Sight & sound

Sight & sound

By: David Baldwin

The notion of making a documentary about the loss of sight seems almost perverse. Film is a visual medium, one celebrated for stunning cinematography and striking composition. To then use that to represent the very loss of light and shapes that make up those aspects of filmmaking seems almost impossible. We say ‘almost’, because with their new feature Notes On Blindness, co-directors Pete Middleton and James Spinney have done the impossible, constructing an acclaimed new documentary around the influential audio diaries of University of Birmingham professor John Hull, who began chronicling the loss of his sight in the early 1980s.

‘We first read his book Touching The Rock, which was a transcript of his audio diaries,’ explains Middleton, talking without Spinney, who at the time of our interview was held up finishing a final edit of the film for its Sheffield Doc/Fest premiere. ‘It was in the book’s foreword that it mentioned this series of audio cassettes John has recorded. It wasn’t until we heard those tapes that we realised the sheer scale and scope of them. We didn’t really know what form the project would take, but we knew that we didn’t want to take a conventional documentary approach. Many of the typical documentary methods were ill equipped for this internal journey, John’s interior experience of blindness – dreams and memories. We needed to find a way to access that.’

The project actually began as a short three minute piece in 2013, which got the attention of the New York Times, who commissioned a longer piece for 2014. The two short films acted as a sort of dry run for the method that Middleton and Spinney ultimately decided to use to represent Hull’s diaries on screen - a very rare form of documentary film-making that involves actors lip synching to audio recordings. One of the more famous examples of this in recent years was Clio Barnard’s 2010 feature The Arbor, which saw actors replicate the recorded voices of a collection of people from the Bradford estate where playwright Andrea Dunbar grew up. For Notes On Blindness, this technique becomes much more intimate, Middleton and Spinney having listened to hours and hours of recordings that Hull had made over a long period, along with the new interviews they had done with both him and his wife Marilyn. The trick was finding two actors who could pull off the trick of lip synching exactly in time with those recorded words.

‘That was the major part of the project, finding people who could master the lip synching. There is a real peculiarity to it, and our casting director did a fantastic job in finding the right people. She found both Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby, who plays John’s wife Marilyn. It’s a very difficult technique, and it was especially hard for Dan, who not only couldn’t use his voice, but also couldn’t use his eyes. We robbed him of two huge assets of an actor’s performance. There’s a musicality to this kind of technique and some actors just can’t do it. Dan and Simone really got it straightaway, and they brought a naturalism to it.’

The results are fascinating, bringing an otherworldly feel to scenes featuring Skinner and Kirby together, chatting away in somebody else’s voice as they drive along a country road. It seems entirely appropriate for a film that’s looking to give the sighted viewer an idea of blindness, instantly changing a viewer’s perception of what they’re watching and listening to. It also meant the process of making and editing the film was just as unusual.

‘Myself and James had the film mapped out as an audio edit before we even shot a frame, and we wrote a screenplay that also had a companion audio file that went with it. We knew the film intimately before we even started shooting. We’d send the actors the audio in advance, they’d listen and learn the rhythms and cadence of the speech, and then on set we didn’t record any sound for any of the shoot. We had a playback engineer who would cue up these audio excerpts and put pips in front of them so that Dan and Simone had a warning of when they would start.’

Awash with fragmented memories, blurred imagery and surreal scenes that include a flooded supermarket, the film becomes an almost experimental work, albeit one grounded by the strong emotions of a man learning to understand his blindness. This experimental attitude has also carried over into the film’s UK release. Alongside the cinematic public screenings is a wondrous virtual reality experience subtitled Into Darkness, touring to eighteen of the UK’s cinemas including Birmingham’s Electric Cinema. It looks to put the viewer even more directly inside the head of Hull and his adjustment to a new sightless world, and is another example of just how much thought has been put into telling Hull’s story.

‘Certain sections of his diaries weren’t necessarily suited to cinema,’ says Middleton. ‘They were the more meditative and reflective passages, and that’s why the virtual reality project really excited us. We could focus on those aspects that weren’t appropriate for the film, the sensory awareness of John’s experiences. So the VR project deals with things like John’s appreciation of weather, how thunder puts a roof over his head, how the wind in the trees can bring an environment to life, or being sat on a park bench listening to the footsteps of his children.’

Talking to Middleton, it becomes clear just how close he and Spinney became to Hull and his family over the past few years, including his children. They spent a lot of time with him in his Birmingham home in Kings Heath, and clearly became friends as well as collaborators. Which makes the emotion palpable in Middleton’s voice when he talks about Hull’s passing last year.

‘It was…very sudden,’ he says, his words coming slower. ‘A very difficult time. John was integral to the project. He was closely involved throughout the five years, and we’d been in touch with him regularly right up until his passing. In the last few months, he spoke of the film possessively, he’d ask how is ‘our’ project doing.  He brought such energy, warmth and enthusiasm to the process.’

He was right to be possessive. It’s no exaggeration to call Hull a third director, the very fabric of the film coming from his memories. It also features a number of scenes filmed at the University of Birmingham, where Hull spent most of his academic career. Notes On Blindness feels like a very personal project, all the more impressive when you consider that Middleton and Spinney only met Hull in the last few years of his life. They’ve produced a lasting legacy for what Hull wanted to achieve with his diaries.

‘John was always at pains that he was never speaking on behalf of other blind people. It was entirely subjective, this isn’t a definitive account of blindness. When he first started doing talks and appearances after his book came out, he came to see his work as being about bridging the two worlds – to communicate the blind experience to the sighted. During one of the last times we saw him, he said that our involvement with the film had reactivated that a bit, had given him a renewed determination to continue with that project. His death reframed the project for us, and it’s taken on a new sense of importance since his passing.’