In 1980, academic John Hull lost his sight. It was a process he recorded on audio-cassettes over a period of three years. Notes on Blindness gives shape to his voice in the form of actor Dan Skinner, who lip-synced John’s voice, and turns the tapes into one of the most audacious experimentations of the documentary form and creates one of the most beautiful, deeply moving films of recent times.
There are times during the film when it all became too much. The cinema as a whole tried to hold it together, but the more we heard John Hull talk about his blindness and his family, his eloquent and serene voice made nostalgically raspy by the cassette-tape quality, the harder it became to hold back the tears.
The film begins just as John learns he will lose his sight in a very short period of time. Rather than feeling desolate, he channels his academic zeal into preparing and minimising the disruption to his life. He gets people to record books and academic texts (audiobooks were nowhere near as popular in the 80s as they are now) and learns braille.
Throughout all of this he retained the slightest sight: a flicker of a shadow or an illuminated object in propinquity. It is only after this last glimpse of light passes and his preparation is complete that sadness and the appreciation of the fact that he is blind, really sinks in.
The spine of the documentary is founded upon John’s rumination on what his blindness means in the context of others; what it means for him as a husband, a father and a son.
The tapes allow the film to visualise moments of pure joy as John amusingly plays hide-and-seek with his young son Tom – he finds Tom by sound – but also darker moments such as when John observes how blindness can render him ‘useless as a father’ in times of injury or accidents.
It is the transition between the two opposites, sometimes long-gestating, other times painfully abrupt, that make Notes on Blindness so emotionally powerful.
Intertwined with this emotional backbone are the brilliant technical aspects of the film. The documentary uses John’s extensive recordings but has actors Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby to lip-sync his and his wife’s voices.
However, to say that Skinner and Kirby are merely lip-syncing would be a disservice to their contribution. The actors literally embody the real voices of John his wife Marilyn. They capture every emotional nuance in the recordings and their performances should not be underestimated.
In a particularly heart-wrenching scene John walks Tom to school, or rather as he wrily observes, Tom walks him to school, and we see an innovative way in which a blind father and his son ‘wave’ goodbye to each other: both shout ‘Bye’ to each other until they are out of earshot. This being recorded by John, you hear Tom’s voice get fainter and fainter as John says into the recorder: “I loved that.”
You don’t know whether it’s the palpable emotion in John’s voice or Skinner’s acting, which is understated and captivating from the beginning, that triggers a flood of tears. It’s probably somewhere in the middle. It is definitely devastating.
In another powerful scene, Tom runs in and out of large, billowing grey curtains in slow motion. There is something behind the curtains but we can’t quite work out what. It’s a perfect example of how Notes on Blindness probably has the best answer to the painfully paradoxical question: how do you visually convey blindness?
People’s faces come in and out of focus. Rooms are dimly lit. Skinner is frequently partially or completely enveloped in darkness. His hands, now his primary way of seeing, are the most visible. Just as the decision to use actors to embody the voices on the recordings adds to the fascinating sensory experience of the film, these technical efforts help create an air of disorientation and uncanniness.
In fact, as the documentary explores, John’s whole life has now become uncanny. The old school he attended is now familiar yet completely alien. He notices how blindness isn’t only a visual impairment but a neurological one – memories he once had that are now not sustained by visual reminders fade. He finds himself forgetting what his wife and daughter look like, what presents he got when he was young, where he went on holiday once.
The emotional toll of such realisations weighs heavy on John’s voice and Skinner’s shoulders, and Skinner picks up on the former’s reluctance to let that burden slip onto the rest of his family.
These moments of desolation are palliated fleetingly by drops of water. John records that rain is a blind man’s best friend, giving shape and location to things he cannot see, and his voice is played over visually stunning sequences of his house being drenched in rain – for him suddenly everything is illuminated: his cassette-player, the chair by the window, the kitchen table and most importantly, his family. What he hears is what he sees.
Those scenes in particular capture the audaciousness and brilliance of Notes on Blindness. It’s a film that intriguingly, sensitively bridges the gap between documentary and acting, the aural and the visual, and most importantly, light and darkness.
It is not a film about a man’s struggle with blindness, it is about a man’s triumph over it. 5/5