Cinema may not seem like the natural medium to explore blindness. An art form dominated by images is surely ill-suited to the endeavour of trying to understand what it is like to be without sight. But cinema is memory and in the case of someone who has lost their sight, the idea of flickering frames of celluloid and light suddenly become unexpectedly poignant. That is precisely what happens with Pete Middleton and James Spinney’s Notes on Blindness, which uses authentic sound recordings and reconstructed visuals to tell the story of a man coming to terms with his own loss of sight in the early 1980s.
Whilst academic and theologian John Hull does go on a specific narrative journey, what the filmmakers have attempted, and succeeded, to do is share his experience. This is undoubtedly all the more potent in the film’s accompanying virtual reality exhibition, but is also central to the feature and a range of different techniques are employed. It “took the form of a dark black disc that slowly progressed across the field of vision,” explains Hull as a dark disc crosses the screen. At other points he describes fleeting pictures in his mind of his wife and daughter and the film employs visuals of old photographs and home video footage. For much of the film, events are recreated more literally with actors Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby lip-syncing along as John and his wife, Marilyn. They do this from the extensive cassette recordings that the Hull family have.
After John lost his sight, they decided to record their everyday lives and special occasions in the way we usually expect of home movies. As such, the recollections and moments of incredible emotion are genuine records. Middleton and Spinney shoot these sequences in a way that emphasises the other senses being used. The camera is often trained only on John as he listens, the audience having to imagine what he would be seeing as they too listen along – this is particularly effective during a Christmas day when he can’t see a present that is being noisily unwrapped on the floor below him. Elsewhere they use close-ups and low depth of field to give a fantastic tactile quality as John’s hand runs over wood or skin.
Of course, this cannot truly replicate the sensations that John feels and the film rightly keeps attempts to actually visually represent his experience to a minimum. Instead, they rely on his eloquent descriptions. A sequence in which he describes how “rain brings out the contours of what’s around you” is a standout and deeply affecting. The same is true when he explains that “the pictures in the gallery of my mind have dimmed somewhat” before the heartbreaking revelation that he has lost the memory of his childhood home in Australia. Notes on Blindness raises fascinating questions about our reliance on visual memory aids and the amount to which we truly experience the world around us.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson