Peter Middleton and James Spinney 2014-04-10 04:36:06
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. A film directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney is a dramatization that uses his original recordings. 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. 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.” These are 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–John’s first glimpse of the “riches” of blindness and the nuances of nonvisual perception. John’s 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. 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.” Peter Middleton and James Spinney are London-based filmmakers. Their Op-Doc “Notes on Blindness” is an official selection of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. They are currently developing a feature-length version of the film. Reprinted with permission of the New York Times. Digital LION View the film “Notes on Blindness” at www.lionmagazine.org. John Hull Reflects on His Blindness John Hull recently reflected on his diary entries in the film, dwelling on his memories of sight, alarm at the onset of darkness and his eventual discovery of beauty. Part I: Memory It is strange going back to these memories after more than 30 years. It's like … like reopening an old wound. Perhaps disability is like that. At one level, of course, you get used to it. You heal. You forget. But then something like this comes along and it is as if there is a running sore far beneath that has never been healed. My children, of course, are grown up now. They're all young adults living their own lives in different parts of the country. I don’t really wonder what they look like; it never occurs to me. And yet these memories, they do somehow tempt me back into the world of sight. Would I have got to know them better had I seen them all these years? I can’t resist the temptation now of wondering. Imogen, those beautiful big solemn brown eyes she had as a young child. Thomas, has he still got that cheeky grin? Gaby and Joshua, what are they like? Fine young fellas? Lizzie, is she now a beautiful young woman? And yet, these temptations are foolish, aren’t they? I don’t need to see them. I don’t think I would have known them any more if I could have seen them. My life with them has been a life of, of conversation, of stories lived together, of passing days. After all, being human is not seeing. It’s loving. Part II: Panic The feelings of panic have long since subsided. My blind skin has… has got thicker. I have become less aware of the darkness. Ah, as the light has faded and the memory of the light has faded, then the awareness of darkness has also faded. So, I don’t feel as if I’m in the dark. Ah, I don't go round thinking I’m blind. I just live my life and I love it. Of course the asthma which I had so seriously in those days contributed to the feeling of panic. So that’s another reason why it’s not so bad today. And yet, now and again, sometimes, I do get a kind of a feeling of claustrophobia. Of being oppressed by the darkness, which becomes alive for me again. I don’t quite know what brings it on. It’s sometimes the feeling, the sudden feeling, of being abnormal, of suddenly being aware, of being surrounded by sighted people. And then I can feel hemmed in somehow by an overwhelming cloud of darkness. Like an entanglement around me. I don’t know if sighted people ever feel dazzled or panicked by an excess of sight. An excess of light? Do sighted people sometimes feel naked in front of the all-seeing world? If not, then why should blindness panic me? Well, when the normality of being blind is removed–when one suddenly feels acutely different–then the presence of other blind people can be strangely comforting. Part III: Rainfall I’m not sure whether there is really beauty in blindness or whether it’s just the fragments of life which are restored to you when so much is lost. The world does return to you. Somehow more precious because it’s a remnant. But then you forget that it’s a remnant, and you start to enjoy those formerly scattered fragments in themselves. I suppose blindness lowers the threshold of your awareness so that you start to notice things that otherwise you wouldn’t have noticed. The wind in the trees. The crunch of dry leaves on the front drive. Human voices. Sunshine on your face. And even smaller things: the smell of a new book, the beautiful smooth edge of a table, human hair, the first sip of red wine. Of course I know that sighted people also enjoy these things, but perhaps there is a kind of an intensification that blindness brings to these experiences which somehow makes them, in a way, more beautiful? I open the bathroom window early in the morning. There’s a touch of frost on the windowsill. An owl hoots. In the distance a morning train rushes by. I close the window. In the stillness I know that life is beautiful. Reprinted with permission of the New York Times.
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