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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life ***

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

Director: Ric Burns

Country: USA

Renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks is at the end of his life. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, he has written his autobiography and is now telling his story on film too. Born in Britain, the gay doctor moved to the USA in the 1960s and threw himself into his work at the Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco. There, he treated a group of survivors from the 1920s Sleeping Sickness epidemic, who were locked in their bodies, unable to think, speak or move. By giving them an experimental drug, they suddenly regained consciousness and mobility and the basis of his experiences treating them would become to 1990 movie Awakenings.

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Sacks’ life and work are both remarkable. The latter forms the bulk of the film, charting both his successes and failures, alongside exploring his literary endeavours too. The former also makes for compelling viewing, however. This wildly successful and charismatic man battled demons throughout his life, ever since his beloved mother called him “an abomination” when he came out to her. With shattered self-confidence, he spent much of his adult life in a spiral of self-destructive behaviour: drugs, obsessive, body-building, damaged relationships.

Coming of age in the 60s and 70s, it’s fascinating to hear his story told against the backdrop of the changing tide of the Gay Liberation movement. He came to San Francisco to live a liberal life, but was unable to follow through, holding himself to conservative standards that had been instilled in him from his upbringing. In photographs we see a handsome, muscle-bound success-story, but in his eyes there is hesitant discontentment, which we are told in his own words in voiceover. And with Sacks wanting to get his house in order in the last days of his life, there is a striking truth to what he says.

Even if you’re not familiar with Sacks’ work, this documentary autobiography is a moving and compelling portrait of a flawed man who did landmark work. There is a tendency from other contributors to eulogise and over-praise their colleague, but this is the documentary equivalent of a lifetime achievement award so that can be understood, even if it leaves an audience unfamiliar with him questioning the director’s bias. However, Sacks is definitely a man whose work and life warranted documenting on film. A giant in the field of neuroscience, his legacy endures today and this film is a fitting tribute.

UK Release: in UK & Irish cinemas for a One Night Only special event on 29 September, released by Altitude Films.


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