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Notes On Blindness

The countdown to Doc/Fest 2016 is well underway after the first announcement of events was published last month. One particular documentary on the line-up that is undoubtedly worth catching is Notes on Blindness, directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney. It tells the story of writer and theologian John Hull, who learnt to deal with losing his sight by creating audio diaries of his experiences over the first three years of blindness. These original cassette recordings have been used both as narration and as speech lip-synced by actors to create an incredibly sensory and emotive dramatisation.

The film will debut alongside a Q&A with the two directors on Sunday 12 June at The Showroom. Running alongside this, they will be showcasing their innovative virtual reality project, which has been created using the same material, at Site Gallery. We spoke to the two directors to find out more.

When did you first come across John Hull and become involved in his story?

[Peter] It was about five years ago I’d say, the tail end of 2010. We were researching projects about sensory perception and we came across his book, which records these diaries that he kept in between the years of 1983-1986, when he became blind. They are a fascinating insight into his experience of blindness, from the early stages of loss and grief and through his transformation.

By the end of it he sees it as this “dark, paradoxical gift” for which he redefines his life. In the foreword he mentioned that the diaries were kept on audio cassettes and we quickly realised that if the tapes still existed, then we would have something really interesting. We made a couple of short films, got to know him and the family, and about six months later we proposed the idea of embarking on making a film.

How much of a role did John and his family have in shaping the film?

[James] When we first began the project we envisaged that it would be just working with the original recordings. We had 16 hours of material which charted this extraordinary journey. As the process developed we would visit John and his wife Marilyn for research interviews to inform how we structured the piece. The more we listened to these conversations, the more we realised that there was an intimate, warm and beautiful tone to them due to the fact that they were reflecting, 30 years later, on the extraordinary journey they went on.

Over the years, John and Marilyn started to shape the project a lot more. There was something interesting about moving between the two time frames. We had the detailed and forensically accurate recordings from the 1980s and then this reflective time period. We found there was something interesting and profound in that. As the project developed it felt more like a collaboration, and one that we felt that John and Marilyn were very generous of giving us. John was a radically different man by the time we interviewed him and revisiting this period of adjustment, which was so painful at the time, was “like re-opening an old wound”. We are very grateful for how deeply they came back to this time for us to understand the processes they went through.

Where did you even begin with all of the raw material available?

[James] It’s a process that took a number of years. Initially we tried to structure the story purely using the diaries, which wasn’t straightforward.

[Peter] By the very nature of a diary they don’t have a coherent narrative structure. A lot of our early work was excavating and sifting through, trying to construct a story that was coherent and truthful of John’s experience. We very much saw it as a creative challenge. We wanted all of the audio in the film to be documentary audio, either recordings that John had kept of himself and his family or these conversational interviews. We encouraged John and Marilyn to reflect and we took that as our starting point to create an audio edit.

During this process it became apparent that the conventional tools of documentary were ill-equipped to approach such personal and poetic material. So much of John’s account is set within his dreams, his memories, his imaginative life, and so we knew we needed to develop a visual style that would allow us to access this interior world.

We worked very closely with our other core members, the cinematographer Gerry Floyd and our production designer Damien Creagh. We created a sort of set of aesthetic principles, a visual style which would somehow evoke the interior world of John’s blindness. There is quite a particular style of framing characters, particularly his children, who he had never been able to see clearly. We always shot the frame in some obstructed manner to stop the audience from having a privileged position over John.

There are some incredibly profound and beautiful pockets of narration from John. Was there a lot of this or did it quickly become obvious what would go into the documentary?

[James] We were working with such a rich archive and the process of trying to get this into 90 minutes was a painful one in terms of what was left out. It’s one of the reasons we ended up developing what became the VR experience. So much of it is poetic and moving but doesn’t naturally find its fuller expression in a feature film experience. From very early on we looked for ways for this to find another form. We settled on the VR experience, which focuses on acoustic space, the idea that he can perceive depth and detail in an acoustic environment.

[Peter] There are six chapters and they all deal with a different experience, a separate passage. For example, there’s one about the way in which rain gives depth and contours to his surroundings. There’s another about weather, and how a storm could put a roof over his head or bring something to life. We found that these were far better in the immersive experience which we would come close to in the virtual reality project.

[James] We are really excited that they will be presented side by side in Sheffield, that there can be different components and different entry points to this subject matter.

Does the material in the VR project cross over with the footage or audio used in the documentary?

[James] There are two chapters that draw on the same audio: the chapter which focuses on falling rain, in which John describes how it can bring shape and depth and detail in the environment; and a new chapter, which is premiering at Sheffield, based on a passage in which John discusses the extreme sense of claustrophobia and panic he sometimes experienced in the early years of blindness.

What’s your personal connection with Doc/Fest?

[Peter] One of our first pitches at the end of 2011 was at Doc/Fest in something called Engine Room. It was very helpful for us to test our ideas with an audience. Off the back of that we were in [pitching and industry matchmaking event] MeetMarket and that was our first exposure to the industry. In 2013 we were involved in Doc Campus Masterschool, an industry development scheme that at the time was run by Mark Atkin, who has since gone on to join the Doc/Fest team as curator of Alternate Realties. We were in production last year so didn’t make it, but are very much looking forward to coming back to the festival this year.

The full Doc/Fest 2016 programme, covering 10-15 June, will be launched on 5 May at

by Tasha Franek (she/her)

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