Stephen Browman and Scott Svare won a state high school film festival for their account of Stephen's life as a blind teenager.
As Stephen Browman sees with his hands, Scott Svare sees with his camera.
Together, the Burnsville Senior High sophomores have made a documentary film, "Sight Without Eyes," that challenges others to see blindness in a new light.
"Sight Without Eyes" ran away with the top prize at the fifth annual .EDU Film Fest, a contest for high school filmmakers from across Minnesota.
Such phrases as "brilliantly conceived" and "inspiring" and "courageous" spill out in interviews with festival judges.
"We were really just floored," said Trey Wodele, festival director and coordinator of the Digital Media Academy at Minnesota Transitions, a Minneapolis charter school.
Stephen was 1 year old when he lost his sight after developing retinoblastoma. It is a cancer of the retina, the nerve tissue at the back of the eye that senses light and sends images to the brain.
"I could see when I was a baby," Stephen said, recalling how he watched "Barney and Friends" every day. "That's the only thing I can remember about seeing."
Stephen said he learned Braille when he was in first grade. His first word: knowledge.
One Friday when Stephen was in 10th grade, Scott grabbed him in the crowded high school hallway and said, "I sit behind you in Spanish class."
"When he introduced himself I thought, that's cool," said Stephen. "Maybe we could talk."
As their friendship grew, Scott began to see blindness was no impediment to Stephen, who texts, runs track, goes to camp and plays Madden NFL on a PlayStation 3.
Stephen said he gets enough information from the video game's audio track to play, and can gauge when to release the football from changes in pressure he can feel on the controller.
Scott said he learned about the .EDU Film Fest through a friend "and I really wanted to do a film that inspires people."
Stephen's story was a natural fit. "So I called him up one day," Scott said.
The result is a 12-minute, 38-second documentary in which Stephen describes what it's like to be blind -- "It's a little complicated" -- and the struggle to show others he isn't helpless.
"It used to hurt sometimes because, like, I just wanted to fit in, you know, with the crowd," Stephen says in the film.
The central interview was shot over about two hours one night in Scott's basement.
Wearing sunglasses and a white hoodie, Stephen appears on the viewer's right in the frame, sitting on a couch in front of an unfinished wall.
Other scenes include stories told by Stephen's classmates and teachers. The camera follows Stephen, with the cane he carries in his left hand, through the high school's hallways and cafeteria.
Some of the most arresting images are closeups of Stephen reading and writing Braille with his long, slender fingers.
Scott used a Canon single-lens reflex camera that also shoots video, relying on the camera's internal microphone for sound. While he layered in an evocative soundtrack, there is no title sequence, and there are no credits at the end.
In the judging, though, the content overcame the lack of polish, said Sam Kovar, the festival's assistant director.
"Production values were important, but telling a story is where it really hits home," he said.
"Sight Without Eyes" opens with a narrator asking, "What are a thousand words worth without a picture?"
Stephen hopes people who are engrossed in a visual world can find answers in the film.
"I would like the people to tell me," he said, "if they have a different perspective on how they see blind people."
Bill Crum • 612-673-7215