Stephen Menick knew pretty early on he had something special in the story of blind painter John Bramblitt.
Menick was putting together a feature story for a PBS program called “My Generation,” a job that in the fall of 2011 brought him to Bramblitt’s home in Denton, Texas.
He met his crew for the next day and a half on Bramblitt’s doorstep, then went inside to begin an interview with Bramblitt that Menick knew would require no further explanation from a narrator.
Now, Menick has made the six-minute feature on Bramblitt’s incredible artistic skills into a short documentary. It will be one of the five short films shown Friday and Saturday at the Bethesda Urban Partnership’s 2nd annual Bethesda Film Fest.
“He started to talk and I realized this might be one of those shows where we’re not going to need any voiceover. I went in there thinking I was going to make a mini-doc and that’s how it happened,” Menick said. “Stories like these don’t come very often.”
Bramblitt began painting after losing his sight in 2001 after a series of seizures brought on by a severe form of epilepsy. In the film, he spoke to Menick about how painting gave him purpose in life. He uses heavy paints that can be felt and shaped by his fingers to create award winning paintings of all types.
“I knew going in that I would have to get him to talk about his process,” Menick said. “Most people would feel like he’s cheating.”
The crew got Bramblitt working on a single painting from start to finish.
Menick recognized his talent when he saw a portrait Bramblitt painted of his wife. Menick said he instantly recognized the person in the painting was the person he met while shooting. It also helped that Bramblitt, who does speaking events and leads various art programs, is a well spoken and eloquent interview subject.
Menick has shown the film at a few festivals, including the DC Shorts Film Festival. The documentary is exactly what aired on the PBS show, just with a credit roll added at the end. But it is a different feel than putting the story out on broadcast TV, with little chance to interact with those who see it.
“The wonderfully gratifying thing in any situation like this is to sit in a dark room and see the audience react,” Menick said.
Menick and editor Scott Newman will be at the Bethesda Film Fest this weekend to take part in a discussion of the film after it’s viewed.
BUP and its Arts and Entertainment Board expanded the event this year to two nights, based on the sold out crowd last year’s inaugural Film Fest attracted to Imagination Stage.
Other films include “Doing it for Me,” a look at two D.C. women who dropped out of high school for personal and family reasons. There will also be “Smackdown for Charity,” a doc on the DC Lady Arm Wrestlers, “The Bottom Line,” a look at a Howard County firefighter as he prepares for his first child and “When She Dances with Me,” a film about a couple that discovers Argentine Tango in the Middle East.
Check out the official Bethesda Film Fest page for more information and for tickets.
Photo via Stephen Menick