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Notes on Blindness: Poetic, innovative and inspiring


- This creative and poetic documentary by British filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney tells a personal story of a man who has gone blind, which provides plenty of food for thought

Notes on Blindness: Poetic, innovative and inspiring
Dan Skinner in Notes on Blindness

The immensely creative and poetic documentary Notes on Blindness [+see also:
interview: James Spinney, Peter Middle…
film profile
by British filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney is a very personal story of a man who has gone blind, which inspires awareness of and thoughts about much wider implications. After world-premiering in Sundance's New Frontier section, the film bowed to European audiences in the Voices section of the International Film Festival Rotterdam

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English writer, theologian and professor at the University of Birmingham John Hull started losing his sight in 1980, and after a series of unsuccessful operations, he went completely blind a couple of days after his first son was born. He spent the first few years fighting with essentially superficial problems that his state brought with it: he was concerned about his work – namely, how do blind people read “big books” (anthropology and sociology, as opposed to literature that existed as audiobooks on cassette tapes). He assembled a team of 30 people to record volumes and volumes of this material before he realised he was starting to forget the faces of his family.

This prompted him to record his thoughts and observations, as well as some of the conversations with his wife and children, on cassette, and this material served first as the basis for an Emmy-winning short film with the same title for Middleton and Spinney. Now it is a feature-length documentary in which Hull and his wife Marilyn are played by professional actors, Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby, respectively, lip-synching to Hull's recordings.

The result is a highly cinematic experience. The camera work by Gerry Floyd focuses mostly on details, such as mouths, eyes and hands, usually in the warm light of the sun. Swedish master Joakim Sundström's sound design is intricate and carefully thought-through to maximum effect, and consists of layers and layers of noises, getting deeper as the film progresses and Hull's newly awakened senses develop.

A particularly beautiful scene that stands out is the one when Hull notices for the first time how the sound of the rain makes shapes around him start to acquire contours, and this is where he finds new hope. By this point, he was already deep in depression, and here was a lifeline that he could hold on to and use to pull himself out.

While the form of the film is reminiscent of Clio Barnard's The Arbor [+see also:
film profile
and, in a wider thematic sense, echoes Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, Notes on Blindness makes for a very original, poetic and moving viewing experience. Middleton and Spinney's documentary is eye-opening on multiple levels. Crucially, it helps us to see more clearly the general problem of mutual understanding. As Hull, who died in 2015 and is survived by Marilyn and their five children, says at one of his lectures: “How can blind and sighted people truly understand each other? How can men understand women? How can the rich understand the poor? How can the old understand the young? Can we have insights into other people? This is the great question upon which the unity of humanity hangs.” 

Together with France's Agat Films & Cie/Ex Nihilo, the team has also developed a virtual-reality project called Into Darkness: A VR Journey into a World Beyond Sight, a four-part interactive documentary using binaural audio, VR and real-time 3D animations to explore the cognitive and emotional experience of blindness. 

Notes on Blindness is a production by the UK's Archer’s Mark and is handled internationally by Tel Aviv-based Cinephil. 

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