The documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life can be accessed Sept. 25 – Oct. 22.
If famed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks were alive and practicing today, he would advise people to wear masks, social distance and pay attention to the scientists as ways to ward off the scourge of COVID-19, according to Kate Edgar, his longtime editor, friend and executive director of the foundation that bears his name.
Sacks treated patients suffering with many difficult problems, including the pandemic encephalitis lethargica through which he observed the devastating harm that could result from being infected.
The book and movie Awakening dramatized those professional experiences, and the new documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, directed by Ric Burns, goes way beyond pandemics to tell about Sacks through his own words, recollections of family and friends and archival materials. The film points out how he redefined understandings of the brain and delves into his personal issues.
The documentary, presented digitally by the Detroit Film Theatre, can be accessed Sept. 25-Oct. 22.
“I think the film explores a lot of the different aspects of Oliver’s personality,” said Edgar, who is spotlighted in the documentary. “I know almost all of the people in the film, which helps me relive so much of my own life spent with Oliver and so many great adventures that we had together.
“I think Ric has done a really magnificent job of weaving the disparate elements into a narrative Oliver shaped himself. The memoir, On the Move, that he wrote at the end of his life is the backbone of the film, and I wanted people to appreciate his humanity, his deep curiosity and passion and the twinkle in his eyes when he was telling a story.”
Edgar approached Burns to do the film in 2015 after Sacks was advised of his own terminal diagnosis and discussed film possibilities with the director. Her professional experience with the doctor-writer was different from any other editing work she had done because his manuscripts were handwritten.
“I became immersed in them, and it was almost like learning a foreign language,” said Edgar, now working on a posthumous book of his impactful correspondence. “I began to see what the patterns were and became an expert in reading his handwriting, which was no easy thing. He loved writing letters and, occasionally, I would get a message asking me to translate a written letter.”
Through the range of comments made in the film by some two dozen associates, viewers learn about the ways Sacks confronted a medical establishment that accepted his findings only decades after they originally were communicated and how he faced personal battles with drug addiction and homophobia.
A Love of Jewish Ritual
While the film ends with Sacks making a L’Chaim toast, there is not much reference to Judaism, but Edgar knows about that. Although she is not Jewish, her friendship with Sacks included her in many religious celebrations.
“Oliver embraced tradition and family,” Edgar said. “He did not believe in the supernatural or life after death, but he loved ritual. He was an atheist, but he went to Passover seders. He wrote very movingly about that at the end of his life. He has a book called Gratitude with a chapter called ‘Sabbath.’”
Edgar’s favorite scene in the film comes at the beginning.
“Oliver is meeting with a patient and takes his hand in his own hand,” she recalled. “These are two older men, and there’s such a tender quality. You can see the patient’s eyes light up when he greets Oliver, who would not just look at a patient’s medical problem but the person’s whole life. He understood that health is influenced by situation, environment and relationships.”
Burns, a documentary filmmaker and writer whose awards include six Emmys, explained what he wants film viewers to understand about the impact made in the medical field.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, Oliver was discovered by people studying consciousness: Francis Crick, Gerald Edelman and Christof Koch,” Burns said. “Oliver had this unique data on human beings — data you can only get by interacting with empathy focused on patients over a long period of time. Oliver called it the intersection of biology and biography. He tried to find out what it’s like to be someone else.”
“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” can be seen digitally Sept. 25-Oct. 22 through the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT). $12 with half of proceeds going to the reopening of the DFT when conditions permit. Go to DIA.org and then DFT@home.