Film Review: Notes on Blindness

Film Review: Notes on Blindness

Notes on Blindness: A “Documentary” that Aims to Normalize Conversation about Blindness and Vision Loss

What is Notes on Blindness?

The film Notes on Blindness exhumes deeply held fears of losing one’s sight.  It is billed as a documentary, but it does take some cinematographic liberties with this genre, which we will discuss later.  The film uses snippets of John Hull’s original audio recordings of his experience with vision loss along with special visual and auditory effects.  We viewed the non-audio described version of this film.

Who are you and what do you bring to this film?

SUE: I am a disability resource professional at the University of Minnesota with in-depth experience in determining reasonable accommodations for students with a wide array of disabilities, and I hold a caseload of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students.  In addition to a general caseload, I specialize in working with JD candidates to determine accommodations within the parameters of the law school college process.  I also happen to have a lived experience of gradual sight loss, resulting in total blindness and because of this, I’ve grown passionate about the de-stigmatization of blind people as an important undertaking of equity and diversity work.

CYNTHIA: I am an administrator and disability professional at the University of Minnesota, with a liberal arts background and professional experience in counseling psychology.  In my experience, meaning making is integral to student journeys in higher education and necessarily weaves through the work of disability professionals.  Additionally, disability professionals sometimes express worries about working with blind and low vision students that are different from how they approach students with other disabilities.  I am convinced that how—earnestly, openly, thoughtfully, compassionately—we engage with any student during their personal journey of meaning making with our students has an impact on the journey.  So I was very intrigued by the promise this film offered.

What did you appreciate about this film?

SUE: Hull’s character starts out strong as he meets the challenge of reading, researching, and teaching without sight.  He finds refuge in “serious books, recorded sensibly” and declares that “with ingenuity and a little bit of help, most problems could be solved.”

Fueled by the eminent necessity to adapt, he has his staff convert his printed library to audio and learns to lecture without notes.  He finds intense enjoyment in the preoccupation of redesigning his profession, and effectively marshals his resources to master his career in different ways.

I also appreciated the matter-of-fact conversations Hull has with his son Thomas about his blindness.  Taken together with his wife Marilyn’s absolute willingness to travel with him on this journey, and his daughter Imogen’s creative radio impersonations to provide him with daily narratives (all be it mostly for comic entertainment) portray a loving and supportive family unit coping and adjusting to change.

The film’s frank approach of capturing societal fears about vision loss, and then pulling the viewer into a blind person’s inner world, succeed in helping to illuminate something that for most is a dreaded unknown.  This is a start to normalizing blindness, and furthering the humanness of blind people.

CYNTHIA: John Hull’s journey illuminates personal as well as general issues associated with vision loss and blindness– how to navigate, consume print material, be taken seriously as a professional, and, like all of us, have a meaningful personal life.  And it has a satisfying resolution. We can witness that Hull’s struggle with vision loss and blindness takes him on a journey in which his internal crisis is in sharp contrast with his pragmatic and compassionate engagement with the daily business of living.  First Hull is thrown into the practical issues of trying to figure out how to keep up with his reading, research, and teaching when he cannot see.  Then he begins to realize that he must “understand blindness, or be defeated.”  A grueling trip back to Melbourne to visit his parents highlights his feelings of “uselessness” and coincides with Hull’s grappling with the question “how could it happen to me?” His return to his own home in England provides a contrasting experience of competency and ultimately brings Hull into a sense of grace.

Was anything problematic for you?

SUE:  Of some concern is the morass of deep depression and isolation that happens in the film.  The problem isn’t with the intensity of his grief.  Hull’s wrenchingly candid account of craving visual stimulation, breaks through the shell of what most people know about blindness, into the chaotic center of reality, where loss plays a part that can’t be denied.  But the heavy emphasis on Hull’s emotional and intellectual desolation (over 45 minutes of a 90-minute documentary) juxtaposed with approximately five minutes of his “purging” and discovery that blindness is a gift, still leaves the viewer with a distorted perspective on the entire lived experience of blindness.  I would have liked to see more screen time devoted to how he lived his life after he discovered the “gift” that blindness brought to his life.  This would lend symmetry and balance both to Hull’s personal story, and to the overall societal perception of what it’s like to be blind.

Equally troublesome for me, was the dichotomy between documentary (which implies universally accepted fact), and art (which allows for extensive dramatic and creative license).  The film tries to bridge this gap and function as both a factual account of what sight loss is like, and a modern work of art.  Some of the special affects used to emulate the experience of gradual sight loss (the use of shadows, blurred images, and fading photographs) may be useful in illustrating the phenomena of rapidly decreasing sight for the visual viewer.    As a blind person, I found other gimmicks (the tsunami-like wave in the grocery store and raindrops on Hull’s tape recorder) fantastical and out of place for a documentary.  In keeping with many documentaries, the film’s pace is slow and the portrayal of Hull’s “lost” phase laborious.  His sojourn into the past and the scene where he becomes trapped in the house he grew up in, is particularly prolonged and drawn out.  It is difficult to discern here, whether his entrapment is literal, or a metaphor for how he sees his life at the time.

CYNTHIA: I had two struggles.  Like Sue, I had some concerns reconciling the cinematographic effects with notion of the film as documentary.  Additionally I struggled with the lack of contextual information about John Hull. The film makers seemed to assume that viewers would know who he was or that it was not necessary.  This was not true for me.  While watching the first time, I googled Hull to learn more about who he was professionally and how he arrived there in order to help make sense of the film. It may be helpful to for viewers to know that Hull was born in Australia, but at the time where the film starts was a professor in the field of Religious Education in England.

The visual and auditory effects the film employs are clearly meant to be evocative of vision loss and blindness.  The film starts with several seconds of darkness, followed by buzzing and muted voices.  There are several other techniques apparently intended to provide sighted viewers a glimpse into what it might be like to lose vision.  There is much darkness, and both landscapes and people move in and out of focus and are frequently only partially in view.  While interesting as techniques to convey lived experiences and challenges to sighted viewers, I was concerned that the effect was to universalize the experience of vision loss, in contrast to Hull’s own agenda as revealed through his very personal ‘notes on blindness.’

There is also a great deal of water imagery: blurry views of a grassy seaside, sudden surges of water, and rain.  The sea images begin to make sense after we see Hull’s early childhood landscape in Australia.  Toward the end of the film Hull states that the “sound of rain gives shape to the world,” and we can begin to understand that rain in this film is an auditory reference to Hull’s journey toward finding the shape to his world with blindness in the center of it. 

Would you recommend seeing it? 

We do recommend this film, with the caveat that it should not be taken as a universal portrayal of navigating sight loss.  This film begs for viewers to be in conversation about it.  We envision the conversations could vary by audience.  Disability professionals may want to consider what impact this film has on their work.  Students may want to discuss how their own experiences differ from or overlap with Hull’s.  Everyone may be interested in sharing perspectives on Hull’s interest in and deep belief in the need for interdependence and communication across differences.