This ‘pictureless’ film is visionary cinema for those who can’t see

February 13, 2024 | By Dianna Delling

Ben Phillips had barely begun grade school when he landed his first acting role, at a community theater in Sydney, Australia. The moment the 5-year-old, who was born blind, stepped onto the stage, he sensed that he’d discovered something life-changing. He couldn’t see the audience, so he didn’t feel self-conscious. He knew only that he was having a blast while using his imagination to tell a story.

“I really loved — loved — acting, pretending to be someone different for a day,” he recalls. “Being able to play sighted characters on stage made me feel special. And normal, in a way, because I got to experience what they experienced in lives without limitations.”

Today, Phillips, 43, is a full-time actor in Sydney, working on stage, in short films and on television, where he had a role on the hit series “Offspring.” He is also the founder of Theatre of the Blind, a nonprofit organization that enables people who are blind or visually impaired to embrace his beloved art form.

But it’s always been rare for Phillips to find a piece written specifically for people who are blind. That changed when he was asked to serve as an attachment (a position akin to intern) on the film “Touch,” Australia’s first-ever “pictureless” feature-length film, which debuted today at Westpac OpenAir cinema, on Sydney Harbor.


“Touch” was conceived by Mastercard in partnership with the Australian bank Westpac as part of a larger regional effort to promote inclusion for people with disabilities. Directed by Tony Krawitz, “Touch” relies on rich sound effects, atmospheric music, carefully crafted dialogue and expressive actors to tell the story of a scientist trapped deep inside his father’s brain after a lab experiment gone awry. Audiences join him as he wanders through his father’s memories, uncovering more about the man he once thought he understood as he struggles to escape.

The work is presented as a film without pictures rather than a radio play or a podcast to help sighted audiences understand what it’s like for a person who is blind or visually impaired to go to the cinema. For Phillips, what makes “Touch” special is that it can be enjoyed as part of a complete cinematic experience: sitting next to friends or family members and snacking on hot buttered popcorn while immersed in realistic, crystal-clear sound.

“You’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the action, right there with the characters,” he says. These are the very details that make him love going to the movies, despite the fact that he can’t see the big screen — or catch all the plot points when audio is considered secondary to visual storytelling.

Since “Touch” has no visual component, director Krawitz relied on sound editor Wayne Pashley, who also worked on “Elvis” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” to help make an impact. He also turned to the expertise of blind and visually impaired cast and crew members recruited by Bus Stop Films, which helps people with disabilities find positions in Australia’s film industry.

"Everybody has so much to share through storytelling. It’s a shame that anyone would miss out on that."
Ben Phillips

Krawitz, known for films such as “Into the Night” and “Jewboy,” invited Phillips to work alongside him at every step of the project, from writing the script to directing blind cast members in the sound studio to editing the final work. That gave Phillips a chance to share suggestions based on his lived experience, pointing out things that a blind person might miss without additional help from the soundtrack, for example.  

“Inclusion should motivate innovation,” says Julie Nestor, Mastercard Asia Pacific’s executive vice president for marketing and communications. “By harnessing sound, ‘Touch’ transcends visual boundaries and redefines big-screen storytelling.”

Phillips hopes traditional visual filmmakers walk away from “Touch” with a new perspective on how sound can be used to reach a wider audience. “I reckon that I can make films with pictures and do the storytelling with so much audio detail that both sighted and non-sighted people could enjoy it together,” he says. “Everybody has so much to share through storytelling. It’s a shame that anyone would miss out on that.”

Banner: "Touch" director Tony Krawitz, left, collaborated with blind actor Ben Phillips, right, to understand what the community wanted in their moviegoing experience and how to best bring that to life.

Dianna Delling, Contributor