What's it like to lose one's sight? What goes through our mind if we can no longer see? What do dreams turn into? Do we forget what things look like? When John Hull became completely blind in 1983, he began to record his experience on a series of audiotapes, which have formed the basis of a film about his journey into a world beyond sight. Notes on Blindness preserves the original audio recordings with the voices of John and his family, which are lip-synced by actors on screen. I spoke to directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney about the making of the film, which is currently in cinemas in the UK and available on several VOD platforms.
How did you come across John Hull's story and what were the first steps towards making a film about his experience?
Peter: About five years ago now, James and myself were researching various first person testimonies of blindness and we came across John's book, called Touching the Rock, which was published in the early ‘90s, and is in effect a transcript of these audio diaries he kept when he lost his sight in the early ‘80s. What starts for John as a kind of a searching process, one of trying to reconcile the loss and the grief of losing sight, becomes a story of almost transformation really, of rebirth and renewal when he comes to discover this world beyond sight. We were immediately taken by the way he was able to articulate the blind experience, and so we began identifying little chapters from it that could be made into short films. But first of all we got in contact with John, and he gave us access to the audiotapes – it must have been in mid 2011. He sent us this box of old C90 cassettes that hadn't been heard for thirty years. So we were taking little passages from that and making a series of short films. The first one was called Rainfall, and that lead to a twelve minute piece that the New York Times backed, back in 2014 and that allowed us to get the momentum together to shoot the feature, or to get the funding in place to shoot the feature.
Peter, you studied Visual Art; while James, you studied English Literature. What was it like working together?
Peter: We've been working together for a few years longer than that, it was very much the project that brought us together most intensely, but it's quite a long old road getting a project of this scale off the ground, so to have a sense of companionship is quite important. For at least three years we were developing the screenplay for the feature film and that was a process of experimentation, to excavate from these audio archives, this story. And, just to think what that must be like to do solo... So it was kind of crucial to have two heads on it, I suppose.
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You were based on John's audio diary to make the script, and the images we see are recreations of his account. You could say that the film is somewhere between documentary and fiction, what does this mean for the documentary genre?
James: That's a very interesting question. I suppose for us the approach was always just responsive to John's account. We knew immediately, when John shared the audio diaries with us, that his voice had to be front and centre. But at the same time, the journey that he goes on across these three years is such an internal journey, and his enquiry comes to his dreaming life, memories, his imaginative world. It's also an account that is set thirty years in the past, and those are hard things for a conventional documentary approach to access. So really we were trying to find an approach that would preserve the authenticity of John's account, but also allow us to access that internal journey. We were interested in a clear delineation between those two things, in the fact that the voices of John's family would be their original voices, but on screen they would be played by actors and that necessitated this lip-syncing technique to allow those two approaches to meet.
Peter: It's not something we get too hung up about, that kind of categorisation. Errol Morris said John Grierson did documentary a disservice by naming it. As James said, we wanted to find a way to access this very internal journey, and the kind of techniques that we used for that came quite naturally, because it felt appropriate for the material and that's always been something that has driven our creative approach, I think. We've very much benefitted from other films that are sort of surfacing throughout the process of development for us, like The Possibilities Are Endless, Stories We Tell, and The Act of Killing. These were all films that were pushing the conventions of the documentary form, and it certainly helped us communicate our creative project to central supporters and funders. There's undoubtedly been in the last few years a burning appetite for these more creative approaches to documentary.
So the lip-syncing technique, was it something that you thought of from the beginning?
Peter: We flirted with it a little bit in one of the short films, but no. Again, that moment came out of a way of wanting to root this material within the coherent, dramatic universe. As James said, we knew that we didn't want to use observational footage or talking heads, we wanted to find the way of accessing John's interior world as well, and so it came quite naturally. Clio Barnard's The Arbor uses this technique very successfully, and that certainly got our attention, so we began experimenting with it for one of the short films. In fact we sought out her casting director Amy Hubbard.
James: John and Marylin are such fantastic storytellers, and we found that when they were recounting conversations that they'd had, or dialogues, they would effectively act out both parts of the conversation. So when we were listening back on the interviews, we found that we kind of had the beginnings of dialogues, so we thought that if we edited out the “he saids” and “I saids” and then replaced the character with an actor, then you had a scene. As well as that, John, in his diaries, would document conversations that he'd had that day with the children. There are also recordings that the family would keep where they'd just record bedtime storytelling, or conversations that John had with his parents in Australia when he went home to see them. So there was a lot of actuality material that we felt would be very interesting to use, and lip-syncing was really the only way to get at that.
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John's dreams play an important role in the film, we think of dreams as being very much about seeing things, and in the film the dream scenes are very vivid. How did you decide how to represent these on screen?
James: John describes his dreaming life as his last state of visual consciousness. Even after being blind for several years his dreams remained highly visual and very vivid, to the point at some parts of the diaries he describes them as a form of escapism, because he actually feels a sense of refreshment from being in that visual world again, and finds that he starts looking forward to them. He also compares them to films, interestingly. Indeed, some of them are quite cinematic and operatic, such as dreams of his children being swept away by crushing waves, or being dragged to the depths of the ocean. Immediately when we were listening to the diaries we were struck by the opportunity there, and also the opportunity in contrast to the moments when he feels more isolated and talks about the initial reduction of his world in the early days of his blindness. Interestingly, one thing that the film doesn't cover is that John, a few years after Touching the Rock, talks about how his dreams start to take on a tactile quality, and they become more auditory and touch based, after the visual sense recedes eventually, which it does.
So we could consider blindness as a new state of consciousness where you don't depend on visual images.
Peter: Absolutely, yes, it's been John's journey of discovery of a world beyond sight. It is very closely related to visual memory in particular, the chapter where he talks about longing for the visual memories of his wife and his children, initially they're kind of fossilised and then fade. And the painful process of recognising that he was losing their images. There's a point in his diaries where John makes this conscious effort to reject what he called the nostalgia of visual memory, and the nostalgia of sighted life, and lets those memories kind of fade. And that, he claims, was integral to this discovery, to finding this new way of living in the world. He came to describe himself as a “whole-body seer,” this new state of consciousness that lead to a greater kind of focus in his life. The role of visual memory is absolutely integral, and was indeed of interest to other people like Oliver Sacks, who have written quite extensively about this neurological rewiring that John underwent during those years.
James: It's interesting that John's unconscious life was lagging behind, because in the early days of sight loss John said that he didn't feel that he was blind, he said that he felt that he was a sighted person who couldn't see. In other words, his mind still expected and longed for visual stimulation as your lungs may gasp for air. And so at that point he didn't feel that he was truly blind, it was only after a number of years and after this process of transformation that Pete describes, that he felt there had been a neurological rewiring that meant that he was experiencing the world as a true blind person.
“What starts for John as a kind of a searching process, one of trying to reconcile the loss and the grief of losing sight, becomes a story of transformation.”
Could you tell me a bit about the virtual reality project Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness that goes along with the film? What does it involve exactly?
James: Like the feature film, the virtual reality project is narrated by John using his original audio diaries, but, unlike the feature film, it's not a dramatized experience – the central point is the exploration of sensations and perception. It's six chapters, which explore the awakening of what John describes as his development of what he calls “acoustic space,” so how multi-layered patterns of sound bring shape and depth and detail to his environment. The experience uses binaural sound, which kind of mimics how we as humans hear, so it's like a three-dimensional sonic environment, and it also generates three-dimensional animation at the same time, which takes different chapters from John's diaries. One, which is also in the feature film, explores the sound of rainfall, and brings the world into three dimensions again. There's one about wind, and how it brings the leaves and trees back to life, and how thunder might put a roof over your head. There's one in a park that describes how this panorama of sound develops. So it's a much more meditative experience, it's one where you feel like you're in a spatial environment, and John guides you through these different sonic environments. We're really interested in it as a different entry point to John's account, and how whether you experience the feature and then the VR or vice versa, there's different ways into his descriptions of blindness. That's been the aim all the way through, they premiered side by side at Sundance in January, as well as in the UK at Sheffield Doc Fest.
What kind of response have you got from the audience?
Peter: We released on the 1st of July, and there's been a terrific response, it's kind of taking us a bit by surprise really. It's been wonderful to be able to share it with John's wife Marylin and the family, who were there at the UK premiere, in Sheffield back in June, and have been side by side with us. We're currently making a short film about John's daughter Imogen, who recorded her own little radio shows. So we're making this film that will be released in a couple months time when we go out to the States with her. Spending time with her, and what the film means to her, her response to her father, it's been an opportunity for her to reflect on her father's life. We've also been trying to explore new ways in which blind and partly-sighted audiences can experience the film. It's been very interesting getting feedback from the blind and partly-sighted community, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, and effectively releasing the film with a choice of different audio soundtracks that can be accessed through a smartphone app that sort of explores experimental, innovative approaches to accessibility. So there's the conventional audio description, we also released a version of the film with an enhanced soundtrack, which rather than having an external narrator, has more narration from John and Marylin, additional music and smoothed out sound transitions. So hearing responses from these different kinds of audiences has been great.