Turning Temporary Blindness into Cinema

Turning Temporary Blindness into Cinema

First-time filmmaker Ruben Najera captures autobiographical tale of bringing light to darkness.

“OK, the twins, get on top of the bar,” said Ruben Najera, directing two of about 20 young women before filming a nightclub scene in his autobiographical movie, “Ciego,” last Sunday afternoon.

The women, decked out in their best club-gear, stood motionless and awkward atop the narrow bar. Then, Najera cued the music, a fast-tempo, bass-booming salsa number. “You’re all going to be jamming,” Najera yelled. Suddenly, the bar shook with dancing women. The light on the front of the video camera nestled between Najera’s arms glowed red. “Action! Film rolling,” he announced.

MOMENTS EARLIER standing outside Café Citron in Washington, D.C. and waiting for more extras to arrive, Najera squinted from the bright sun while telling a story.

“I was like, ‘Why me?’” said Najera. “It was my one day when I was hating the world,” he said.

At 27, the Reston resident had reason to break down. He’s been broke. He’s been uninsured. He’s been stuck in a dead-end job. Still, he’d never lost his upbeat nature, finding solace in a vision he’d one day be making movies.

But eight years ago, on a clear summer day, all that changed.

“I went to work and, by the end of the day, I was blind,” said Najera, who was 19 at the time and working as a bank teller in Champagne, Ill.

“My monitor was all fuzzy,” said Najera, recalling the morning his vision began to disappear. He asked a co-worker if someone had changed the settings on the monitor.

“Then I realized there’s no focus setting on monitors,” he said.

RECOGNIZING SOMETHING was seriously wrong, Najera quickly made plans to see a doctor, but he didn’t have health insurance.

That morning, he bought a bus ticket to Chicago where his father lived. His vision continued to deteriorate. “I remember just grabbing stuff when I went back to my apartment,” said Najera.

With limited vision, he made it to the station and boarded a Greyhound bus. Two hours later, when he arrived in Chicago, where his father and sister were waiting, sharp pains continued to shoot through his eyes.

Despite the pain, he got off the bus and struggled to open his eyes, barely making out the image of his 10-year-old sister. “She’s the last thing I saw,” said Najera.

He spent the next few days waiting in a dark hospital room.

Najera’s sudden blindness stumped doctors. “All the doctors said, “Oh, I know what to do,’” said Najera. “‘No, no, no,’ they said, ‘You have to do this.’” But nothing worked.

Later, they determined that Najera had a fractured cornea in his right eye, which turned one of his brown eyes blue. They didn’t know what caused it or how best to fix it.

They released Najera after prescribing eye drops and a few other medicines. “‘Take these,’ they said, ‘and hopefully you’ll get better,’” said Najera. But he didn’t get better.

WITHOUT INSURANCE, leaving few options for recovery in the United States, Najera flew months later to Mexico where his stepfather was a doctor.

It was after weeks of living blind when Najera experienced his moment of dread. “I always wanted to do movies, so I thought, there goes my dream,” said Najera, who was born in Mexico but moved to the United States when he was six.

At the hospital in Mexico, doctors were able to put a contact in Najera’s eye, which helped heal the fracture in his eye. “It’s so funny. One of the doctors [in Chicago] tried that, but my eye was so messed up, they couldn’t get the contact in,” said Najera.

Finally, Najera’s sight returned, but vision in his right eye will always be poor.

To avoid a recurring fracture, Najera elected to get a cornea transplant, which he finally received when he was 23 at the National Institutes of Health.

A longtime friend, Jennifer Stacy, who was volunteering as an extra for the scenes filmed last weekend, remembered driving Najera to the hospital.

“I wasn’t too worried,” she said. “I didn’t think it was very serious. He always had such a positive outlook.”

But when Najera first woke up after surgery, he couldn’t see. “I was like, oh great, here we go again,” said Najera. But later that day his vision returned. “The surgery was a success.”

IT WASN’T LONG before Najera began fulfilling his moviemaking dream based on the very memories of the experience that he thought had ended it. “[The movie’s] about how I used my imagination to get around,” said Najera, who spent a year and a half writing the screenplay with help of friend, Daniel Channell of Sterling.

Not long after the surgery, Najera became a TV producer at Comcast Studios in Reston, where he soaked up the knowledge he needed to start making his film.

He also met friends who volunteered to help him make his story a reality.

“I was just like damn,” said Eric Waldron, 16, of Reston, describing his reaction when he first heard Najera’s story.

Waldron, a sophomore at Herndon High School who volunteers at Comcast Studios in Reston, has spent countless hours working on the film.

As a member of the film crew, Waldron flew to Mexico this summer with Najera, other crew members and actors to film several scenes, including one at the top of a mountain in Cuernavaca and another on the beach at Playa Ventura . “It was awesome,” said Waldron.

Filming for the movie will be completed later this month, said Najera. Then, editing begins. “That’s when I do my magic,” said Najera, who is schooled in Final Cut Pro, a professional editing software package.

“Ciego,” which means “blind” in Spanish, should be ready for audiences by the end of the year. Najera said he plans to enter the film in independent film festivals and then, hopefully, land a distribution deal.