In the summer of 1983, writer John Hull went blind after years of slowly failing eyesight. He began to keep an audio diary of his experiences, and it is these diaries which the short film “Notes on Blindness” is based on.
The strongest focal point of these diaries, and the film, is the relationship between sight and the self. This is a connection which has long been explored in art and literature; Shakespeare famously used King Lear’s blindness to represent his being able to see in other ways:
“I have no way, and there want no eyes;
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen
Our means secure us, and our mere defects
Prove our commodities. O dear son Edgar,
The food of thy abused father’s wrath;
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again!” (4.1.18-24)
“Seeing” for Shakespeare is not just a visual sense. Clarity of mind is another way of seeing, one which does not necessarily come hand in hand with eyesight. John Hull’s diaries are incredibly astute and profound, allowing us an “insight” (and here our language begins to fail us) into his state of mind. He comments that he feels he is losing his sense of self; that his memories are dimming to black. But recording his experiences seems to be his self-preservation. With his audiodiaries he announces loudly and clearly that yes, he is still there – a sensory being with clarity of mind.
The visuals accompanying the dramatisation of the diary are beautiful, soft and somewhat, perhaps appropriately, faded – the sound of the rain is much stronger than its image. The directors wrote that “John’s description of blindness as “the borderland between dream and memory” informed our aesthetic approach, and much of the key imagery of the film is rooted in his testimony. Throughout the diaries John recounts vivid “technicolor” dreams, his “last state of visual consciousness,” which he compares to watching films. In particular, the water imagery that recurs in the film — visions of surging waves; of being dragged into the depths of the ocean — is derived from John’s account”.
This film is important to John because “I knew that if I didn’t understand it,” he now recalls, “blindness would destroy me.” Like Lear, he seeks mental clarity in a time of all-encompassing darkness. With the help of the filmmakers, he is able to reach out into the world to reassure himself of his sense of self in a way that he would almost “say I had eyes again!”