Journey into darkness

notes on blindness
For most people, heavy rain falls like a curtain that restricts what they can perceive around them. But for John Hull, the varied noise of water hitting, splashing and dripping outside his window created a soundscape so rich that he wished it would start pouring down inside.

This revelation was recorded on tape by the eminent theologian and religious educator as part of a diary where he grappled with the complete loss of his sight at the age of 45. The tape features in the film Notes on Blindness which, if ticket sales permit will screen this month in Melbourne.

Notes on Blindness is a critically-acclaimed and multi award-winning 2016 film based on the taped diary Mr Hull kept for a three-year period after a series of operations failed to save his sight in 1983. The diaries were subsequently turned into two widely-acclaimed books.

Mr Hull’s sister Jan Dale will introduce the film at the Nova Cinema in Carlton, which is scheduled to show at 6.30pm on Wednesday 26 April, providing sufficient tickets are sold by lunchtime 17 April.

“I’ve seen the film six times now and I cry every time, I have not been able to sit through it without crying,” Ms Dale said.

“It’s very personal because it’s my brother’s voice, it’s his original diary that he kept originally just for his own purposes to help him deal with losing his sight.”

The voices of Mr Hull’s wife Marilyn, his children and his and Ms Dale’s mother also feature from family tapes and interviews. Actors lip-synch the dialogue, while the film lyrically and movingly recreates incidents and imaginings from the diary.

Ms Dale said that she learnt a lot from the books and film, even though she had a close relationship with Mr Hull following his move to the UK from their Victoria in the 1960s.

“I didn’t realise how much he had suffered until I read the book and then saw the film, so it renews that feeling of sadness that he to go through so much. But he was a very feisty character,” Ms Dale said.

Ms Dale said Mr Hull’s despair was evident when one of his children cried out after having an accident and he couldn’t find his way to provide any comfort or help.

“He says it’s a terrible thing to feel useless as a father, which he wasn’t at all but that is how he felt at that time,” Ms Dale said.

His distress is magnified when he finds the visual memories of his wife Marilyn and the two children born while he still had some sight, with one born after blindness set in, are fading.

A trip home to Australia proved pivotal for Mr Hull. Ms Dale said her brother hoped to foster a better relationship with their stern father, the Methodist minister Rev J. E. Hull whose last church was in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick.

“When John went back he was hoping to get close to his father but he went back as a blind person and felt he had to try to get to know them all over again and he couldn’t it wasn’t really doable,” Ms Dale said.

“And that was when he realised how much blindness had separated him from the people that he loved. He also thought he was coming back to the country that he loved but it wasn’t there for him anymore.

“That was the final or real acceptance. He really reached that point when he realised that he could not go back and he would never have the same life again. That was a kind of crisis or turning point.”

Mr Hull wrestled with how God could allow him to become blind.

At one point in the diaries he asked the question: “Who has the right to deprive me of the sight of my children at Christmas?”

Ms Dale said Mr Hull was sometimes asked by people what he had done wrong that God had punished him.

“He was occasionally approached by faith healers,” she said.

“One of those incidents is shown in the film. People who would tell him all he needed was a bit of willpower to get his sight back. He doesn’t want to have his sight back or he could. ”

In later years Mr Hull wrote a book on how the Bible treats blindness, its literal and symbolic meanings where people are often punished for doing something wrong by losing their sight.

Mr Hull eventually came to think of his blindness as a gift, though not one he ever asked for or wanted.

“There were many reasons he thought it was a gift but one of them was that it taught him what it was like to be marginalised in society and dependent,” Ms Dale said.

“And that experience of being marginalised, I think, brought out quite a lot of defiance and he became quite a strong activist.”

An app for the visually impaired that synchronises a description of what is happening on screen with the film’s dialogue will be available for the first time in an Australian cinema.

“There is so much in that film that people who are blind will appreciate being verbalised,’ Ms Dale said.

“And for people who know or have known someone who is blind, it will give them a much greater depth of understanding of what blindness means.”

The film is being hosted by the makers of Defiant Lives, which is a documentary on the rise of the disability rights movement.

To buy a ticket before lunchtime 17 April and ensure Notes on Blindness is screened please click here.

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