey into a world they don’t know, and the awareness of how much we are capable of with a clear mind and determination. I hope the film inspires people to realize how lucky we are and that it does not take much to make a huge difference in the world.

Director Stefano Levi, in Nepal shooting OUT OF THE DARKNESS

What are a few memorable experiences you had while making this film?

On the most crucial day–the last day of the camp–we didn’t have any protagonists yet. On top of that I was very, very sick and had to leave the team to go lie down after severe nausea and illness. My assistant director took over and I remember following what the team was doing and giving instructions by walkie-talkie. Then suddenly she informed me about a young Girl, Sangeeta, almost blind and very cute. I asked her to describe her to me. She also happened to live right next to the camp. My intuition said: that’s it, and I told Lisa: “OK go for her”. The core images of the story were taken in just a few hours. When it all came together, it was a magical moment.

Looking back–

This film pushed the whole team to the limits–to the extent that we were happy to make it home with the material and without any physical injuries. There is one scene that I wanted to include in the film, where the cameraman falls on a set of stairs, risking to drop several hundred meters. That was me. I’m happy to be alive.

OUT OF THE DARKNESS, Production Still

How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post–is your story what you thought it would be?

After we started walking in the mountains, already on the first day, we understood that the film–as originally planned–would not be possible. I had to rethink the script completely in order to make something out of it. We also could not find the protagonists that we envisioned until the very last moment, but miraculously, it all came together at last — wonderfully.

OUT OF THE DARKNESS, Production Still

What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process?

All of it. I love images and I like the process of creation. I find all the elements and parts that make a film fascinating.

First there is nothing, then there is the spark of the idea, and a great challenge comes upon you: How can I make that happen?

What did you shoot on?

We used two lightweight Panasonic P2 cameras that allowed us to be light and were compatible with the harsh conditions in the Himalayan mountains.

OUT OF THE DARKNESS, Production Still with Dr. Sanduk Ruit

What were a few stylistic choices or techniques that you used to help tell your story?

This was a very tough production. Because of the extreme working condition, the exhaustion of the team walking 10–14 hours each day for over two weeks…and the bugs we all suffered from, we had to keep things very simple. I decided to use a very classical approach, with no fancy styles, with the exception of a couple of scenes, where we tried to recreate the POV of the blind protagonist. I also wanted to give the feeling of time we felt during production.

The pace of the film is very slow and this is one of the things that I believe people have appreciated: slow down from the normal life and immerse themselves in a very unusual journey.

What’s one item you always take with you when shooting out in the field?

My photo camera. I’ve learned to do still shots on production. It is a great way to bring memories home, but also a great tool to visualize how the film could look–meaning that with still photography I can feed my imagination on how the material that is being shot can fit into the story.

OUT OF THE DARKNESS, Production Still

What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

If creating impact is what is important for you, and you are facing difficulties–do not give up easily. The failures we face are a part of the process, showing us that the way we had envisioned is probably not the best way. See the goal, see the reward very clearly and keep adapting and changing your strategy if it does not work–but never, ever give up if this is what you really want.

For more great docs, join us over in SIMA RAMA — a monthly digital film club for bold, beautiful and award-winning impact cinema that connects members directly with creators, experts, live forums and curated actions.

Written by Erinn Sullivan, SIMA