Interview with Filmmaker AJ Martinson (THE END OF BLINDNESS)

THE END OF BLINDNESS, 55min., Documentary
Directed by AJ Martinson
Dr. Samuel Bora is the only ophthalmologist for over 3 million people living in rural Ethiopia. His mission: end all preventable blindness in the country.

Get to know the director:

1. What motivated you to make this film?

Initially, I went to Ethiopia with Tropical Health Alliance Foundation to film a few small promo videos for their eye and water programs that they could use to help with fundraising.

But when I arrived in Ethiopia and met Dr. Samuel, I was immediately captivated by his dedication to helping those in need.

Dr. Samuel grew up with very little in the countryside of Western Ethiopia. In fact, he would walk barefoot for twenty or more miles everyday just to get to school.

Once I learned that and watched him use his-hard earned skills as a cataract surgeon to help the people in his rural village see again I was really inspired to use my skills and abilities as a storyteller to help those in need as well.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this film?

It took me four years to put this film together, most of which was spent in post-production. I had filmed hundreds of hours of footage and had to weave it into a cohesive narrative, all while writing the narration and working full time to pay for our sound mix, music licenses, and finishing fees.

It was an exhausting process but every time I opened up my computer to work on the film, I was motivated to keep going by watching Dr. Samuel as he did cataract surgery after cataract surgery, and by the incredible joy on each patient’s face as they had their cataracts removed and their sight restored.

3. How would you describe your film in two words!?

The End of Blindness is heartfelt and inspiring.

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

The hardest part about making this film was the time pressure I put on myself to get the project done, despite the limited budget and limited resources at my disposal. Everyday that this documentary sat on my hard drive was another day it wasn’t being used to help Dr. Samuel in his quest to provide affordable cataract surgery to the people in Ethiopia.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

It was deeply moving for me as a director and filmmaker, watching as people from around the world were emotionally engaged, touched, and inspired by a documentary about cataracts in Ethiopia and the profound impact a single cataract surgeon can have on the lives of thousands of people.

When we were pitching The End of Blindness, several distributors claimed that nobody would care about Dr. Samuel’s story or the lives of these patients. I’m so thankful for the reaction video because it instantly proved them wrong.

Watch the Audience Feedback Video:

6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

I’ve been volunteering with Tropical Health Alliance Foundation (THAF) since I was 16.

Back then, the founder of THAF, Dr. Larry Thomas, brought me to Ethiopia to film a mini documentary on Podoconiosis- a rare foot disease found in regions with volcanic soil.

Making that very first five minute documentary really inspired me to become a filmmaker. Ever since then, I’ve had a deep desire and a sense of responsibility to use my gifts to help give a voice to the voiceless around the world and to share their stories with a global audience.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

Ironically, I think The End of Blindness is the documentary I’ve seen the most – you have no idea how long I spent editing and quality controlling the film before its release. Second most would be my other film Blackmark – A Cold War Spy Thriller. After that? Probably Man on Fire. I really love Tony Scott.

8. What other elements of the festival experience can we and other festivals implement to satisfy you and help you further your filmmaking career?

I’m really hoping that as this festival continues there will be more opportunities for filmmakers to screen their films in theaters with a live, in person audience. It would’ve meant the world to me as an independent documentary filmmaker to receive the award for best director in person for The End of Blindness.

Regardless, I’m very thankful to have participated in this amazing festival and will definitely be submitting future projects for consideration.

9. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway. How has your experiences been working on the festival platform site?

FilmFreeway has been an ideal platform to help this low budget, independent, heartfelt documentary about cataract surgery in Ethiopia reach new audiences around the world, and I’m so thankful for the entire LA Documentary Film Festival staff for helping me share how important treating preventable blindness in Ethiopia is.

10. What is your favorite meal?

The best meal I’ve ever had was the one I shared with Mrs. Thadeledge in Ethiopia after she had her cataracts removed and her eyesight restored. Before her cataract surgery she was very somber, but afterward she was so overjoyed that she insisted on cooking for Dr. Samuel, Larry, and I. I’ll never ever forget how emotional that experience was.

11. What is next for you? A new film?

I’d love to go back to Africa with Tropical Health Alliance Foundation and document the new cataract programs and eye camps they’re starting both in Northern Ethiopia with the University of Gondar and in South Sudan.

They’re working very hard to expand on Dr. Samuel’s work and to put a huge dent in preventable blindness throughout Ethiopia and its surrounding countries over the next few years.

I’ve also been attached to direct a narrative thriller called The Cold Quiet, which is set during the Alaskan gold rush of the 1800s. Hopefully you’ll be hearing more about that soon.


By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival

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