Review: Notes on Blindess

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DIR/WRI: Pete Middleton, James Spinney • PRO: Mike Brett, Jo Jo Ellison, Pete Middleton, James Spinney, Alex Usborne • DOP: Gerry Floyd • ED: Julian Quantrill • MUS: James Ewers, Noah Wood • DES: Damien Creagh • CAST: Dan Renton Skinner, Simone Kirby, John M. Hull

What does it mean to a theologian when he gets ill? Does his view of God change? Does he regard his illness as divine caprice or simply chance?

Those are some of the questions that plagued John Hull for many years. In 1980 the Australian theologian and academic began losing his sight, his vision growing gradually dimmer until he was left completely blind in 1983, just days before the birth of his son. Hull’s final sight was of a church steeple.

In an effort to take charge of a life he felt he was losing control over, Hull began making audio recordings of his conversations with his wife, Marilyn, the sounds of him playing with their children, as well as his feelings about his blindness, his depression, his memory, and God.

Those tapes were the basis for Hull’s memoir Touching the Rock, and are the soundtrack to Notes on Blindness, a remarkable reconstruction of Hull’s life by Peter Middleton and James Spinney. While the circumstances of Hull’s life would make for a decent enough conventional documentary, Middleton and Spinney choose an immersive approach in an effort to get inside Hull’s mind, filled with blurry imagery and characters coming in and going out of focus. More remarkably, though, while actors Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby play John and Marilyn, they lip-synch the original audio from Hull’s tapes.  This approach takes a cliché of documentary, the re-enactment , and uses it to create a film which raises questions about the idea of authenticity in documentary, and in which the sound design is as equally important as the imagery. The supervising sound editor is Joakim Sundström (Berberian Sound Studio).

Notes on Blindness is a poetic examination of, in Hull’s words, “a world beyond sight.” He adopted many coping strategies to ensure he could still teach at the University of Birmingham: counting the number of steps to a lecture hall; recognizing students by the sound of their voices; and most astonishingly, after his discovery that most audio books were romantic novels and detective fiction, corralling friends and volunteers to record themselves reading academic texts and philosophy books.

Much of the conversation between John and Marilyn is quite dull, and Notes on Blindness is, if nothing else, a quiet celebration of domesticity and marital bliss. Hull finds his memories fading, struggling at one point to remember what Marilyn looks like, and finding that he can recall old photos more easily than people. The film takes inspiration from that idea, and, at times, the imagery is deliberately grainy or shadowy.

Hull sank into depression, particularly during a trip to visit his parents in Australia when one of the children was injured, and Hull could not find her and began for the first time to feel useless. He had a recurring dream that he was drowning, and images of water and rain abound in the film (including one of rain falling inside a room that seems to have been lifted from Tarkovsky’s Solaris). He eventually finds solace in the familiar surroundings of his home, and in God (a visit to a cathedral results in Hull feeling a calming, divine presence).

Notes on Blindness is a moving, intimate documentary, a triumph of sound and image, and a poetic examination of love, loss, memory and marriage.

Niall McArdle

90 minutes
G (See IFCO for details)

Notes on Blindness is released 10th June 2016

Notes on Blindness – Official Website

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