The Blind Man Who Did Not Want To See Titanic Review: A Unique Film With Great Empathy [SXSW]

One of Roger Ebert's most famous, frequently used quotes goes, "The movies are like a machine that generates empathy." That sentiment perfectly applies to Teemu Nikki's wholly unique "The Blind Man Who Did Not Want To See Titanic." The film stars Petri Poikolainen, a blind, wheelchair-using actor with MS, who is the center of the film's world for nearly every single frame. Nikki keeps the camera almost always trained on Poikolainen's face; the image floats and drifts, and everything beyond Poikolainen's visage is usually blurry; deliberately out-of-focus. It creates a singular experience, as if we've been thrust into the main character's world. 

Poikolainen plays Jaakko, a blind man in a wheelchair who hasn't let his illness ruin his biting sense of humor (indeed, it probably only enhanced it). Jaako is a bit of a cinephile, and while he can no longer watch movies, he can listen to them (which explains why he has so many VHS copies still; he's had no need to upgrade to higher definition). Most of Jaakko's contact with the outside world comes via phone calls. He talks with his father, and he talks with a woman named Sirpa. Sirpa suffers from an illness of her own, and the two have never actually met. Yet they have a fun, flirty relationship via phone calls, and they're constantly hinting that they would like to meet face to face someday. 

Then everything changes. An event spurns Jaakko to finally go visit Sirpa — but he's unable to get one of his caretakers to help with the journey. No matter: Jaakko is convinced he can make the trip himself, and if he needs help, he'll turn to a stranger. And so Jaakko sets out, first calling a cab and then heading towards the train station. Through it all, the camera remains locked on his face. He speaks to others, and we hear them speaking to him — but they're always just out of frame. Like Jaakko himself, we are unable to really see them, but we know they're there. 


As I'm sure some of you have guessed by now, things don't go according to plan for Jaakko. He runs into trouble, and the trouble is genuinely unnerving. To say more would ruin some of the impact of "The Blind Man Who Did Not Want To See Titanic," but just know that things grow immensely tense. The tension actually becomes so palpable that it borders on unbearable, and the fact that we can get so swept up in something we can't really see speaks to Poikolainen's remarkable performance. He's bristly, abrasive, but also funny and charming. We can't help but like him. And we can't help but want him to complete his journey and finally be in the same physical space as Sirpa. Of course, not being able to see things also contributes to the unease of it all. Like Jaakko, we're at the mercy of others here. 

Truth be told, there's a part of me that wanted almost no real conflict at all. I could've easily watched two hours of Poikolainen moving from one location to the next, having amusing conversations with strangers (he hates the band The Scorpions, and he's not afraid to tell anyone about that opinion). You could argue that a man on a journey with no bumps in the road wouldn't be particularly cinematic, but I'd argue that the way director Nikki and cinematographer Sari Aaltonen deliberately focus on Jaakko and obscure everything else would make such an experience pop. 

But that's not the movie we get. What we do get, though, feels genuine and real. The film is honest about Jaakko's condition without infantilizing him. He never feels like a fictional being constructed for a movie; he comes across as a living, breathing being, all due to Poikolainen's great work. The end result triggers a wave of empathy; not a kind of patronizing empathy, but genuine empathy — the type Ebert was talking about all those years ago. I doubt you've seen anything like "The Blind Man Who Did Not Want To See Titanic" before, and you might never see anything like it again. Certainly not from Hollywood.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10