BAFTA-nominated documentary Notes on Blindness (Peter Middleton & James Spinney, 2016) recounts the story of writer and theologian John M. Hull who, in 1983, just days before the birth of his first son, went blind. In an attempt to understand his condition, the university professor began recording audiotapes of his feelings and experiences living with blindness. These cassettes formed the basis of Hull’s autobiographical work Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness published in 1990. In a bold move, directors Middleton and Spinney chose to use these tapes, and additional interviews with Hull and his wife Marilyn, by having actors lip-synch their testimony. Hull, Marilyn, the other individuals we hear, the ‘real’ people, are absent from the documentary’s images (apart from a coda which shows Hull and Marilyn standing together, gazing out to sea) and only heard on the soundtrack. This article seeks to interrogate the reasons for using such an approach to telling Hull’s story and will analyse the effects created for the spectator. The latter are significant in relation to how much recent documentary film integrates performative techniques (stylistic characteristics which draw attention to the fact that what the spectator is watching is a filmic construction) in order to reimagine the preconceived notion that documentary should be engaged in the authentic representation of reality. As we will see, films such as Notes on Blindness encourage us to reflect on this simplistic binary (objective/subjective) while also inviting a consideration of our own sense of self.
Perhaps the most recognisable voice in documentary film is the ‘voice-over’, also referred to as ‘voice-of-god’ narration. It has gone in and out of fashion in non-fiction output over the years, with some filmmakers lauding or lamenting its capacity to direct spectator attention to the documentary’s ‘message’ as a way of organising the film’s images on the one hand, but potentially being too draconian in approach, leaving little room for the viewer to make up their own minds about the things they see and hear on the other.
Critics have interpreted the voice-over as being imbued with authority and a certain omniscience. For Pascal Bonitzer, who includes voice-over as an example of ‘voice-off’, this effect is created due to the voice’s position out of sight in a space not represented by the film.[i] In other words, the speaker cannot be questioned because they are not seen. And for Mary Ann Doane, it is precisely because this voice is disembodied that it is able to interpret the image, ‘producing its truth’.[ii] Therefore, because the voice does not have a visible body, it cannot be identified and so has no bias towards what is being represented. The objective of classical filmmaking, for Doane, is to impart meaning and affect through the unity of body and voice because, even in the case of disembodied voice-over commentary, the spoken word ‘places the image by endowing it with a clear intelligibility’.[iii] With these discussions in mind, where, when and what is the voice in Notes on Blindness?
On the one hand, John Hull’s voice (and that of the others we hear throughout the film) is a form of voice-over. For the most part we hear his voice but cannot identify his body. It is somewhere and ‘somewhen’ else to the images onscreen. One might assume therefore that his commentary has a certain amount of power. However, Hull’s words are sutured to a different body in the film through an actor’s lip-synching. Consequently, and contrary to the desire for unity of voice/body/space, identity is split between the voice which has no body (Hull) and the body which cannot speak (the actor). Even if this attempt at synchronisation was perfectly realised such that a spectator was unable to tell the difference between the two, the documentary signposts the lip-synching technique at the beginning. As a result, the directors are drawing attention to the fact that the audience is watching a construction where the soundtrack and images have been manipulated.
One might then ask; why adopt such an approach to representing this story? I contend that the first reason is to reflect Hull’s response to his affliction which, as the documentary progresses, is revealed to be complex. At once frustrated and depressed, then hopeful and philosophical, it is clear that Hull’s blindness has a profound effect on his sense of identity, fragmenting it into various pieces as he attempts to compartmentalise what his disability means for different aspects of his life. The disjunction of voice and body thus serves to visually and aurally reproduce this fragmented sense of self.
Secondly, the film begins to ‘perform’ the sensory effects of blindness for an able-sighted spectator. In addition to the first-person camera shots of the actor-as-Hull receiving medical treatment and the image blurring before fading to black, the different identities of voice and body reflexively visualise the experience a blind person would have on hearing someone speaking. In other words, they would not be able to discern what that person looks like. So, the spectator watching Notes on Blindness sees a person’s image, but the voice belongs to someone else.
This reflexive address through performative techniques is an invitation from the filmmakers for the spectator to consider their own identities which, in this case (and somewhat paradoxically), involves them experiencing blindness through seeing and hearing. In this way, Notes on Blindness owes a stylistic debt to the verbatim theatre technique of Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010). Barnard similarly employed a dislocation between body and voice by using actors lip-synching the testimony of those closest to playwright Andrea Dunbar. As well as creating a complex palimpsest of different performances, The Arbor complicates notions of unified identity and documentary’s link to the ‘real world’. For both films, this stylistic choice results in deeply affecting and complex viewings that interrogate human perception and preconceptions of voice and image in documentary.
Adam Vaughan is a doctoral researcher at Southampton University. You can follow him on twitter.
[i] Pascal Bonitzer, ‘The Silences of the Voice’, trans.by Gudie Lawoetz, ed. by Philip Rosen in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp.319-334 (p.324).
[ii] Mary Ann Doane, ‘The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space’, Yale French Studies, 60 (1980): 33-50
[iii] See above, p.47