Tuesday, May 21, 2013

‘I Am Breathing’ (2013) directed by Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon

I Am Breathing is a horror film. It shows a human body in rebellion, the flesh turning against the mind, bodily functions systematically being replaced by crude machinery which creeps over the body like a tide. This is body horror in the vein of David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Videodrome and Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo, the Iron Man. But this film surpasses even Cronenberg in the mood of dread, terror and revulsion it inspires. How? Because I Am Breathing is a documentary. This is stark reality.

We view the last year in the life of Neil Platt, husband and father to a young son as he slowly dies of Motor Neurone Disease (MND), also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s largely shot by his friends and family on handheld cameras, the footage edited together with home movie footage of his life before his illness. Neil knows he will soon be dead, much of the movie is given to wondering what to communicate to his young son, what memories he will hand down to him.  This is all tempered by the fact that Neil lost his own father to MND in the late 90s, with the unspoken implication that the same horror could be revisited upon Oscar, his young son.

Neil Platt
Needless to say this is grim stuff, and while there are moments of mordant humour, the prevailing tone in the film is endless, crushing misery.  The more we learn about Neil’s life the more we begin to identify with him.  Importantly, the film doesn’t paint him as some kind of saint, and never comes close to condescendingly suggesting that he’s achieved purity or enlightenment through suffering.  Rather, great trouble is taken to show things from as down to earth a perspective as possible.  

This is largely achieved through avoiding documentary cliche; there are no talking heads here explaining the science behind the disease and the film is almost entirely free of graphic inserts explaining how the condition works.  Though I Am Breathing is very much a documentary about MND, it justifiably skates over the science behind it.  All we are told, in very basic terms, is that it’s a condition where the body begins to shut down the neurons that control motor skills. For the purposes of this film that's all we need to know. 

We're introduced to Neil in the later stages of the disease.  He’s paralysed from the neck down, breathing through an awkward and uncomfortable looking ventilator jammed into his nose.  As the machinery hisses and wheezes in the background he tells us the story of his pleasant but mundane life; how he fell in love with his future wife at university in Edinburgh, how he proposed to her on holiday, his moving to London to work as an architect, the birth of his son.  And finally the day it all came crashing down.  I want to clarify that when I say Neil’s life was mundane, it’s not any kind of criticism, the normality makes this story that much more relatable.  Here is a good man of 33 who had everything, a satisfying job, a loving wife and a healthy young child, yet by the whim of fate it’s cruelly snatched away.

The most disturbing sequences for me was when Neil describes the process by which his body has deteriorated.  The first sign was on a walk with his family, he noticed that his right foot was slapping onto the ground as he stepped down.  At first he assumed he merely needed a new pair of shoes, but quickly he progressed to walking with a cane, and then to a wheelchair.  Neil’s recounting of MND’s progress underlines the blunt cruelty of it.  You know in advance what’s going happen, so if you’re having trouble walking then you know manual dexterity is going to go next, followed by hand movement entirely.  Eventually the breathing goes, and you’re dependant on a ventilator.  Then, cruelly you slowly lose the ability to communicate or swallow, as your throat and mouth become immobile.  In the final stages you’re just a pair of eyes staring out from a body turned prison, no way to communicate, becoming, as Neil puts it, a “presence” rather than a person.  Sadistically, there’s no loss of feeling, just motor skills, so while being unable to move you are acutely aware of every itch and uncomfortable sensation.  Fighting this creeping paralysis is like sitting on the beach trying to beat back the oncoming tide, and though we only get the tiniest understanding of the unadulterated terror and grief that sufferers of MND must feel, even this tiniest glimpse is traumatising.

This is the stuff of nightmares.  Communicating it effectively in the language of cinema is an incredibly difficult burden, yet one which directors Davie and McKinnon bear with remarkable skill.  There are two aspects to this; the first is Neil, shot in extreme close-up, pouring out his mind. He speaks fearlessly about his death, his regrets and the misery of his situation.  Aside from what he tells us, the film attempts to provide a very basic simulation of his life, allowing us to feel empathy with him. We glimpse his frustration as he fights with word recognition software while composing a blog post, and we understand the claustrophobic, sensory limits of his world as we ponder silent shots of gently undulating patterned curtains and wallpaper.  

Underlining all of this is the deeply personal connection we immediately feel through the aesthetic of the 'home movie', which it perfectly achieves because the film largely is a home movie.  This leads us to unconsciously consider the events in terms of ourselves and our own families.  But though the film is rooted in naturalistic realism, there are subtle symbolic elements running through it, most notably the weather. As Neil’s condition worsens, the view from his window becomes snowy, frozen and inert, an appropriate mirroring of his physical condition.

It’s difficult to find anything to criticise in this film, although I would have liked to hear more from Louise, Neil’s wife.  She’s heartbreakingly kind and composed and the brief moments in which we see her interacting directly with the camera are some of the most touching in the film.  She also bears the burden of survival; while the film is a dual eulogy and last will and testament for Neil, she will have to be the one who explains to their son Oscar what happened to his father.  To see someone you love so tortured with no possible respite must be difficult enough even without the added burden of the most intimate moments being filmed for mass consumption.

This intimacy goes far beyond what most documentaries could ever hope (or for that matter want) to achieve, reaching a climax on his deathbed.  By this point I was so utterly miserable that the sight of Neil, unrecognisable under layers of medical machinery, gasping in panic as he feebly tries to explain the misery of his degradation was almost too much.  I’ve seen mountains of horror movies, but this one left me so terrified that at 2am that night I was lying wide-awake in bed unable to sleep.  In this sense it’s difficult to wholeheartedly recommend I Am Breathing; a film so unrelentingly miserable that it may as well be a tactical nuclear strike on your soul. 

What makes it bearable is the knowledge that the creation of the film provided solace for Neil; both allowing him to ease his guilt about not doing more for MND awareness while he was healthy, and to communicate through time with his young son.  The closing shots of the film are of Neil’s 2 year old son Oscar playing in the empty room his father experienced his personal hell in.  The unspoken implication is that if research doesn't continue, Oscar stands about a 50/50 chance of succumbing to the nightmare disease that claimed his father and his grandfather.  Is there any nobler reason for a film to exist?


‘I Am Breathing’ is being screened at multiple locations around the world on June 21st (MND/ALS Awareness Day). If you are interested in hosting a screening, please visit www.iambreathingfilm.com/global 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “‘I Am Breathing’ (2013) directed by Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights