You know legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks from his 1973 book Awakenings and, more likely, Penny Marshall’s 1990 Oscar-nominated drama of the same name. The book explores Sack’s leadership in treating patients in a Bronx, New York, hospital suffering from encephalitis lethargica. Many of Sack’s patients had been languishing in a near-catatonic state for decades, yet many thought their brain function was still in-tact despite their complete inability to function independently. Sacks used a then-experimental drug called L-DOPA to “awaken” his subjects. For a brief period, the treatment seemed to work until they eventually lapsed back into their vegetative state.
Sacks’ journey and writings of this period are widely seen as landmark today. Yet, when his book was originally published in 1973, it was roundly ignored by the scientific community. Turns out, he was decades ahead of his time.
“Consciousness became in the 1980s a legitimate source of subject for neurological exploration – which it had not been before. Object neurological science didn’t know what to do with it,” documentary filmmaker Ric Burns explains. “The scientific world did not wake up to Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings. They woke up to the film Awakenings. It really struck a chord and resonated with the scientific world, and Oliver had gotten there before almost anybody.”
But the Awakenings case itself remains a single point in time in the full legacy of Oliver Wolf Sacks. His writings, contributions, and overall scientific theories did not start or end with that case. They remain far reaching and pioneering within the neuroscience field. Burns explores Sacks’ full legacy in his new film Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, debuting virtually today on the virtual cinema platform Kino Marquee and Film Forum virtual cinema.
His Own Life offers several scenes of Sacks and his Awakenings patients, serving as a window into this material for many unfamiliar with his overall life. It does not, however, only focus on this renown period. Instead, the documentary smartly explores Sacks’s entire life from his brilliant and accomplished parents to his struggles with homosexuality to his self-destructive drug and thrill addiction. It’s a remarkable portrait of a man once considered to be incredibly private.
That desire to keep his personal life behind closed doors changed, however, once Sacks first received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He made the announcement to the world in a New York Times op-ed piece in which he explained that he would “live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can… I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”
Ric Burns’ documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is, in some ways, Sacks opening up and being brutally honest about his past, his successes, and his mistakes. Once he received the terminal diagnosis, his life became an open book as captured by Burns. The process began in early January 2015 when Burns received a phone call from Kate Edgar, a long-time Sacks editor and current executive director of the Oliver Sacks foundation, asking Burns to initiate the documentary process.
“Within a few weeks, we piled into Oliver’s apartment on Horatio Street in Greenwich Village and started filming. He had just finished and sent to his publishers an extraordinary autobiography called On the Move in which he came clean about things he had never talked about outside of a very small group of friends. The torment and complexities of his family life. His sexuality. Extraordinary professional struggles he had,” Burns explained. “Now, at 81 having published this autobiography, he received a mortal diagnosis, and he wanted to talk.”
Burns remarks that Sacks’ diagnosis led to what Burns calls “a very special five minutes to midnight focus,” meaning the bad news – terminal yet not incapacitating – gave Sacks an opportunity to reflect on his life with a remarkable clarity and honesty. The resulting documentary was shaped from over 90 hours of footage with Sacks and his close friends / team over spring and early summer in 2015. Sacks died in August 2015.
The entire project, according to Burns, was shaped by Sacks’ end of life experience and serves two primary narratives. First, it explores the cradle-to-grave life of Oliver Sacks. Second, it explores coming to terms with dying. Burns observed Sacks living the end of his life without self-pity. He lived life until the very end with gratitude, curiosity, and wonder. It’s this recognition and exploration of the beauty in the world that touched Burns as a filmmaker.
“The gift that the film was given was that it’s both a biography and it’s in the present tense. It’s seeing the world through that special lens – a very sharpening and focusing lens – of mortality.”
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life debuts Wednesday, September 23, on the virtual cinema platform Kino Marquee and Film Forum virtual cinema.