“If I cried, and my tears fell into your eyes, would you be able to see again?” That gorgeous heartbreaker of a question is one that the theologian John Hull reports being asked by his son in the years after Hull went blind in 1983.
Hull recorded audio diaries in the first years after losing his sight, charting his adaptation, his occasional despair, and the glittering insights and memories with which he lit up a world gone dark. Eventually, after years, he found something more than hope — in emerging “out of that shadowland of passivity,” he seized the agency he had previously enjoyed as a family man and professor and gained a new understanding of the mind.
Working with those original tapes, the filmmakers create art out of what too often is a documentary stopgap. By having their actors lip-sync along to Hull and his family’s own voices, the staged re-creations that so often pad nonfiction films here achieve a peculiar formalist beauty: We’re watching a guess at what the people saying these words might have looked like, just as Hull himself had to guess. The staged scenes and incidental footage sometimes are as moving as Hull’s words. (“Who had the right to deprive me of the sight of my children at Christmastime?” he asks.)
There’s a dreamy sadness to all the silhouettes, to the fingers feeling along wallpaper, and one strong sequence involves slow dancing to the Shirelles’ “This Is Dedicated to the One I Love,” a potent reminder of the genius of Phil Spector. But filmmakers’ metaphorical flourishes — illustrating dreams or stabbing at a feeling — alternate between stirring and mawkishly imprecise.
Notes on Blindness
Written and directed by James Spinney and Peter Middleton
Opens November 16, Film Forum