OCTOBER 11–17, 2017 | BOSTON, SAN FRANCISCO, LOS ANGELES
When what seems like “the ultimate curse” becomes “the ultimate state of being.”
When Gordon Gund completely lost his sight at age 30 from the genetic disorder retinitis pigmentosa, his wife Lulie told him she would understand if he chose to end it all. But, she added, if he chose to persevere in the face of the disability, he should be all in: “If you want to do it,” she recalls telling him, “let’s go for it.” Gordon Gund’s crisis, and the life that emerged out of it — a string of improbable and inspiring successes in business (arena-builder, NBA chairman, and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers), a pioneer in philanthropy and medical research (co-founder of the Foundation Fighting Blindness), and even a renowned sculptor — is the central focus of The Illumination, an 18-minute film directed by entrepreneur and conference founder Tom Scott.
The film is also the centerpiece of four events this October celebrating the Gunds and their work. Conceived as a mini-national tour, The Illumination is part of the Nantucket Project’s “Carnival of Curiosity,” which also features live music, talks and special guests — not least Gordon and Lulie Gund themselves.
Both the film and the tour are satellite endeavors of the Nantucket Project, an annual conference that Scott co-founded in 2010 to allow leaders from business, politics, the arts, and other areas to connect and share their stories in a four-day gathering on Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. The John Templeton Foundation has supported the Nantucket Project’s academic community of scholars and fellows and provided funding for the current tour. In addition to public events in Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, the tour will make a stop in Santa Barbara for the Goldman Sachs Builders and Innovators Summit.
GLIMPSES OF BLINDNESS
Like its subject, The Illumination defies simple categorization. Impressionistic in outlook, with animations inspired by the pulsing visual phenomena Gund still “sees,” the film is at once centered and disorienting. Interviews with Gordon and Lulie Gund — almost always shown close up and in profile — and others are cut into short, poetic phrases. We see glimpses of their life before Gordon’s blindness took hold, Gordon’s initial despair and desperate search for treatments, and his leadership of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Research the foundation funded led, in 2007, to the first FDA approval for a human trial for gene therapy for an inherited disease. The film also highlights the story of Yannick Duwe, a Belgian boy who in 2008 became one of the first patients to have their blindness reversed using that treatment.
Scott says the appeal of the Gunds’ story was obvious: “This is just an incredible story,” Scott says, “a blind man who cures blindness. I mean, it just doesn’t get much better than that.” True to form with a career marked by both success and humility, Gund was initially reluctant to have so much of the focus of the story be on himself, rather than on the work of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. But Scott persisted. “Finally there came a day where I said, Listen, Gordon, if you want to help people, you’ve got to let this go. Because the best way for you to help people is for me to tell your story, and in a way that’s the most humble act you could perform right now.”
Scott continues: “Time and again in my life I see people who deal with what seemed like the ultimate curse and it creates sort of the ultimate state of being, and I think that’s what you see in Gordon Gund. You could call it a poorly wrapped gift. That’s what I hope the take-away is.”
FINDING A FORMAT AND AN AUDIENCE
Most of the films that Scott produces for The Nantucket Project’s Ideafilms imprint are much shorter than The Illumination, and the initial intent was that the Gunds’ story could be told in that timeframe, but as Scott dug into the project, he realized that a longer format was called for. “It’s sort of an odd length, but I’m very pleased with it,” Scott says. “A lot of people have seen this film and it seems to be growing over time, and in part that relates to its length.”
For the moment the only way to see The Illumination is at one of the public showings (the film’s trailer, available here, conveys a sense of the experience). Scott says he is happy to focus on building a quality audience for the film. He believes that Gund’s story has the capacity to inspire people who are in the midst of difficult straits, as well the sort of people you might find at a Goldman Sachs entrepreneurship summit. “I think that people who are at the pinnacle of success at the moment, we’re actually discovering that it wasn’t what we thought it was,” Scott says. “And I think that Gordon brings that out. I see that because we also do these conversations all over the country. I’m hearing again and again the overall sense of unhappiness that people have, and that they are really interested in talking about more meaningful things.”
“I’m just so pleased with the way audiences are reacting to this film, and the things that they’re saying and doing, that I don’t see the need to pounce on a distribution opportunity in the short term,” Scott says. “The most successful projects we’ve had grow organically because passionate people want to join the movement.”
The Illumination will be shown on October 11, 2017, in Boston’s City Hall Plaza as part of the city’s HUBweek festival. The San Francisco screening of the film on October 16 is sold out; for information on attending the Los Angeles screening, which will be held in Brentwood on October 17, email firstname.lastname@example.org.