Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is in UK & Irish cinemas for a one-night-only special event on September 29th before a digital release on October 4th.
Self-reflection can be a powerful tonic. Looking back on our lives and the events that have led us to the present can be one of the most challenging tasks we undertake. While at the same time, understanding and accepting how you and those around you have changed in an evolving world can be both enlightening and, at times, terrifying. This form of internal reflection requires you to truly dig deep within yourself and excavate that pure essence that makes you who you are. Of course, sometimes we may not like what we find; we may even fear it – but ultimately, there is no choice but to accept it and yourself. That’s what I feel Oliver Sacks is trying to teach us in Ric Burns’ heartfelt documentary.
I had heard of Sacks previously, for his best-selling work The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and the Oscar-nominated Awakenings (1990) starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. But I have to admit I knew little about the man himself despite his groundbreaking work. Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is not only a complex celebration of a life lived on the cutting edge of neurology; it is an emotional goodbye. One in which Oliver Sacks shares his memories and thoughts, knowing his body is slowly succumbing to cancer.
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Told through a combination of Oliver Sacks’ own narration, talking heads and a plethora of scientists, colleagues, friends and patients alike. Ric Burns offers us a comprehensive observation of Oliver Sacks and the extraordinary life he led, creating an intimate space that the audience feels honoured to enter. The result is a portrait of a remarkable man who held a deep understanding of the human condition.
Burns takes us through Oliver’s entire life, placing him in a hall of mirrors, each reflecting a different angle or perspective of his personality. We learn of the tragic kinship with his brother Michael and how it pushed him into a scientific career. While at the same time, we explore the painful shadows of his early life in London. For example, when Oliver told his mother that he was gay, her reply was, “You are an abomination.” Here, the pain of his mother’s words clearly never healed despite Sacks moving to San Francisco, where he could be himself and live free of family constraints. It was here that he would embrace motorcycle culture and bodybuilding before moving on to a brilliant career in science and medicine that would lead him to New York.
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These life-defining moments and the ripple effects they created ultimately formed the man Sacks would become. The documentaries power held within Oliver’s poetic narration of his life and the lessons it taught him. His ability to speak eloquently of his joys, scars and open wounds is both riveting and brave.
The Oliver Sacks presented to us is complex – infinitely compassionate and reassuringly gentle to others, yet often self-destructive and occasionally lost. At times, it is almost as if Oliver teaches others how to heal as a substitute for his healing, a trait often reflected in those working in social services, medicine and the human sciences. Here, Sacks performs such extraordinary feats of kindness, employing unconventional methods yet often restricting his own happiness in the process. For example, his mother’s disapproval of his sexuality would ultimately lead to his celibacy for 35 years, only allowing himself to find love and companionship in his 70s with photographer Billy Hayes.
As a cinematic memoir, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life never feels self-indulgent or congratulatory, despite Sacks’ extraordinary and celebrated career. Maybe that is because he never sought fame or fortune, just the respect and recognition of those around him in his field. His methods were revolutionary, and he inspired a whole generation of neurologists to think beyond the textbooks of their studies.
Oliver Sacks was unconventional to his core, which is precisely what set him apart from everyone else. It is emotionally overwhelming to understand his life as it unfolds on the screen, witnessing the beratement he endured and the hardships that constantly fell upon him. And yet, he never faltered in his care or his character. If anything, he took that pain and used it to strengthen himself. This is a common trait of many pioneering LGBTQ+ leaders, who suffered the indignity of ongoing social oppression and internalised doubt as they carved out their groundbreaking careers.
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Maybe that’s one of the most vital lessons we learn from this documentary. After all, his patients speak passionately of how he uplifted them and made them realise their afflictions and ailments made them greater-than-normal, not abnormal. Oliver Sack’s medicine was rooted in compassion and friendship because he often saw himself in those he treated.
The documentary sometimes feels a little routine, with its rousing score swelling and waning at the appropriate emotional points. Meanwhile, its slideshow clips play to the standard documentary template. Here, the complex and groundbreaking work of the individual at the centre of the documentary could have benefited from some diversity in the cinematic presentation offered. However, this is only a minor criticism, as Burns bowls us over with the emotional resonance and magnificence of the man at the heart of the film. Ultimately I came into Oliver Sacks: His Own Life knowing little about Oliver, and I left feeling like an old friend.