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March 15, 2017

Making a film about what it feels like to go blind may sound like a contradiction in terms. James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s approach to that challenge in Notes on Blindness, now on Netflix, makes their film distinct and exceptional.

In 1983, after decades of steady deterioration, British writer and theologian John Hull became totally blind. To help him make sense of the upheaval in his life, he began documenting his experiences on audio cassette. He amassed a remarkable archive (and eventual publication) that renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks called “The most precise, deep and beautiful account of blindness I have ever read.”

In James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s debut nonfiction feature film, Notes on Blindness, and their Emmy winning short of the same name which preceded it, actors portray Hull and his family, and their mouths are synched to the voices of the original recordings. Stunning cinematography and textured sound are woven together to illustrate the pain and wonder of Hull’s journey to ‘a world beyond sight’.

To Bridge the Divide

The filmmakers write in their directors’ statement that they were inspired by Hull’s desire to “bridge the divide between blind and sighted experience” and “foster a common humanity.” They also note his emphasis that “blind people differ from one another as much as sighted people do,” and that his was “just one voice.”

Honoring their subject’s intentions, Spinney and Middleton employ a multi-sensory, and uniquely inclusive, filmmaking approach. They artfully convey the personal details of Hull’s point of view, to show sighted audiences what it might feel like to lose the sense of sight, while also creating an experience that is accessible to the blind.

To invite sighted audiences into John’s world, the filmmakers worked with Cinematographer Gerry Floyd to set creative restrictions for the film’s visual approach. One such restriction was that “all characters besides John and Marilyn [his wife] would elude the camera, often framed only in fragments, especially avoiding eyes to suggest the loss of eye contact John mourns in blindness.” Another was to use long lenses and never shoot “establishing shots that might give the audience a privileged understanding of the space. We wanted the camera to be sensitive to tactile details to foreground the new primacy of touch, and often designed scenes based around their potential for sound design.”

Making Blindness Accessible

The filmmakers were also creative in how they made the film accessible for blind audiences. In Screenanarchy Middleton discussed his and Spinney’s desire to go beyond traditionally available audio descriptions that weren’t artfully conceived or integrated. “For us, it’s about establishing a template and proving that it can work and be inexpensive if you build making a film accessible into the sound mix in the first place.” He says “some pretty interesting stuff” is happening with audio description in France and some Scandinavian countries, and he would like to see creative approaches adapted more widely.

The Notes on Blindness team created multiple soundtracks for blind or partially sighted audiences. Two versions use a spoken description of the action (one by audio-describer Louise Fryer and the other by the British actor Stephen Mangan). A third, specially enhanced soundtrack version uses more original narration from John and Marilyn, along with extra sound design and music. A comparison video demos each option.

When they released the film in the UK, the filmmakers partnered with MovieReading, an app that allowed audiences to synch their choice of soundtrack to the film on a smartphone, and also provided subtitles for those with hearing loss. Many cinemas also offered the audio-described version on a headset, or screened the enhanced soundtrack version in addition to the standard version.

Notes on Blindness is on Netflix in the US today, one of a selection of titles currently available with audio description on the service. According to the Accessible Digital Project, Netflix is the first streaming provider to start making some titles available to the blind. The additional soundtrack options described above can be also be accessed by Netflix users, via the free MovieReading app (available in the US iTunes store). The film’s UK web site lists its availability internationally, and the US site can be found here.

More on Notes on Blindness

John Hull passed away on July 28, 2015 at the age of 80, six months before the film made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival alongside its award-winning VR companion project, Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness.

The film went on to play over 40 international festivals. It opened in UK cinemas in July 2016, when The Guardian‘s Charlie Phillips gave it a five star review, declaring it a “beautiful, accessible and thoughtful work of art,” and The Observer’s Mark Kermode called it “extraordinary… utterly immersive” in his own five-star review. The film came to US theaters in November and was a New York Times Critics’ Pick, called “magnificent” and “wrenchingly honest” by Stephen Holden. Notes on Blindness won Best Documentary at the British Independent Film Awards, and was nominated for three BAFTAs (including Best Documentary and Outstanding British Film).

Notes on Blindness is an Archer’s Mark production, in association with Fee Fie Foe Films and 104 Films, and in co-production with Agat Films & Cie and ARTE France. In addition to Cinereach, its supporters have included Creative England, British Film Institute, Impact Partners, ARTE France, Swedish Film Institute, BBC Storyville, BRITDOC, New York Times and PROCIREP-ANGOA. It was developed at the Documentary Campus Masterschool 2013.

An outreach and engagement campaign for the film is underway, headed by Producer Jo-Jo Ellison, with the support of the Bertha BRITDOC Connect Fund.