Documentary storytelling is a fine art, and finding the balance between participants and narrative whilst still creating a visual treat can be tricky. In Notes on Blindness filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney attempt something even harder – looking through the eyes of writer and theologian John Hull, a man who’s vision is slowly deteriorating.
Notes on Blindness is a remarkable piece of work, not least because of the extraordinary audiotape diaries that Hull himself started recording once he became blind in 1983. Excerpts from these formed the basis of his 1990 autobiography ‘Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness’ and have now been used to incredible effect by the directors to create a truly wonderful piece of cinema after his death in 2015.
The film uses lip-syncing actors to portray Hull and his family on-screen with comic actor Dan (Renton) Skinner taking the lead role. It’s an incredibly touching performance for a man previously best known for his quirky lowlife Angelos Epithemiou character (featured on later series of Shooting Stars), as well as appearing in more obvious roles in Yonderland and The Wrong Mans.
While you might assume there would be very little humour in Hull’s world, the exact opposite is true. Over the course of the film, he begins to overcome the struggles of blindness, embracing the opportunity to empower his other senses and indeed his more spiritual side, despite his firm Humanist beliefs. The result is an almost metaphysical connection with his wife and children , one that may well not have proved so strong without his disability.
Although even the most moving documentary could never give a true sense of what it is like to be blind, the construct of Notes on Blindness does at least provide an honest insight and emotive perspective that few other films have achieved. Several sequences which feature depictions of rain – the falling of which is far heightened by Hull’s overpowered alternative senses – are particularly emotive to watch reconstructed with his own vocal descriptions.
Similarly, Hull’s abject uselessness when his daughter cries out in pain from afar is truly heartbreaking, all the more so knowing it’s blunt first-hand realism. With the memory of his world fading from him before our eyes, the film evokes a sense of realisation of just how much we rely on not only our current sight, but viewing photographs and suchlike to reinforce our memories. For Hull, he can only see his children’s faces in his dreams and even those, he realises, can’t be relied upon.
This wonderfully poetic documentary was deservedly nominated for three BAFTAs including Best Film, and is available to watch now until February 16th on BBC iPlayer, as well as on general release.