'TransFatty Lives': Hot Docs Review

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
This profoundly life-affirming film will leave you with tears in your eyes, as much from laughing as crying

Patrick O'Brien's documentary chronicles his physical decline as he succumbs to the devastating effects of Lou Gehrig's Disease

Early on his remarkable documentary TransFatty Lives, Patrick O'Brien amusingly announces, "I never thought life could get more complicated than enjoying Menudo." But life did get far more complicated for the filmmaker previously known for such anarchic short films as Paraplegic DJ and Born Again Porn Star and his musical career as "DJ TransFatty." At the age of thirty, O'Brien was diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, and informed that he had 2-5 years to live.

It's now ten years later, and as the film's title indicates, O'Brien is still very much alive. Not only that, but he has produced this deeply moving and rambunctiously funny account of his battle with the disease, presented in the form of a video letter to his young son. Currently being showcased at Hot Docs, the film deservedly won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the recent Tribeca Film Festival.

The portly, bearded O'Brien, whose dietary staples prior to his diagnosis were "sugar, caffeine and donuts," began filming just as his symptoms started appearing. The opening sequence shows him falling down in his apartment, knocking over a stack of 45 records in the process. It also includes the moment when he was informed of his condition by his doctor.

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"How long do I got, doc?" O'Brien asks in his typically jocular fashion.

As the film proceeds, his physical condition worsens, resulting in some harrowing moments. One of the most intense scenes features him being attended to by EMTs as he has difficulty breathing. But even then his creative impulse remains intact, as he instructs his emotionally distraught sister to continue videotaping what's happening.

Eventually he's forced to go on a respirator and loses his voice entirely, a decision predicated by his desire to watch his infant son grow up (he got married and conceived his child after his diagnosis). Seen holding the sleeping child on his lap, he points out ironically that his leg spasms are rocking him to sleep.

Narrating in an artificial voice much warmer sounding than the one famously employed by the disease's famous sufferer Stephen Hawking, O'Brien continues to display an indomitable spirit.

"It's enlightenment by shotgun," he tells us. "In a weird way, it's exciting."

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Along the way, he advocates for more funding for finding a cure, at one seen point protesting outside the White House naked in his wheelchair. But while he may be immobile and expressionless, he clearly hasn't lost his sense of humor, as evidenced by such scenes as when he's seen naked while being attended to by aides and apologizes, "Sorry, this isn't my best angle."

He's eventually moved to a care center where he finds a kinship with his fellow patients. The film includes footage of him engaging in such activities as going to the beach and attending a Nine Inch Nails concert.

"I'm a freak on wheels. I love it," he declares.

Designed as an "art project of his existence," TransFatty Lives is inevitably rough-hewn at times. But besides being a loving message to his son, it's also a gift to viewers, presenting a stark portrait of the disease's horrific toll in an unsentimental and at times even joyous fashion. Be prepared to be emotionally devastated.

Production: Handsome Cargo, in association with Doug Pray
Director: Patrick O'Brien
Screenwriters: Patrick O'Brien, Lasse Jarvi, Doug Pray
Producers: Patrick O'Brien, Michele Dupree, Amelia Green-Dove, Darin Hallinan, Doug Pray, Marcia Mohiuddin
Executive producers: Nyac Anglers, Kennedy O'Brien, Ben Conrad, Doug Pray, Craig Swann
Director of photography: Ian Dudley
Editor: Lasse Jarvi
Composer: Bradford Reed

Not rated, 84 min.