Notes on Blindness, 2016.
Written and directed by Pete Middleton and James Spinney
Starring Dan Renton Skinner, Simone Kirby, John Hull, Marilyn Hull.
A feature documentary following a man’s efforts to understand and come to terms with his steadily deteriorating eyesight.
A touching and insightful film, Notes on Blindness provides a personal examination of what it is like to go blind.
Making use of academic theologian John Hull’s vast catalogues of personal audio diaries, the film is beautifully constructed, visualised and put together.
In the early 1980s after years of problems with his eyes, John Hull began to finally lose his sight. To try and understand exactly what he was experiencing he began to keep an audio diary. He filled it with every last detail, hoping to preserve the picture, colour and intensity of his life. Over three years he managed to record over 16 hours worth of material. Based on these recordings and his published memoir ‘Touching the Rock’, the film aims to demonstrate a personal journey towards blindness and beyond.
Dan Renton Skinner (High Rise) and Simone Kirby (Jimmy’s Hall) provide the performances that synchronise with the recordings, bringing out the emotional depth of the words of Hull and his wife Marilyn. Perfectly tuned and orchestrated, this is a unique experience. It has even been produced in an immersive VR version, further attempting to capture Hull’s experience of a ‘world beyond sight’.
The film contains a wealth of memorable moments such as when Hull calmly rejects a wandering faith healer’s assurances that he can regain his sight through faith. Hull calmly shows him why and how this is not the case. This interaction brings out another of the film’s main ideas. As a theologian, Hull’s work was concerned with interpretations of faith, and he had a personal relationship with a divinity or God. But he put his faith in science, wholly trusting the medical experts who told him in 1981 that his sight would leave him, never to return. As he put it; “faith is not a shield and a belief in God is no protection against blindness”.
Moments like these, and the recalling of the fading image of the spire of Shrewsbury Church, the last thing he would ever truly see in an optical sense, projects Hull’s personality and humanity out to the full. This gets to the heart of the picture, and ultimately succeeds in Hull’s aim to “retain the fullness of my humanity and to understand blindness.” Hull’s poetic way with words likens blindness to being akin to a string of “dead letters”, or a “smile without return”. The film is full of such melancholic beauty, as he tries to make sense of what is happening to him.
The nightmarish reality of losing one’s sight is vividly put together in the dramatic retelling of a nightmare Hull had of drowning in a supermarket, with the water separating him from his wife and children. Skinner and Kirby bring this scene to life, providing a stark look at the facts of blindness both in dreams and reality.
This and many other segments and memories – a last goodbye to Hull’s parents in Australia is profoundly moving – have a universal truth about them which impress in detail and clarity.
Ultimately Hull describes blindness as a gift. He must approach the question as “not why have I got it, but what am I going to do with it?”
In Hull’s case, he did his utmost to reflect and document exactly what it means to go blind, while retaining the spirit and internal light that made him human and truly alive. The result is a beautiful and challenging film.
Notes on Blindness is in UK Cinemas from July 1st.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.