Notes on Blindness



A compelling document capturing one blind man’s response to his situation.


Notes on Blindness


In 2005 Gary Tarn made Black Sun an extraordinary work that dealt with the French painter Hugues de Montilembert who had lost his sight after being attacked in New York in 1978. That film is a masterpiece, a brilliantly stylised documentary in which the artist is heard telling his own story and I cannot imagine any other film about blindness working as well. Nevertheless, this striking new documentary by Pete Middleton and James Spinney is a worthy runner-up.


Notes on Blindness is a film about the theologian and teacher John Hull who was born in 1935 and grew up with problems of eyesight. Undergoing a series of operations, he would eventually lose his sight in his forties and, although he died as recently as 2015, this film concentrates on that key period in his life during the 1980s prior to the time in 1990 when his experiences led him to write a book on the subject. Once his situation became clear, he set out to express his thoughts on audiotapes and it is those words, together with interviews with John and his wife Marilyn, that are used here. In a gesture that echoes the approach of Clio Barnard in The Arbor (2010), lip-synching is again involved and actors have a substantial role to play in re-enactments, albeit that the power of the film lies primarily in those authentic words.


Hull was an intellectual so it was natural that he should think deeply about blindness pondering philosophically such issues as what blindness means in terms of remaining fully human. It would lead to his realisation that he needed to choose to live in reality rather than in nostalgia and that the crucial question for his future was not why it had become his lot to cope with blindness but to ask what he should do with it. Despite the wonderful support of his wife, there were times of real difficulty for him and for her as well as for their children, but the film is undoubtedly inspirational, bracing for the viewer and quite without any of the sentimentality that such a tale could involve. What is surprising, given Hull’s background, is that religious questions are ignored until quite late on.


Some images seek to express visually poetic aspects in the words and, given that the film’s approach is that of a documentary, I do find that such moments and the substantial use of actors, good as they are, do remind me that I am watching a hybrid. That is one reason why I find Black Sun the finer work, but I appreciate that the effectiveness of enacted scenes in documentary works can be a matter of personal taste. My reservations may not be yours but, regardless of your take on this question, Notes on Blindness is a deeply impressive workcoin. 




Cast: Dan Renton Skinner, Simone Kirby, Eileen Davies and the voices of John M. Hull and Marilyn Hull.

Dir Pete Middleton and James Spinney, Pro Mike Brett, Jo Jo Ellison, Pete Middleton, James Spinney and others, Written by Pete Middleton and James Spinney, Ph Gerry Floyd, Pro Des Damien Creagh, Ed Julian Quantrill, Music James Ewers and Noah Wood, Costumes Julia Drummond-Haig.

Archer’s Mark/Impact Partners/BFI/Arte France-Curzon Artificial Eye.
90 mins. UK. 2016. Rel: 1 July 2016. Cert. U