Saturday, August 31, 2013

In I AM BREATHING, Emma Davie & Morag McKinnon take us somewhere very special

What separates us as human beings from other life forms? This question's been asked and answered many times, but according to Neil Platt -- the subject of what is certainly the most moving and maybe one of, even the best documentary of the year -- it's our adaptability. As shown here, Neil certainly proves adaptable. He's dying, you see, and must adapt to that.

How he does it makes for the meat of this 73-minute movie that had me -- and everyone around me -- at the press screening for us cynical critics moved to the point of long silence at the movie's close, followed by an audible inhale/exhale. We won't even go into the tears. How the filmmakers -- Emma Davie (below) and Morag McKinnon (at right) -- achieve this is exactly right. They go for, and capture, such intimacy that we're right there, as close to Mr. Platt as possible,
not only in terms of distance but of thought, feelings and spirit. And, my, does Neil have a lot of that last one! This just-right combination of intimacy coupled to Neil's history, the blog he begins once his diagnosis is plain, and the views we get of his wife, child and dearest friends allows us to become part of it all -- and in a manner that seems utterly natural and non-intrusive. The two filmmakers make it all seem so simple and immediate that the movie almost sneaks up on us.

Of course we expect to be moved. Someone is dying, after all. Neil (shown above, and below, after the disease has him paralyzed from the neck down) has what, in Britain, is known as Motor Neurone Disease (MND); here, we call it Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease -- a rapidly progressive and fatal disease that attacks the motor neurones that send messages from the brain to the muscles, leaving people unable to walk, talk, feed themselves or finally, I believe, even to breathe.

Seventy-three minutes is an awfully short time to tackle any man's life and death, yet the filmmaker's make the most of that time and end up allowing us to see and hear what we need to in order to understand what Neil, his wife Louise and child Oscar were going through. So full of specific details is the film that it goes by remarkably fast; when it stops for a breath, it's mostly so that Neil (and we) can pause to appreciate how beautiful and precious is this world we inhabit.

It is clear throughout that Neil wanted this film to happen, so there is no sense of impropriety on the part of the filmmakers or of us as somehow being unwanted voyeurs. This, as well as the skill by which Davie and McKinnon have constructed their tale, does much in balancing the sorrow on view with hope -- not for Neil, for whom it is clear death must arrive, but for those who remain, including, yes, us viewers.

It is difficult to explain, given the simplicity of what we're seeing, the enormous impact of the film. By the end, however, it should be clear. This was Neil's plan all along, and the movie is his gift.

I Am Breathing will open this coming Friday, September 6, in New York City at the IFC Center, and the following Friday, September 13, it will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3. For more information, simply go to the film's web site.

2 comments:

Lilly said...

Do they bring up the subject on having kids when you have hereditary LS's disease running in the family? It'd be very interesting to hear their thoughts on the risks of having children when it's been present for at least 2 generations.

James van Maanen said...

The filmmakers (and their subjects) touch on this but don't go heavily into it. Still, one cannot help but wonder what lies in store for the couple's little boy, what with his father and grandfather both dying from the disease. It's almost too much to consider. But I guess it really must be, once the child has grown up and is thinking about a family of his own....

Thanks for commenting, Lily.