Notes on Blindness

Out of all of the possible disabilities that one can have, blindness is probably the one that seems the scariest and hardest to deal with. Going deaf or losing a limb would certainly be an unpleasant and undesirable experience, but I can imagine being able to cope with that kind of thing more easily than losing your sight. Notes on Blindness didn’t do much to change that opinion.

John Hull had vision problems of some kind for much of his life, but he started going blind in the early 1980s. He was in his late 40s, around the time his second child was to be born. It didn’t happen all at once—the black spot in his vision grew bigger and bigger until he could sense only the difference between light and darkness, and then even that went away. He was completely blind but was determined to not become helpless.

He began recording his feelings and experiences on audio cassettes, and the recordings were transcribed and published in the 1990 book Touching the Rock. And now they’ve been used to create a truly powerful film gives you a degree of insight into his life as a father, a husband, a professor, and a man living without sight in a very visual world. Most of the dialogue in the film comes directly from John and his family (also on some of the tapes), with hired actors lip-syncing the words.

John is candid and well-spoken. The film is sometimes haunting, as he describes things like his sadness over being unable to watch his children grow, the heartbreak of his memory fading, and his panic upon hearing one of his children screaming in pain but being unable to find her. But he also describes the relative joy of rain helping to illuminate the world around him through the sound of the falling drops, or of being able to focus on the sound and feel of a pipe organ reverberating in a cathedral.

The audio content is by far the best aspect of the film. The accompanying visuals are often helpful and illustrative, and the acting is good, but there were a couple of occasions when they delved into territory that was a bit too artsy and pretentious for my taste. I was initially concerned that it might venture into “experimental” film territory, which is not my thing, but it quickly won me over, and I’d have to consider it one of the best and most moving biographical documentaries that I’ve encountered in recent years.