Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is a fascinating, empathetic documentary about a fascinating and empathetic man. Sacks was a neurologist who was interested in stories, a man who found fame through his books but never lost his desire to learn from his patients and tell their tales. Ric Burns’ film poignantly chronicles Sacks’ life, blending footage of interviews with collaborators and Oliver Sacks himself, talking as he knows he has months to live following a cancer diagnosis.
Most people know Sacks through the film Awakenings, where he was played by Robin Williams. Based on his book, it follows Sacks as he finds a drug, L-Dopa, that wakes people up from sleeping sickness – reanimating these statues and giving them life again, but at various costs. Sacks had led a rather chaotic early life, moving from Britain as a young man after coming out and facing estrangement from his mother. He submerged himself in body building culture in LA and relied on amphetamines to get him through. This was leading to a potentially tragic climax, but he found therapy – and a final amphetamine trip conducted whilst reading a 19th century book about migraines – opened his own mind to a book about migraines himself, and his future as a writer and neurologist was sealed.
It was a path that was filled with obstacles. Initially his book, also titled Awakenings, was dismissed by the scientific community, yet recognition snowballed. Sacks’ compendium of case histories, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, became a bestseller; Awakenings was a success at the box office and brought his work more publicity.
A bear of a man even in his 80s, with a glorious grey beard and twinkly eyes, Sacks is a fascinating, intelligent and engaging raconteur who inspires loyalty and love wherever he goes – evidenced by the testimony of friends and collaborators, from partner Bill Hayes to novelist Paul Theroux to patients like Temple Grandin, whose condition formed the basis of the book An Anthropologist On Mars. Eventually finding love after 35 years of celibacy and taming his own inner demons, this documentary provides an insight into a restlessly curious man, able to give of himself and observe with compassion. As Grandin states, he was like “the Hubble Space Telescope of neurology – an astronomer of the mind”.
Dir: Ric Burns (15, 113 mins)
In UK and Irish cinemas for one night only on Wed 29 Sept. More info on Altitude’s website here
words KEIRON SELF