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Notes on Blindness

In 1983, after years of deteriorating vision, the writer and theologian John Hull lost the last traces of light sensation. For the next three years, he kept a diary on audio-cassette of his interior world of blindness. This film is a dramatization that uses his original recordings.

The Story Behind ‘Notes on Blindness’

In May 2011, we received a parcel containing a dusty box of eight C90 cassettes. Amid the analog crackle of the first tape, we heard a now-familiar voice: “Cassette one. Side one. Notes on Blindness.” It was the first time the recording had been played for almost 25 years.

We had met John and Marilyn Hull six months earlier while filming a short documentary about the blind experience of snowfall. Among the many first-person testimonies we had encountered during our research was John’s book, “Touching the Rock.” We were immediately struck by the depth of his observation and the power of his account. Naturally, we were eager to discover whether the diary tapes upon which the book was based were still in existence, and were honored when John was generous enough to share them with us.

John developed cataracts at the age of 13, which left him blind for months at a time. The restoration of his sight was followed by a series of retinal detachments. After a number of operations, in 1980, at age 45, John’s vision was so poor that he was registered blind. He and Marilyn were newly married and she had just given birth to a son, Thomas. John was working as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham, England, and he recalls that this initial period was dominated by the practical challenges of adaptation, which left little time for reflection.

It wasn’t until 1983, when John had lost the final traces of light sensation, that he began to confront the enormousness of this loss. “I knew that if I didn’t understand it,” he now recalls, “blindness would destroy me.” In June of that year John made his first diary recording.

“The world into which I am being dragged with my loved ones will engulf us. There will be no return. Blindness is permanent and irreversible... My life is in crisis.”

Over the next three years John recorded over 16 hours of audio diaries, excavating the interior world of blindness. They document a purging period of grief, but eventually of renewal, in what John describes as the discovery of a “world beyond sight.”

Throughout this time, the diaries are characterized by a restless, searching gaze. And here our phrasing becomes problematic — insight, gaze, observation. One of the great tensions of the work is that it is constantly working at the limits of expression, straining language dominated by visual referents and imagery. Yet it is at these moments that the account is at its most poetic: The Los Angeles Times, in its review of John’s book “Touching the Rock,” described his “talent for — in the words of the blind poet John Milton — making the ‘darkness visible.’” As filmmakers, too, we found that approaching this material in a visual medium was a partly paradoxical enterprise.

Translating John’s Hull’s Audio Diaries to the Screen

John’s original audio recordings form the narrative backbone of the film. We also hear Marilyn’s voice, taken from a BBC interview from the early 1990s. These documentary sources are supported by cinematic interpretations using actors, visual metaphor and textured sound design. The audio recordings are employed in several ways: as straightforward narration; as dialogue; and in certain instances as verbatim speech, lip-synced by our cast.

In combining documentary and dramatic elements, we hope to follow a recent trend in creative approaches to the documentary form, such as Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” and Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing”; films that interrogate the distinctions between “real” and “performed” within the documentary framework.

“Notes on Blindness” was conceived as three distinct chapters, each exploring a central theme of the diaries. The first of these focuses on the role of the visual in memory and the construction of the self. The second explores John’s struggle with acceptance and the question of whether he’ll ever be able to truly find peace with blindness. The final chapter is a celebration of sensation — Johnʼs first glimpse of the “riches” of blindness and the nuances of nonvisual perception.

John description of blindness as “the borderland between dream and memory” informed our aesthetic approach, and much of the key imagery of the film is rooted in his testimony. Throughout the diaries John recounts vivid “technicolor” dreams, his “last state of visual consciousness,” which he compares to watching films. In particular, the water imagery that recurs in the film — visions of surging waves; of being dragged into the depths of the ocean — is derived from John’s account.

While John and Marilyn’s voices form a central part of the soundtrack, we avoided direct use of visual archive material on screen. In a passage where John describes “trying to remember memories of photographs” in order to recall the faces of his children, we carefully recreated images from the Hull family photo albums using our actors.

Drawing both from the diaries and from research interviews carried out with John and Marilyn, the second chapter of the film condenses a number of distressing instances of panic-induced asthma attacks. John had suffered severe breathing problems since childhood, and these became particularly intense during the first few years of total blindness, an acutely physical manifestation of his sense of isolation. Perhaps not coincidentally, elsewhere in the diaries John compares the mind of the recently blinded, longing for optic stimulation, to lungs starved of oxygen, gasping for air.

The final scene of “Notes on Blindness” hints at the larger narrative of the tapes, across which John registers a sea change in his outlook. By the close of the diaries, John finds that increasingly he has to remind himself of the existence of the visual world. Indeed, in an entry from 1986 he even defines blindness as “a dark, paradoxical gift,” around which he will come to redefine his life.

Now in his late 70s and still working as an honorary professor at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham, John in 2012 was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for Services to Literature on Blindness by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (R.N.I.B.).

John’s responses to the diary extracts used in “Notes on Blindness,” listening from a distance of 30 years, accompany the film in text and audio form. It has clearly been painful for him to revisit this time. Just last week, John mentioned to us that while drafting these responses he had to telephone Marilyn from his office to ask, “Why am I doing this?” She replied, “For other people.”
Source: The New York Times

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