Notes On Blindness (2016)
Director: Peter Middleton & James Spinney |. Runtime: 1h 30mins | Documentary, Drama
After years of deteriorating vision, and just before the birth of his first son, Professor of Religious Studies John M. Hull loses his ability to see. To ease the dramatic change, he starts to record cassettes of his experiences and make sense of the situation he’s forced into.
Although categorised as a Documentary (subsequently being nominated and winning documentary-specific awards) there’s many elements to Notes On Blindness that make it a unique experience. After recording the tapes, Hull adapted his experiences into his 1990 book Touching The Rock, both of which Middleton and Spinney used to create their Emmy-winning short and this feature adaption.
Using a term for the stage, ‘verbatim theatre’ is a style in which the actors mime the words from prerecorded audio, usually interviews, or even written records (such as court transcripts). For Note On Blindness, this is used by taking the cassettes Hull stored and having the cast act out sequences miming to the audio. For Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby (who play John Hull and his wife Marilyn, respectively) they also had interviews, general recordings they had been taking throughout their home as well as other audio diaries that constructed their own dialogues.
For some, this may seem like just a gimmick, with no substance around the stylised centre that the piece is based off. Luckily for the legacy of John Hull it is far from this, with a beautiful and elegant tale of a mans internal struggle with the circumstance that has befallen him, not just in the literal way of losing his vision but in a more spiritual, religious manner as well, as he tries to make sense of why it would happen to him. All this would make for an interesting documentary, but the way in which the lines are blurred between fiction and reality truly makes this a wonderfully engaging experience. Early on, John and Marilyn talk about their early days of marriage driving down a country lane, audibly we hear them bicker about who was driving, visually Skinner and Kirby are sat in a car miming to those words whilst trying to find their way on a map.
The cinematography beautifully reflects much of what John must have been experiencing early on, with large portions of the screen filled with a lack of focus, vast spaces of darkness and a general motif of missing light, only really seen through strong sources that Hull himself could make out if close enough. Even on a bright day, the large windows in their home seem muted, with the family themselves being the easiest to make out the details of.
He figures out how to lecture without his vision, and manages to make his everyday life that bit easier, he still hasn’t really engaged with what it means to be blind and struggles with the fading visual memories of his family. Here, Hull really starts to consider the situation he is in. Due to his theological background he provides many fascinating insights into his opinions of the human condition and a radical change in an essential aspect of experience for most people. A few short sequences hyper realise the struggle he has to go through, such as a crashing wave flooding the room in an almost Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind way.
Even through this though, the film is quite accessible, after all the visual and topical pretensions it doesn’t alienate a more casual audience, and with a runtime of 90 minutes it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. A film this elegant and delicate doesn’t range outside of how to represent the audio recordings, an aspect that could have spoiled how personal this story is, so instead feels like a tight, well explored narrative, and certainly a film that has unfortunately been lost in the shuffle since it’s 2016 release.