Sunday, 25 June 2017

Notes on Blindness

Another film watched with a group of friends from church but this time the viewing was curated by a colleague - who had been a student of the film's central character. John Hull (Dan Skinner) was an academic theologian at Birmingham University and latterly also at The Queen's Foundation Theological College. I was expecting much more direct 'God-talk' - God doesn't get a mention until the 48th minute! This docudrama is about the man, the husband, the father and the son John Hull. What sets it apart is that as his sight failed, he took to recording a detailed diary on audio cassettes and the dialogue in the film features the actors lip-synching with the diaries as they are played back.

Hull's mind was always in need of being fed. His voracious appetite for new ideas and information propelled friends, university colleagues and students to begin recording academic texts onto audio cassette so that he could listen to continue his research and lecturing. After a series of medical and surgical interventions, complete blindness came in 1980. The last image he recalled seeing was appropriately a church spire.

In making the film, Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney no doubt had to make editorial decisions about which extracts from the diaries to use in order to give the documentary and biographical elements of the film continuity. I wonder what their rationale was and what they chose to leave out. The result is a very down-to-earth, almost matter-of-fact film that treats blindness and its onset in an analytical way. This film does not indulge sentimentality. Hull works hard to develop new way of seeing which do not use the optic nerve but nevertheless stimulates the optical cortex of the brain. This enables Hull to describe the onset and effects of blindness with an accessible realism that is educative as well as being inspiring.

Much of the laboratory of his ongoing experimentation was his family - he had five children and was originally an Australian with his own family back in Victoria. His wife Marilyn (Simone Kirby) is portrayed very positively to be the rock that keeps the family going despite her constant fear of her husband entering another period of depression. It is not until a major epiphany, in part visualised as a dreamlike sequence, that Hull is able to come to terms with his condition and receive it as a gift - not a gift he wanted, but nevertheless a gift. The central question becomes for him not 'why' but 'what am I going to do with it?'. It is interesting to see how rainfall becomes a carrier of ideas when its analysed sound seems to heighten Hull's sensory acuity and power of reasoning. It is as though rain becomes for Hull a 'thin place' as followers of Celtic spirituality might say - where the immanence of God is felt more keenly.

Hull's approach to theology is through it's dialogue with sociology and as such he is portrayed as a very 'human' being. He is driven by questions about how different kinds of people can understand their differences young and old, rich and poor, male and female, sighted and the blind. As Hull's blindness was eventually 'seen' to be a gift to him, the film makers have in turn shared that gift with us in a generous and inspiring way. As well as introducing us to an extraordinary person, this film also invites us to consider what it actually means to 'see'.

This is another film that lends itself to group reflection and discussion. It raises a number of issues and offers a unique insight into blindness and its effects. It also shows how it can be embraced, coped with and even offer new possibilities not previous available. I would encourage you to see it - at 86 minutes it's about the right length. I'll give it 8/10.

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