Notes on Blindness : A Film Review

 Notes on Blindness.   A film written and Directed by PeterMiddleton and James Spinney. Cast Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby. Duration. 1hr 30mins. UK and Cert. U.

The minds deep perceptions

Dan Skinner (John Hull) and Simone Kirby (Marilyn Hull) are the actors throughout this film who lip-synch to the tapes made over many years by the sightless John Hull.  They have four children at various stages through the timescale of the film and they are acted also filling in with precision and authentically the dropped phrases and sometimes pivotal emotional moments by child actors.  The book which is the core centre piece was called Touching the Rock (1990) and the amazing Peter White describes it thus.

Peter White, presenter of Radio 4’s In Touch programme, has described Hull’s impact on him as a blind person: “He had an uncanny knack … of analysing the experience of going blind. Not sentimentally, but with a forensic understanding of what it meant and how it felt. Until I read … Touching the Rock, I didn’t think there was very much anyone could teach me about what it felt like to be blind. After all, I had been blind all my life. But John’s description of what the sound of rain could tell you about your surroundings took my breath away.”  Peter White is on the radio practically every week and In Touch this week was without him as the only 20min. Show was of two people experiencing Glastonbury – one partially sighted and one non sighted.  It was a scary but thrilling ride for them.  Mud, going for a wee, and some crowd crushing the main downers.


The story 

This is a deeply moving film of a life’s journey which follows a path of disability which many have to take.  The subject is John Hull and how he deals with his loss of sight in extraordinary insightful ways.  I use that word because John Hull unwittingly, through his only having his individual take on blindness, discovers so much about his life, himself and his friends, family and his pupils, for he still maintains that academic place of teaching as a University lecturer  – Theology.

It is a truly remarkable and unique depiction and story of how sight loss affects people and deepens our understanding of that loss of a fundamental sense.  The why’s, and for a theologian they are no different are constantly at the forefront.  In a  way it is as a cessationist; a term I have only lately learnt that he is put in a place which God cannot restore his sight.  Gods part in his life remains and as he would have it, I am thinking, begins with the sacrifice of Jesus that we may come to accept the word of the Lord.  For John Hull this is a means of coping with the loss and of understanding his own being.  The presence of faith in people with or without their full capacity and senses is a constant.  The cessationist must atone for the sins within their compass and be faithful to one another according to the Word.

There is not a Holy emphasis of the plight John Hull finds himself dealing with.  There is little mention of the faith element.  It is nevertheless one strand of his apparatus for dealing with it, it is afterall his chief mainstay and it’s as submerged in an everyday life, a family life carried on regardless.  His wife Marylyn features strongly as the rock he is fortune to have besides his faith.  She is almost our view of the external perspective but with it being so close to the vulnerability that is present throughout the intensity is seen in this film.


Project on the Notes

Put together by PETER MIDDLETON & JAMES SPINNEY – Writers & Directors, they gathered the tales of the ‘Notes’ from both the book transcriptions and tapes on cassette of John’s recordings.  His recordings taking in everything about home life and his analysis.  It also made him invent projects which were phenomenonally useful for others in his condition.      The Audio books aspect is of awesome value alone.

After losing sight, John Hull knew that if he did not try to understand blindness it would destroy him. In 1983 he began keeping an audio diary. Over three years John recorded over sixteen hours of material, a unique testimony of loss, rebirth and renewal, excavating the interior world of blindness. Published in 1990, the diaries were described by author and neurologist Oliver Sacks as, ‘A masterpiece… The most precise, deep and beautiful account of blindness I have ever read.’

Following the Emmy Award-winning short film of the same name, the feature version of Notes on Blindness takes a creative approach to the documentary form. Actors lip-synch to the voices of the family, embedding John’s original audio recordings within compelling cinematography and textured sound design. The result is a poetic and intimate story of loss, rebirth and transformation, documenting John’s extraordinary journey into ‘a world beyond sight’.
The film is released in UK cinemas on 1st July 2016.

Recovering the Base.

John at once embarked on a way of retaining his main occupation – that of teaching Theology and that in itself was and is a challenging moving doctrine as we begin to understand our minds and with it the failings which are globally fracturing.

He found the only books readily available to non sighted people were either Crime fiction or Romance.  His question was therefore to ask where do I find books on knowledge, academic subjects such as sociology, Social Sciences, Theology itself and all the Sciences?  It was an unending task in front of him and he began it by enrolling – at one stage there were forty eight alone under his direction – reading onto cassettes Audio books of all kinds and to suit the myriad of interests.        With unheralded humility he just started it and the protocols, ideas entered into common usage with the Royal National institute for the Blind. RNIB primarily the main suitor.


Story as story

This film reveals so many aspects of ourselves as John Hull uncoils his memory onto tapes.  The first thing appreciated is our access to a private situation.  His domestic and family life along with the adjustment needed to perceived values.  The cassette is an instrument of vision.  It replaces sight with sound pictures.  The film itself is directed by PETER MIDDLETON & JAMES SPINNEY in granular detail.  Framing is acute.  Unnecessary detail is obscured and the focus is intense on every close proximity to the man at the heart of it.  Whether it is of Marilyn, his rock and foil – to which we are set to probe, in reaction shots and as she speaks often in the tapes while constructing a continuity to the lives they live.  It is a detail focus of Marylyn also.  The foil for thought and reason is there within her at every level you can think of including the religious conversations John has within himself and about their joint faith.  He explains how he imagines all are smiling when he relates to a conversation.  This and other little notes are persuasively engaging.  He has what everyone through this may appreciate as an insight on sight.  No counter factual reasoning here but analytical progression to the ‘next’ step.  For him we learn about the significance of texture, solidity, space and it is shown to us through the use of rain.  A lot of it!

I will leave you to discover how it is illuminating.  Both for John and us.  There is a visit to his parents in Australia within the timescale of the film which is fraught with displaced or dislodged memories.  It becomes a further lesson for us.       How is it so important for us to be able to go back somewhere and through  – 1.  A view or picture of the past.  2. A view and analysis of the present. – Allow ourselves to combine those memories and edit them into bearable, consumable scales for are life’s assembly.  The lesson is here.  The importance of sight is everything and it has in its absence a terrible unbalancing effect when all is said and done to Johns perceptions or absence from them now unsighted.  It is such a forceful element.  Johns return from Australia is full of thoughtful detail and the direction once again deployed is for detail, for obscurity, for out of focus moments remained on.  I found leaving the screening that it took longer time for my eyes to adjust as the sense I had been exposed to had within it a prevailing immersion.  It may not be everyone’s experience but I found without consciously asking myself that my eyes were themselves responsive to a molecular adjustment.  It was like a reconfiguring and recalibration.

Conclusion ####4

This is a unique approach fortunately taken by the co-operation of the couple John and Marilyn Hull by the adventurous filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney as joint directors and writers and consolidated by the whole raft of the production team. It brings to us with varying knowledge of sightless to get deep into the experience of people affected by it.  The story is one even more remarkable for the manner in which John Hull shaped things for others over a long period to expand their encounters with the normal things we take for granted. Ca selfless act and just as importantly his wife and partner Marilyn together with his quizzical, thoughtful children took hold of a curse of a disabilitating condition and reinvented it for themselves and others making it possible for others to benefit from the selfless acts of enduring kindness and rationality which does not sit well alongside the injustice of any infliction of health cast upon individuals in almost shaken revolt to our maker.  The words of John put onto tape are reflections of poetic memory here pictorialised in a remarkable way and given voice to the normality he lives within.  A truly valuable piece of collaborative work seen by those participating as a continuation of their open voices.  There is accompanying this film a virtual reality experience of sight loss which I have nor engaged with or yet experienced.  It is an extension out of the work which will accentuate for the world of three dimensions a physical reality embolding those game enough to try it to visit a part of themselves never before visited.  Dan Skinner and Simne Kirby are remarkable and brilliantly effective as are the children recruited to play their family at all stages.  It is a restrained engrossing take and casting.

John Graham

30 June 2016


Some special screenings including a Directors (2!) talk at QFT – see below.

On at Queens Film Theatre (screen 2 has luscious comfy new seats as screen 1 is also simultaneously being fitted out! So relaxing and never a moment of cinematic excitement, bewilderment, astonishment, awe will escape you given the rooted place you will have to experience it from!)   The dates 1 July to 7 July 2016 inc. at QFT. Go see in every sense of the word.

PLEASE NOTE: all QFT screenings will include audio description played through audio description headsets available from the box office.
MON 4 JULY – the 6.30pm screening will be followed by a Q&A with directors Pete Middleton and James Spinney, and Belfast-based cinematographer Gerry Floyd.
TUES 5 JULY – the 6.30pm screening will feature an enhanced audio version. The enhanced audio version of the film was created by the filmmakers and features an entirely different audio mix of the feature. This version contains additional dialogue and the levels have been mixed to make this suitable for audience members who may have a visual impairment.

Jimmy’s Hall : A Film Review.

imageAt the crossroads of sllence.
The film begins with footage of America and its 1920’s.
It finishes its titles then begins as a film of some sorts with instant lamenting of two men on a trap behind a piebald pony that has seen better days.
The kaliedescope which sound brought forward is imagined by Jimmy who is one of the pair returning, sure was there never a story without someone leaving or returning along these twentieth century tales.
The two wind their way back to Jimmy’s mothers place where, it is a mystery where or if there were any others in the family, a farm once was tended.
Back in this Leitrim Jimmy is soon recalling the earlier days of the twenties when he was forced to flee after creating the hall of the title.
In it Pearse and Connelly were memorialised and it sat was ever so innocent and new to an Ireland defining its modernity by all expressive means but primarily around its lore and love of music.
Where the folklore of escapism had only little meaning in the midst of everyday hardship, these influences were possibly of a senseless trivial nature in the real live everyday patterns of survival undergone at the crossroads Ireland.

This apparently was first a play and I feel it should have stayed that way.
The cinematographer has nothing to work on, the exclamation mark expressions are sometimes ham mish while other performances are subtle. The script is not subtle and is politics for beginners, the desparate hold of state and Church is a well known fact and has been for decades, the Wall Street Crash, – LOOK LOOK SEE Loach almost exclaims Just like NOW SEE.
Isn’t is so prophetic!! Ugh?
It is as vapour rolling off a BMW sunroof in the post-tiger car park of Dublin Airport. Far much more was and is important, this shallow tale is but a tiny view on the oppression. It is insular and mediocre.
The police, the priests, their lackies are all bug eyed monsters but plainly in most cases Irishmen, including the Door smashing Northern prod cop on a mission from God, or the Tabernacle Church. Found a monster lets condem him to living somewhere else. No muscular take on how an Irishman could stoop so low against his fellow Irishman, and do they still exist, Well of course.
They want Jimmy sent somewhere less favourable than this state run for the British and landed gentry with the sanctimonious approval of the Church of Ireland (under the tutilage of the Crown supplicants) and their fellow veiled bigots The Roman hierarchy with the country, Ireland at its heart. Never mind the poor or the sacrifices made in the name of this peculiar God, the peculiar God that has them lording it over everyone, has them taking riches for the purpose of the Church, from collecting tithes, condemning people in the Lords name, visiting approbrium on them, played with apoplectic illusion by Jim Norton as Father Sheridan.
Despite all the tales from the Churches very few films, The Magdalane Laundries, Philomena actually rip into the coursing veins of Ireland’s conscience. There was of course the extraordinary Mea Maxima Culpa film by Alex Gibney, a Northern film production giving documentary homage to the current religious fortitude held for people of this earth. Since then a change has come about but things that could change immediately show no signs of actually occurring.
Jimmy’s Hall by comparison is puerile, seeking to acclaim one individual fighting against the state apparatus with a ‘penny whistle’ while the war dead of the wars fought barely get a mention. Such contradictory pale drivel is unlocked as cod politics without even showing the hatred of the others except through, ( it gets a 12years a slave erudition scene) stereotypes and cod Irishness. In the cringing scenes of ‘Jazz’ demonstrations pointed up real Irish life then A few authors down the ages must have missed the trick. At the beginning of the eighties there were around three and a half million in Ireland of which one million at least were living below the poverty line. This country was one Britain and Europe continued to ignore until the cute ones got in, Fianna Fael were not out of Government until the crash happened since independence yet the sowed the seeds of Religious wanton vileness and pure greed as mimicry. The iRish no longer being Irish but being these cod-Americans Jimmy seen back in the ’29 crash.
Barry Ward as Jimmy Gralton does his dampest, likewise Oonagh, Simone Kirby as his former sweetheart have put in splendid performances adding some emotion to the tardis that is Jimmys Hall. We’re was the war? In the dance halls of morality. Well it was in the workplace and in the new cities of young industry North and South.

This film fits into the begorrah nonsense narrative so loved by the Ireland’s Own reader in the off shore island of Britain, to the East and favoured by those directors contemplating there own separateness, less an island but a border of class difference reminiscent of their own background. Why it was made I will never know, why no one realised the subject of this bitterness has been performed in much better plays and books and covered by so many academic studies only the absent minded will have no recollection of the things Ireland has been through and a bit more alarming than this charade of escapism.

John Graham

27 May 2014