Much like the memoir that inspired it, Notes on Blindness (from co-directors James Spinney and Peter Middleton) attempts the seemingly impossible, especially for a visual art form: to capture the essence—both actual and emotional—of being blind. Using as its framework the memoir from writer, educator and theologian John Hull, “On Sight and Insight: A Journey into the World of Blindness,” the documentary works tirelessly to accurately recreate the process Hull went through when he discovered he was on the verge of completely losing his vision in the early 1980s, at the age of 48.
At first, Hull began recruiting volunteers to record dozens of important text and research books so that he could listen to them later in preparation for lecturing to his classes. But as the blindness became complete, he also began using a tape recorder as a means of remarking on the way his mind and emotions responded and/or adapted to his collapsing condition. The result is a sensory experience that is unlike anything you’ve likely seen. As Hull’s words become as trippy as they are powerful. Every word we hear is Hull’s (and anyone else that happened to be in the room while he was recording); what we see are actors portraying him and his wife Marilyn lip-synching the dialogue on the tapes, and the result is eerie and quite moving.
But the film also turns his nightmares and fears about being blind into reality. Hull is convinced that if he doesn’t overcome his fear of blindness, it will destroy him mentally. He has low and high moments, but he works through everything will Marilyn’s help. An appreciation of certain sounds brings a fresh, uplifting perspective to his condition one day, while a trip to his native Australia, where he hopes to surround himself with the familiar is a disaster. But the return home helps him rebound quickly.
Perhaps because Hull himself approached the world as an academic, Notes on Blindness avoids the trappings of a sappy, overly sentimental work and instead sets out to immerse the audience in the mind and fading eyes of this man who came to see blindness as a gift he didn’t necessarily want, but one he would embrace. The film is ambitious, carefully and skillfully crafted, and tirelessly constructed into a magnificent journey of the heart and mind.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.