It is a great challenge to deal with the subject of visual impairment in a film or a documentary. Because cinema often uses people’s eyesight as a prominent tool to guide us through certain experiences. However, there have been quite a few filmmakers who respectfully and intimately delve into the world of visually impaired people and try to open us up to a vast sensory world that we could never otherwise understand. The deeply empathetic and non-intrusive gaze of the Polish documentary filmmaker Lidia Duda in rookies (‘Pisklaki’, 2022) is one of those sensitive works that never becomes sentimental. It explores the strength, vulnerability, love and frustrations of three first graders entering a boarding school for blind and visually impaired children.
The Rookies open with vivacious little Zosia playing with her mother near a pond and throwing pebbles into it. She says: “Now I will try to stand up without anyone’s help”. The soft black-and-white images and delicate childlike gaze bring much shock in capturing this first step of the rookie tentatively venturing out into the larger world. Soon, Zosia is separated from her loving parents and sent to a special boarding school. The boy is left in the care of Ewa, a kind teacher and caregiver. Ewa and other members of the school staff help the children adjust to their new surroundings and gradually equip them with the knowledge to express themselves.
At school, Zosia befriends her classmates, Oskar and Kinga. Oskar is learning to play the piano. Both Oskar and Zosia are anxious and find it difficult to navigate the school, both emotionally and physically. Kinga, partially blind, looks pretty neat. She helps other children during some of her difficult times. But she is also a bit of an introvert.
Six or seven-year-olds rely on speech, sounds, and touch to understand the world around them. Since they are sensitive to sounds, too many sounds disturb them as well. However, children are attuned to verbal communication. From time to time, his expressions seem a bit advanced for children his age. In addition to such exchanges between children, it gives Fledglings its most lyrical, mildly humorous and sad moments. When Oskar goes to practice piano, Zosia sits alone in the playground and sadly asks, “Who’s going to hug me? I need a hug.” At another point, Zosia gently touches Oskar’s shoulder, and the boy caresses her face.
Most importantly, children learn to respect the emotions and needs of others. From time to time, Oskar suffers from low self-esteem. He has a hard time hanging up his jacket and on another occasion he calls himself ‘stupid’ for not being able to write the lyrics. The teacher gives the child his space to work things out. Also, they find ways to help you without often being dependent on others. Children learn to write using the Braille machine.
They understand the power of community plus the beauty of friendships and empathy. In fact, the most endearing aspect of Fledglings is watching Oskar, Zosia and Kinga forge strong bonds and learn to trust each other. It is probably the most important life lesson for these fiercely protected children, which would make them strong, compassionate and independent in order to survive in a fascinating but unforgiving world. During summer vacation, Zosia misses Oskar a lot. The phone conversation that she followed in which they confess their love for each other is so adorable. The duo even talk about getting married as adults.
Director Lidia Duda and her cinematographers Wojciech Staron and Zuzanna Zachara-Hassairi keep their cameras fully focused on the children. Adults rarely inhabit frames. Miss Ewa or Zosia’s parents remain on the fringes, their voices offering guidance to the children when needed. Lidia and her cinematographers explore the deep emotions of children with great delicacy and intimacy. And the imagery keeps flowing without stopping too long at a particular moment and trying to milk our own emotions.
Furthermore, the documentary filmmaker never defines her subjects through their disability and other obstacles. She is full of surprising little gestures. Kinga helping Oskar sit on the swing, Zosia reciting a poem, Zosia learning to write lyrics on her own, and at the moment when Zosia asks Oskar to read the “engagements” she has written for him, Fledglings lets you share space with these bright children, and perpetually send arrows to your hearts.
Lidia Duda has been making documentaries for television since the 1990s. Fledglings was her first documentary feature film. She previously made two 50-minute documentaries, Entangled (2012), a documentary about pedophilia, and Everything Is Possible (2014), about a depressed old woman trying to fulfill her dreams. Lidia’s award-winning short documentary Hercules (2004) looks at the everyday life of an impoverished 12-year-old boy named Krzys. The boy grows up in a hopelessly dysfunctional family. Looking at Lidia’s various works, it is obvious that empathy is her greatest strength. Furthermore, like a true documentary filmmaker, she silently and patiently observes her protagonists to meticulously capture her inner world.
General, rookies (83 minutes) is a stunning and deeply moving documentary about blind and visually impaired children, who gradually learn to ‘spread their wings’ through education, compassion and friendships. The formative phase in children’s lives is rarely observed with such closeness and grace.