Directors Pete Middleton and James Spinney blur the lines between the scripted feature and the documentary in this eye-opening, soul wrenching, and insightful film.
In 1983, shortly before the birth of his first son, theologian John Hull loses his eyesight after years of slow deterioration. From here on he starts to record his trials and tribulations in a series of record tapes as he learns to live and adjust to his new condition.
Directors Middleton and Spinney discover his written and published notes on blindness almost two decades later and contact the man himself in an attempt to make a short film based on his story.
They acquire the tapes in early 2011 and conduct a series of interviews with John and his family to create the short film released in 2014, and as the material grows, so does the idea for this feature-length biopic.
This is the timeline of the events that so opportunely lead to the creation of this film, but such a description of events can hardly do this man’s story justice.
The truth is that most of us are led to believe that as insightful as it can be to understand what someone goes through while dealing with any form of disability, the story can often times feel unoriginal. This is not the case with John, as is clear from very early on in the film.
Everything he does, every observation, every daily realisation he has through-out his journey is brimming with his personality and his deeply scholarly introspection.
Initially he caries a steadfast resolution to “Live with blindness, but never accept it”. He decides employ all his efforts in arming himself with every possible tool to continue his academic studies and professorial duties, without letting his lack of eyesight stop him.
As he loses all remnants of light perception and the daily shortcomings of life with blindness become more and more apparent to him, he slips into a much gloomier, concerned mood.
He’s concerned about his brain physically dying from the lack of visual stimulation, concerned about not being able to remember his loved one’s faces, and concerned in his sub-conscious he may never truly learn to be happy with his cognition.
This leads to deep introspection. As time progresses, this alienates his wife who fears losing him to his own thoughts.
But as John himself puts it he had “a central core” in his family, with which to recreate his perception of the world, all but lost with the loss of his eyesight. And during his journey he finds solace in a certain sense of spirituality through divinity and a connection with his wife and kids, which he never would have had had he never lost his sight.
So much that the man that had vowed never to accept his condition finally comes to regard his condition as a ‘gift’, and states that “To gain our full humanity, blind people and sighted people need each other”.
All this thematic richness and inspiring sense of John’s story is translated into the film’s cinematography. The film employs a number of talented actors (such as Dan Renton Skinner or Simone Kirby) to lip sync over the voices of the real John Hull and his family.
A quite strange decision to take for a documentary but one that works brilliantly, as it allows for the filmmakers to visually enrich John’s story through symbolism and cinematographic choices, without compromising the sense of reality, and earnestness provided by the original voices.
During his journey he finds solace in a certain sense of spirituality through divinity and a connection with his wife and kids
The camerawork is particularly insightful, as it employs a number of close shots of John, at all times, to make sure that whatever you are seeing on screen, you are experiencing through the point of view of the blind man, a rather paradoxical decision in such a visual medium as cinema, but one that works quite nicely. And even when there are long shots, they are quite prominent, and serve to give a sense of impotence or, at times, of higher power.
There is also strong visual symbolism throughout the film, in particular related to nature and its elements such as sunlight or water. These all fit well within the context of John’s recordings and relate to some last remnants of perception he holds on to, even after the lost of his eyesight.
A special note is also due to the incredible actors who give life to voices recorded decades earlier, and without which this film would’ve lost an element of wonder.
As a final note, do not go into this film expecting a simple, by the numbers, linear story. The plot does sometimes feel disjointed, but this is true of all documentaries and films rooted so deeply into reality.
However, if you go into this film with an open mind and heart and with a genuine interest in the plight of a man in such a condition, then Notes on Blindness will not only entertain you and challenge your perceptions, as well as deeply move you. At least it did for me.
John Hull passed away in 2015, shortly before the feature premiered in Sundance in January 2016. He personally affected a number of lives and, as this feature film continues to screen around the world, it is my hope that his story affects many others.
Notes on Blindness is unlike any movie you’ve seen, but it is likely to make you have a different perspective on your ability to see at all.
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Media sourced from San Francisco Film Society and courtesy of Pete Middleton