John Hull, an Australian theologian working at the UK’s University of Birmingham, went blind in 1983. He was 48 years old. Over the next two decades, he skillfully adjusted his professional, intellectual and family life to this disability. He kept an audio diary, recording both his technical achievements and his philosophy. “I am concerned to understand blindness,” he vowed, “to seek its meaning, to retain the fullness of my humanity.”
Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney have taken these recordings and fashioned them into Notes on Blindness, a cinematic adaptation of Hull’s life and work, expanded to feature length from their New York Times OpDoc short film. It is a fascinating stylistic endeavor, one that takes flight from the many detailed observations that fill the audio tapes. It is not, however, inspiring. And that’s something to be thankful for.
Documentaries about people with disabilities are often praised with that dreaded word, “inspiring.” It is the sort of condescending language that all-too-often further isolates a subject. The films in question often possess a certain glossiness, as if the camera itself softly wept while recording the life story of its subject. But to make such a film about Hull would be even more egregious than the genre normally is, as his life’s work involved the careful avoidance of such an unequal dichotomy of perspective. He eventually came to view his blindness as something of a blessing, if also a puzzle. “It’s a gift, and the question is what can I do with it,” he explains.
Middleton and Spinney respond to this challenge with every cinematic tool at their disposal. The film takes the form of a series of reenactments, in which actors lip-sync to the voices of Hull and his wife. It moves chronologically, beginning with the advent of blindness and continuing through his philosophical transformation. Production designer Damien Creagh and cinematographer Gerry Floyd collaborate on creating spaces that echo the loss of vision. Windows let narrow portals of light into otherwise dark rooms. Tree branches obstruct the frame. Archival photographs, usually a mainstay of the genre, are reserved for a sequence in which Hull discusses the loss of his visual memory. The images are manipulated slightly, suggesting this gradual disappearance.
The film’s soundtrack is even more precise. James Ewers and Noah Wood’s original score consists mainly of slowly developing soundscapes. A way array of sounds are sprinkled into these fluid backdrops, brilliant detailing from a team led by sound designer Joakim Sundström. Individual sounds are used for psychological suggestion, everything from the perhaps obvious typewriter to the more subtle tones of rain and the voices of children. These elements are woven into the film with great care and a light touch, building Hull’s world inward from the sonic periphery.
None of these techniques, from the lighting to the foley, are gimmicky. Middleton and Spinney have no interest in replicating the experience of blindness for their audience, an endeavor as inevitably difficult as it would be artistically pointless. Instead, they use cinema to explore Hull’s observations about blindness and its effects. Cinema is an art of perception and Notes on Blindness continues its subject’s perceptual mission, the sharing of phenomena between the sightless and the seeing.
In a sense, this makes Notes on Blindness a narrower film than the other nonfiction works it brings to mind. The Arbor, which also includes actors lip-syncing to documentary material, grows this technique into an ambitious metaphor for the relationship between life and theater. Blue, Derek Jarman’s experimental meditation on his own AIDS-related blindness, uses a simple blue screen as a launching point for a grand philosophical journey. Notes on Blindness has much narrower goals. Yet in this slender thematic crevice, Middleton and Spinney find nuanced observations and resonant details. The result is perhaps the most beautifully focused work of creative nonfiction that has been released this year.