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A Planet of Sages

Perspectives on disability and the newly released film Notes on Blindness

Published on:
November 9, 2016
Read time:
6 min.
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The world of the blind is not as dark as it seems.

Peter Middleton and James Spinney premiered their Emmy award–winning short film Notes on Blindness at Sundance in 2014. This year Middleton and Spinney were back with an expanded full-length feature of Notes on Blindness.

Along with the feature film, the duo developed a virtual reality experience. Yet the Notes On Blindness project isn’t just about filmmaking and innovation. It’s about people: real life, real time, real change. It’s been too long that we have seen differences as disability. Is abnormality really saying that a person is dis-abled to be fully human? I am not disregarding the suffering and loneliness that accompanies many of these diseases or deformities, but I am suggesting that we need to put some serious thought into how we perceive each other, who we regard as the caretaker and the invalid, who we regard as the perfect and the depraved. The Notes on Blindness film and VR project allow the sighted to step into the arduous and auriferous blind life.

Our bodies—minds and emotions included—are what we perceive the world with. They are the foundations of our character. As our bodies change, disintegrate, adapt, sicken, or strengthen, our interactions with the world itself changes. We behold old relationships anew, experience joy in unforeseen places, and develop sorrow and connection through lament. Everyone is worth our time—our handicapped earth is a planet of sages. If only we took the time to listen to one another and live in each other’s worlds, we may indeed glimpse the kingdom of heaven.

The Film

In the film, a fateful diagnosis befalls writer and theologian John Hull, and he began to lose his sight. The narrative follows Hull’s journey by way of his audio diaries, which he kept from 1983–1986. We are not only introduced to Hull’s remarkable, chilling, and tender thoughts, but are also guided by a stunningly disorienting visual narrative. Middleton and Spinney’s daring and innovative cinematography visually simulates the experience of going blind.

Hazy macro-shots of water falling on leaves and lips out of sync with audio negotiate an entrance into John Hull’s transforming perception of the world. Dimly lit familial sequences are juxtaposed with sudden full-frame white scene transitions leaving the retinas stunned and the eye’s dark-adaption impaired—forcing us into a visual chaos.

This brave new world of darkness and light tosses us about. Meanwhile, John Hull exposits the biology and psychology behind going blind. His stoic, detailed analysis imparts the true void of his experience. The deadening space in the brain that once processed mass amounts of visual content slowly falls silent. Hull’s vacuous space starves for its daily dose of visual stimuli, and yet is denied day after day after day.

Notes on Blindness doesn’t just reel through haunting biological descriptions only. Hull’s everyday experiences tell his story, and draw us into it. Clapping shoes and a tapping cane stroll down the corridors of the university where Hull teaches. Distant voices, colleagues question the future of Hull’s academic career. Their uncertain and pitiable words ring through Hull’s psyche.

A soft, innocent conversation between Hull and his son records a gentle father who is struggling to find a way to connect with and love his children. After Hull’s total blindness, he, his wife, and children travel to Australia to visit Hull’s parents. The undefined spaces and foreign terrain send Hull spiraling into a devastating hopelessness. Yet, upon returning home he experiences the freedom and goodness of familiarity. Rain falling on the the leaves of a tall tree, a nearby bush, and a concrete doorstep speaks to Hull as the brilliance of a new kind of depth perception—a new kind of reality, a new kind of living.

The entire narrative is a string of expanding obstacles spliced with fragments of comfort, joy, and hope. John Hull’s transformation from man of sight to man of blindness is all but debilitating. Hull discovers his gift of blindness through his painfully forced reacquisition to his world. Middleton and Spinney have not only displayed a dedication to John Hull’s story, but have provided a path for the visually uninhibited to enter the space of the visually impaired. This bold and unprecedented film is more than dignified; it is an awe-filled realizing that that which we called disability, perhaps is more of a gift.

The VR Project

Notes on Blindness utilizes virtual reality technology to simulate a blind world, namely, Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness. Strapped in headgear and placed in an open space, participants see dimly a world illuminated by sound. John Hull narrates a six-part documentary on blindness. Sparks of human movement and waves of sound-space dance across the ken. He guides the participants by sound through a depth-perceived mass of environmental stimuli.

The VR project is currently set up at multiple screenings throughout Great Britain and the US. However, the project is available for download on devices including the iPhone and Android. As a film can be purchased, the VR project can be obtained for multiple viewings in multiple settings.

The Beginning

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Could it even be that the abnormal, that the disabled are the privileged?

Notes on Blindness invites a new perspective on disabilities. Middleton and Spinney’s collaboration with John and Marilyn Hull model the essence of that perspective. Together they assembled a narrative that would introduce a “world beyond sight.” But, most importantly they developed a way for the blind to participate in film-going alongside the sighted.

The film has multiple sound options for the visually impaired and hard of hearing. It comes with an option for filled out narration describing the setting and visual tone, explained in verbal cues. Another option is a soundtrack that expresses more deliberately sounds describing the type of location present in the scene. Both of the these options are thoughtful and important. A verbal description of scenes will only serve the visually impaired and the blind community that has experienced sight. Those born blind are intimately connected with sound as their primary perception. Descriptions would be unhelpful, because the information would be useless to them.

Notes on Blindness does not privilege one type of viewer over another. Its aim is to serve, to entertain, and to unite. The story itself challenges our preconceived notions about disability. It provokes an intrigue into myriad types of the human experience. It invites us to a world beyond our own bodies—our own eyes. 

Kylee Pastore
Kylee Pastore is a visual artist and a ThM student in seminary. She has written for Christianity Today’s The Exchange, Lumindeo, and Converge. You can find more of her work on her website.

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