Notes on Blindness (U)

four stars

Dirs: Pete Middleton, James Spinney

With: Dan Renton Skinner, Simone Kirby, John M Hull

Runtime: 90 minutes

IT requires a certain level of confidence, one that goes beyond breathtaking, to make a film that tries to capture the experience of losing one’s sight. Like writing a radio play about deafness, or a ballet about paralysis, the two elements ought to be at odds.

But that is the power, glory, and flexibility of the arts for you. It also helps to have first class material on which to draw. The kind of material, indeed, that forms the heart of Notes on Blindness. The writer and theologian John Hull wrote a book about losing his sight, Touching the Rock. Just as importantly for the purposes of Pete Middleton and James Spinney’s film, developed from their award-winning short, he recorded audio diaries. It is these scratchy old cassettes which are turned into documentary gold in Notes on Blindness.

Those, plus a rather clever device. The voices in the film, including those of John Hull, his wife Marilyn and their children, come from the original recordings. But they are mouthed by actors (in this case Dan Renton Skinner as John and Simone Kirby as Marilyn). The last time I saw this technique used was in the equally impressive London Road, a musical drama about the Ipswich murders which was based on interviews with local residents. It is the sort of thing, rather like making a film about blindness, which ought not to work but does by virtue of being so startling.

Hull’s blindness started as a black disc in his eye, which then spread. Having fought the loss of sight all his life he had a tiny bit of vision left by the time a son was born. As someone who made his living reading, writing and lecturing, his thoughts immediately turned to how he could carry on working. He needed academic works on tape, but only detective fiction and romance seemed to be available. On asking how blind people read “big books” he was told, “They don’t.”

So he set up a team of readers, numbering 30 at one point, and otherwise began adapting to his new life. There was some satisfaction to be had in all this keeping busy, but when his final sliver of sight went there was a reckoning. This was it, the realisation that his blindness was permanent. How could he go on? How would he cope? He reasoned that the only way to come to terms with his disability, or not be defeated by it, was to understand it; hence the diaries.

Writer-directors Middleton and Spinney work a minor miracle in conveying all this on film. Through Hull’s words and their images the audience is given a sense of how it might feel to be overwhelmed by events, left helpless against forces greater than oneself. Though traumatic times are depicted, and difficult moments are dealt with honestly, the tone is always dignified. Most moving of all are the scenes set in Hull’s dreams, where he can see again. “Every time I wake up I lose my sight,” he tells us and the loss is felt all over again. Though a sighted person could never truly appreciate what that feels like, they will know a lot more than they might have done going in to this film.

Hull writes beautifully about his disability but he is refreshingly hard-headed about it too. He knows the choice before him: live in the past, or embrace the present, as difficult as it is at times. While he is the film’s subject, this is as much about the importance of having a loving family around, and there is something very moving about the way his children, above all, adapt so quickly to his disability. To them he is daddy. A dad different to others, but a dad all the same. As Hull once wrote, “To gain our full humanity, blind people and sighted people need each other.” This remarkable film is testament to that spirit.

Glasgow Film Theatre, Edinburgh Filmhouse, July 1-7.