The last couple of years in one tragically truncated life are chronicled with a winning combination of sensitivity and humor in I Am Breathing, a Scottish/Danish co-production from directors Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon. A notably popular favorite with audiences when world-premiering at the Dutch documentary showcase IDFA in November, it has obvious small-screen and festival appeal but with proper handling would warrant arthouse play in receptive countries.
The main focus of this very intimate project is Neil Platt, a successful architect with a loving wife and beautiful young son who, in his early thirties, started experiencing coordination problems. The worsening of these symptoms led to his being diagnosed with the rapidly degenerative condition known as Motor Neuron Disease (MND) in the UK, and as Lou Gehrig’s Disease or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in the US. His story is picked up eight months later by Davie, an experienced small-screen documentarian, and McKinnon. The latter won a BAFTA for her 2000 short Home, while her feature Donkeys , a quasi-sequel to Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, earned a measure of festival play a decade later.
They’re present to observe and record his decline over the course of the next two years until his death in 2009, with poignant “flashbacks” in the form of amateur video shot by Neil, his family and friends during his years of happiness and health. Three things emerge particularly strongly over the course of the film’s economic 72-minute running-time: Neil’s likeably charismatic, no-nonsense personality; his love for his son Oscar, who’s much too little to understand what’s going on; and the crucial role in his day-to-day existence played by his devoted, tireless wife-cum-caretaker Louise.
Neil’s physical incapacity is no bar to his imposing himself upon Davie and McKinnon’s picture, via voiceover (some of it read by an actor) or extracts from his blog, which we see him dictating via cumbersome computer software, word by time-taking word. Neil, whose own father was a victim of MND, displays a mordant strain of gallows wit throughout (“my condition continues to be a royal pain in the arse”), one that’s recognizably northern-English in its self-mocking directness and avoidance of self-pity.
As he promises very early on, what we get is “a tale of fun and laughs with a smattering of upset and devastation.” The former gives way to the latter only in the closing fifteen minutes or so, when the deterioration in Neil’s condition results in his being relocated from his home to a hospice institution. His formidable powers of communication are by this stage ebbing away in a manner that nearly all viewers will find powerfully harrowing.
Necessarily tough going, these sequences deliver what are in effect a series of knockout punches that leave us dazedly counting our blessings. But so firmly have Neil’s particular wishes expressed – that he wants the film to promote awareness of MND and encourage fund-raising into the research of possible cures – that I Am Breathing never feels in any way intrusive or exploitative. Mawkishness isn’t on the agenda here, though it’s regrettable that the directors follow one of the most unfortunate trends in 21st century documentary, namely the addition of background music (such as the poignant tinkling of a piano) to scenes which would benefit from its absence.
Even more distracting is the decision by Davie and McKinnon – colleagues at the Edinburgh College of Art, whose Scottish Documentary Institute is the main producer – to subtitle every line of dialogue in the film. This is despite the fact that Neil (who’s English) and Louise (Scottish) don’t have the kind of strong regional British accents which would cause comprehension problems, and only very occasionally do the circumstances of filming result in sound-recording muffled enough to require subtitling. According to the producers, however, the subtitles will not be used when the film is shown in English-speaking territories.
Even so, this kind of subtitling and scoring are apparently now expected of small-screen documentaries from all over the world, but usually prove superfluous at best and counter-productive at worst – especially when the work concerned is viewed in a cinema. Despite these issues, I Am Breathing stands out from the pack, even in a year notable for the amount of high-calibre film-making, both non-fiction and fiction, dealing with the undeniably difficult but piercingly necessary subjects of terrible illness and premature death.
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Competition), November 23, 2012.
Production company: Scottish Documentary Institute, in collaboration with Danish Documentary
Directors / Screenwriters: Emma Davie, Morag McKinnon
Producer: Sonja Henrici
Co-producer: Sigrid Dyekjær
Director of photography: Emma Davie
Music: Kieran Hebden, Jim Sutherland
Editor: Peter Winther
Sales agent: DR International Sales, Copenhagen
No MPAA rating, 72 minutes