The film begins with nothing but a tape recorder to look at and a series of disembodied voices. It struck me that being blind you must also be surrounded by seemingly disembodied voices.
The scholar John Hull lost his sight in 1983 after a series of surgical treatments. It was just at that moment that his son was born as well. Since that moment, he kept a diary on a voice recorder to speak to himself about his experiences with blindness. He recorded his notes on blindness for many years. This British film took the original sound recordings and created a biography around them. Actors fill in the roles of Hull and his family, but what you hear here are the original recordings, while the actors in the film lip-sync the lines.
Notes on blindness. Thoughts keep tumbling into John Hull’s mind. How is he going to teach now? How is he going to live his life? It is self-evident that losing your vision has an enormous impact on your life, but as those who never had that experience, it is impossible to fully understand what it is like. There must be countless moments of struggle in day to day life that we simply do not realize when we think about it. John Hull’s Notes on Blindness may be one of the best efforts to bridge that gap of experiences between those who see, and those who no longer see.
Hull was a theologian and therefore automatically in the habit of thinking deeper about what things mean in his life. He started his Notes as a personal effort to understand blindness and what it means for him personally, in order to not be defeated by it. At times it is an immensely tragic story. Almost every line from the notes is a profound musing on the new nature of his life. I would guess that the screenwriter and director have chosen a selection of the notes and they selected all the heavy ones.
The film is full of visual metaphor, which is rather ironic because it is a means of communication that the main character can no longer receive. But for us it works very well. The colors are bleak, rather dark. Shadows and focus are played around with. Silences tend to stretch a bit. The cinematography is full of little efforts to make us feel a little blind ourselves.
The struggle that Hull is describing, is in the end recognizable. He is going through a prolonged grief process where he has to accept something that devastates him, while that acceptance also feels like giving up at the same time. When a loss is large enough, you either get destroyed or you reinvent yourself in time.
What this film beautifully portrays is that no person is completely on his or her own, but a piece inside an environment. The physical environment can be painfully absent, or it can stabilize John so that he can reestablish himself as a new person, in effect. And it is in John’s interaction with his family, his wife, his children, his parents, where his struggle takes place. This is the true meaning of blindness, perhaps, and it goes beyond the body and the person.