“The most important thing in life is not happiness but meaning.”
— John M. Hull, Notes on Blindness
Set in the summer of 1983,
Notes on Blindness
is a beautiful 2016 documentary that explores the life of
writer and theologian John M. Hull.
Based on his memoir, Touching the Rock,
the film offers a deeply personal account
of an academic who permanently loses his vision
while anticipating the birth of his son.
Filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney
draw from audio cassettes recorded by Hull at the time,
which attempt to explain and understand
the experience of blindness
through vivid philosophical reflections
on everyday events and experiences.
Notes on Blindness begins
as a kind of intellectual exercise
designed to recover a sense of mastery and control,
but it becomes a moving testimony
on disability, family, and the journey toward personal acceptance.
The audio recordings are dramatised
through moving and understated performances of Hull and his family.
Soft light, oblique angles and dark interiors
create a cinematography of the glimpse,
fragmented and out of focus,
helping viewers to relate to Hull’s frustrations
with his defamiliarised environment.
We rely on visual metaphors and analogies
to understand and order the world,
to orient ourselves in meaningful relation to others.
But how can one be illuminated or enlightened,
how can one seek and find,
in a world where light and dark do not exist?
Notes on Blindness challenges commonplace assumptions
about the naturalness of time, place, and identity—
the universality or uniformity of perceptions—
to ask how our bodies shape our awareness of the world.
Markers of temporal duration do not offer linear order
to a life that is lived in the present;
definitions of near and far are meaningless
in a landscape that is tactile, close;
while dream, memory, and lived reality
reconfigure agency and selfhood.
Joakim Sundström’s enhanced soundtrack
allows sighted audiences to experience
Hull’s everyday moments in a rich and evocative way:
the heightened sound of rainfall through an open door,
the vibrations of a car journeying across the Australian landscape,
the wind rushing through grass near a shoreline.
These moments of immersion
each have a singular and distinctive beauty.
Notes on Blindness helps to forge a greater understanding
of Hull’s intellectual transformations as an academic and theologian,
but also forms a deep and abiding sense of empathy
between its audience and its subject.
The filmmakers’ simulations of Hull’s experiences,
and their careful attention to small but crucial details,
allow us to witness, in a manner of speaking,
Hull’s moments of personal transcendence and grace—
of trial and difficulty gifted by a sense of the miraculous.
I was deeply moved by this film.
Find out more about Notes on Blindness at notesonblindness.co.uk