As if scripted by feverish Daily Mail reporters, movies featuring teenagers often depict adolescence as a procession of roistering sexual encounters between improbably self-assured participants. Standing as a tender rebuke to such unfettered passion is Daniel Ribeiro’s debut feature The Way He Looks, a charming exploration of hesitant first love. Detailing the growing desire and affection between blind teenager Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) and his friend Gabriel (Fabio Audi), the writer-director builds emotional and erotic power out of small moments, from one hand brushing another to the discovery of a hoodie left in a bedroom. Ahead of its upcoming appearance at the BFI London Film Festival we spoke to Daniel about his work on the film.
The Way He Looks is an adaptation of your short film I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone. Why did you want to return to that story rather than start afresh?
Daniel Ribeiro: The idea of the feature actually came first. I knew I wanted my first feature film to be about a blind character discovering he was gay so I decided to make the short as a pilot. I thought it would be difficult to have a young actor playing a blind person and figured it would be useful to get the opportunity to experiment. The short uses the same three lead actors but we shot it three years earlier so they were younger. In a way it was more innocent and naïve. They weren’t naked in the film, you know?
What sort of research did you do into how teenagers deal with blindness?
Daniel Ribeiro: I didn’t research much early on because I didn’t want the film to focus on the life of a blind person. Instead I wanted to emphasise the universal part of the story which is what it is to be a teenager. The fact that Leonardo is blind and discovering his homosexuality is just part of a common story of first love. I based it on my own experience of growing up and falling in love and being confused, and adapted it to how I thought that would work for a blind person. Then after I’d written it I went to a few institutes for blind people and asked them if there was anything that was wrong in the script. Everyone I spoke to was so different – there’s as much diversity in blind people as anyone else – so I felt I could create any character I wanted. I only had to pay attention to little day-to-day things like the way a blind person is guided or how they use a typewriter.
One of the most striking scenes in the film features Leonardo dreaming. Everything is shadows and whispers but the scene still has the identifiable texture of a dream. How did you approach filming that?
Daniel Ribeiro: That scene is a cinematic interpretation. If it was actually the dream of Leonardo it would just be a black screen because his brain cannot create images. I wanted to translate the way a blind person faces the world, so we put lights on his hands because that’s how he interacts with things in his life. We see everything he touches but it’s blurred so you can’t see anything perfectly.It was hard to decide how to portray the dream. At one point we were even considering animation, or big puppets. There were so many ideas. The most important thing to me was that the audience would understand who the characters were without seeing them, as that was Leonardo’s experience.
You mentioned the original short version being more chaste but the feature film is rather innocent too. None of the characters have ever kissed anyone before and they’re all at a exploratory age. Why did you decide to depict them that way?
Daniel Ribeiro: Sexuality, especially homosexuality, is usually so associated with sex itself. That’s understandable but I wanted to go the other way and show how sweet it is when you fall in love for the first time. When you’re 13 or 14 sex is what drives your understanding of your own sexuality, but that experience can also involve falling in love and being emotionally attracted to someone. It’s not only about sex, it’s about discovering who you are, so I wanted to focus on the coming of age that people go through. Usually when we talk about the gay experience and the gay discovery of sexuality it’s not portrayed that way. I wanted to talk to a broader audience and not only a gay one, and a broader audience sometimes doesn’t understand that homosexuality comes from the same place of human sexuality that we all share, and when you’re young it can be very sweet. I almost wanted to be a guide to discovering your homosexuality.
Because these characters are so young everything they experience is emotionally heightened – a mild falling out with a friend can feel cataclysmic. How do you express that without being condescending?
Daniel Ribeiro: Respect is the word that I tried to guide myself with. When you portray teenagers you have to respect everything that’s happening in that period of time. I’m 32 so a first kiss now doesn’t mean anything – it’s easy – but at that age a kiss can be the hugest thing in the world. I wanted to respect that feeling. When you’re making a coming of age movie and talking about teenagers you need to appreciate the importance of everything they’re experiencing at that moment. Their feelings are no less valid just because they’re big.