Sight, sound and synching in “Notes on Blindness”

In their short-turned-feature doc Notes on Blindness (pictured), directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney depict a world beyond sight through the audio recordings of blind theologian John Hull and the efforts of lip-synching actors.
February 19, 2016

How do you depict the “world beyond sight” of a blind protagonist? What do the dreams and memories of an internal life look like?

In their short-turned-feature documentary Notes on Blindness, British directors Peter Middleton (pictured below, right) and James Spinney (left) offer some answers through an intimate group of actors, rich audio recordings and a lip-synching technique made famous by Clio Barnard’s 2010 doc The Arbor.

If you ask the pair how they classify their work, they say they prefer not to have it shackled to a particular label, be that ‘documentary’ or ‘fiction.’ Rather, inspired by Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, Notes falls into a burgeoning category of artful fare that is gradually being recognized by the doc community, perhaps most prominently by the Sundance Institute’s recent “Art of Nonfiction” initiative.

The primary voice in the doc – which last month bowed at Sundance and earlier this month at the International Film Festival Rotterdam – is that of late Australian-born theologian John Hull, who documented his transition into blindness in the early 1980s with an extensive audio diary.

“I somehow feel that if I were to accept this thing, if I were to enter into acquiescence, then I would die because it would be as if my ability to resist, my will to resist, were broken,” Hull says about his condition in one recording. “On the other hand, not to accept seems futile, because what one is refusing to acquiesce in is a fact.”

The tapes formed the basis for the Emmy Award-winning New York Times ‘Op-Docs’ short by Middleton and Spinney, who met Hull and his wife Marilyn in late 2010 while completing another doc project on blindness.

They first interviewed the University of Birmingham professor in his office, surrounded by a trove of cassettes lining the bookshelves, and quickly conceived of a feature film. The project – produced by Archer’s Mark in association with Fee Fie Foe Films, 104 Films, and a copro with Agat Films & Cie and ARTE France – was pitched at the IDFA Forum in 2014. The doc’s backers include Creative England, the BFI, Impact Partners, ARTE France, BBC Storyville, Cinereach, Britdoc, The New York Times and PROCIREP-ANGOA.

james spinney, peter middleton

James Spinney, Peter Middleton

“I think we’d always envisioned that the material demanded a feature-length treatment,” Spinney tells realscreen, adding that the team worked closely with supervising sound editor Joakim Sundström and cinematographer Gerry Floyd. “The big distinction between the short films and the feature is the short films can only really hint at the vast journey and vast transformation that John registers in his state of consciousness across this period.”

Inspired by the lip-synching technique used in Barnard’s BAFTA Award-winning film The Arbor – which depicts the relationship between British playwright Andrea Dunbar and her daughter – Notes on Blindness similarly employs the device using Hull’s 30-year-old recordings as foundation material, in addition to recent interviews with John and Marilyn reflecting on that period, as well as the audio from home recordings made during past Christmases, birthdays and a family trip to Australia.

“The cast had to spend a long time learning the speech patterns and the cadence of John and Marilyn’s words and really immerse themselves in that material ahead of time,” explains Middleton, adding that a playback engineer would cue up the lines of Hull’s recordings for each take.

“It’s very difficult in the auditions to find people who can master it,” he says. “There’s a musicality to it and there were lots of people we saw who really struggled with it. It was very difficult to find actors who looked like they weren’t concentrating on the lip synching technique but could inhabit the voices.”

Middleton and Spinney opted for full transparency with their audiences, and indicate at the film’s opening that actors are lip-synching to documentary material. It was important to them, they say, that viewers were able to navigate the different textual layers within the film.

“The whole technique was merely a process of deepening our ability to engage in John’s account and the authenticity of that account is crucial to it,” says Spinney, noting that short visual snippets of cassettes rolling are used intermittently throughout the feature as a reminder of the source material.

“Audiences are so shrewd and alert to any kind of trickery that we wanted to make sure that the transparency was there throughout and that this was a collaborative process with [them], so there’s no wool being pulled over anyone’s eyes as to what the different layers and different elements were,” he continues.

In fact, if there is anything being pulled over the eyes of the Notes audience, it will soon be a VR headset with which to view the film’s companion VR experience, Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness. Most recently on display at the New Frontiers Gateway at Sundance, Spinney says the VR component is meant to convey the more sensory aspects of Hull’s account that don’t have a natural place in the film’s narrative structure.

“We were keen to try and find a way that some of these more meditative passages which provide such an insight into these sensory awakenings that he comes to discover in blindness would find a form in some component of the project,” he says.

notes on blindness

Marilyn Hull, played by Simone Kirby

The experience sees binaural sound tethered to a 3D visual experience featuring four chapters that realize Hull’s idea of “acoustic space” and take on such sonic environments as a busy park, rainfall, thunder and the interior of a cathedral.

“What we’re really excited about is that the two components of the project can provide two entry points to John’s account of blindness,” says Spinney of the experience, which was produced by Ex Nihilo, ARTE France, and the French start-up AudioGaming, in coproduction with Archer’s Mark.

“They vastly enrich one another even though they’re very different ways of empathizing with John’s experience and understanding these sensory developments he comes to register in his work,” he adds.

Asked whether the filmmakers have noticed a shift in support for more creative work, they admit the feature-length project does come at an auspicious time for more experimental doc projects, particularly when it comes to funding.

The success of such films as 20,000 Days on Earth and Leviathan, for example, has prompted the creation of such granting schemes as Britdoc and Pulse Films’ new Genesis Fund, which supports films experimenting with form and approach.

“It meant that certainly potential supporters and funders for the film were much more receptive, I think, to our style and the approach we were proposing,” says Middleton. “And coupled with what we’d done with the short films, it enabled us to demonstrate what the [feature would be].”

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