What is the first thing people do when a blind person walks into a room? They try to guide them over to a chair and have them sit and stay there. Understandably, it’s out of concern for the person—no one wants them to fall or accidentally harm themselves—but what if all that person sitting in that chair wanted to do was to get up and explore?
That scenario, described by a teacher for blind students in the documentary Best and Most Beautiful Things, now streaming on Netflix, is the reality Michelle Smith lives. The film follows Smith, a 20-year-old legally blind teenager, as she decides that sitting and waiting is not for her. Having met with this kind of treatment by her sighted peers, she goes forth to explore in every sense of the word.
The film, a New York Times Critics’ Pick, opens with Smith trying to light a candle. She is gently guided by her mother until the match makes contact with the wick. Something that takes an average person a few seconds to do lasts nearly the entire length of the opening credits. Soon, the viewer learns that what Smith is able to see at 20 feet looks like what a sighted person can see at a thousand feet. What follows is the life that most of us led from age 17 to 21; we follow Smith as she graduates high school, searches for a job and navigates the harsh realities of trying to live on her own. Then the film takes an interesting twist: while navigating some of the complications and struggles due to her disabilities, she finds comfort in a circle that intimidates many of us: the kink community.
“It was such a surprise to us because when we started, it was going to just be a story about Smith’s time at Perkins School for the Blind and graduating from school,” producer Ariana Garfinkel said. “And so it was probably four years into filming that she told our director Garrett Zevgetis about her new boyfriend and some of the exploration that she was doing. She felt that should be represented in the film as part of her life—a very empowering part.”
Smith’s participation in this community makes total sense to anyone with a knowledge of the kink community, as so much play involves empowerment, trust and confidence. After all, as the film progresses we learn that she, like all disabled people, has the same desires for sexual exploration that everyone experiences in their teens.
People think, ‘Oh, you have a disability so you must be chaste.’ No, I’m a person, just like you.
I spoke with Smith about her involvement in the community, her sexuality and the film. I immediately knew I was speaking with someone just as confident, self-aware and intelligent as the film portrayed. Over the phone call, Smith related that she first began to be interested in kink at age 18, after watching porn videos featuring it, and she knew it was something she wanted to try: “[I thought,] ‘I need to experience this. I need to see.’ I was worried that no one would want to play with some blind chick. I would always think ‘Ah, that would be so hot if someone did that to me,’ but then I’d think ‘Wait, no one would want to do that to you because you have disabilities.’ And of course that’s extremely stupid, but I needed to know if that was true and no, luckily it’s not. There were a lot of people who were very happy to do ‘unspeakable’ things to me even though I am blind.”
The difficulty disabled people find in sex goes beyond their physical limitations. Smith acknowledged this, saying that it was “because [the public] doesn’t really see us as real adults. Quite honestly, that’s a big part of it. They don’t see us as adults. They see us as G-rated. No one thinks of Stevie Wonder as a baby or not being able to take care of himself—or at least I hope no one thinks that—but I bet there are people who think, 'Oh, you have a disability so you must be this chaste, angelic being and it’s like no, I’m a person, just like you!“
Smith’s response for people who think that of her? “Fuck no! Because if they heard me say that then they’d stop believing that.”
In talking to her, it became clear that her sexuality was one of the very things not limited by her sight and that she could participate in expressing her sexuality as much as anyone else. As far as sex is concerned, Smiths says “I’ve never really been ashamed of it. At some point in my adolescent years I realized how stupid and how ridiculous it is that our entire society is ashamed of sex and sex being this taboo thing. Almost everyone does it and none of us would exist if it wasn’t for that.”
Despite all of the positivity about her sexual awakening, what the film is really about is a modern blind woman’s quest for exploration. When the film hit theaters last year, Smith was able to do the exploring she always wanted, traveling from her small town in Maine to promote the film in major cities in New York, Texas, California, Canada, Colombia and Arkansas, where one of her most memorable moments occurred.
“This woman raised her hand and she was like 'I’m afraid to ask my question; I’m afraid I’ll get emotional.’ She might have gotten one word out before she started crying,” Smith recalls. “I handed the microphone to someone else and gave her a big hug and she said, 'You made me rethink the way I treat my granddaughter.’ I don’t know if her granddaughter is kinky, has autism, is blind or any of the above, none of the above. I don’t know, but that made me realize that if it’s just this—that this woman treats her granddaughter better and is nicer to her and doesn’t try to change who she is—then I feel like I’ve done something right.”
Smith wants the documentary to enable others to live fuller lives and better understand themselves and others. She said, “I feel like this movie succeeds even if it just changed that one woman’s life in how she treats people she perceives as different from her or doesn’t treat them the same as how she’d treat anyone else.”
If that is Smith’s aim, then the film succeeds with flying colors. Her positive attitude shines through and her hope for others that feel like her is apparent. Smith finished our conversation by saying that people need to remember they aren’t alone. “Even when you feel like no one likes you, or that no one understands you, you can remember that you understand you and more people understand you than you think.”