Living and dying with motor neurone disease, Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon’s I Am Breathing bears witness to Neil Platt and his deathbed doubts if this is a man.
Last Days by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Constructed out of interviews and home videos filmed at Christmas and on family birthdays, I Am Breathing bears witness to the life and death of Neil Platt, who in 2009 at the age of 34, died of motor neurone disease. Inheriting from his father a predisposition towards this genetic illness that slowly robs the body of its motor functions, Neil is racked with guilt at the possibility of passing it onto his young son Oscar. Within a year he’s reduced from a new father with a limping left foot to paralysis from the neck down. Like the locked-in syndrome of The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Neil is suddenly stripped of his body, his breathing supported by a ventilator and his blog writing aided by exasperatingly unforgiving voice recognition software and his ever-patient wife Louise. Documenting his past through family videos, his machine-assisted present and a future without him, I Am Breathing is life under the looking glass.
In 2007 Neil Platt is diagnosed with motor neurone disease, a few years after his father dies of the same illness. He has only recently married university sweetheart Louise and become a father to new-born Oscar when he notices his first symptom, his foot dragging along the ground. As the disease spreads rapidly through his body, Neil starts a blog (plattitude.co.uk) to document his thoughts and feelings – his fears for the future, his regrets at an incomplete past and his present experience of dying. There’s video footage of his youth, of his past life without disability and filmed snippets of intimate family gatherings marking his decline. But battling against the disease’s attempts to reduce him to an object – bones and a brain kept alive by medical equipment – Neil must prepare for the day when he is no longer able to speak or swallow, the day on which he has chosen to die.
Trapped in a chair and an immovable body, Neil spends a lot of time thinking, making sense of his suddenly cut short life. Time passes slowly, his projector clock counting down his life onto the ceiling, his restricted eye on the world focusing on the asymmetry of life beyond the window frame. But still time progresses too quickly, and I Am Breathing is a dying man’s testimony to life, an exhortation to all of us to be aware of the value of time and not to let life slip by unnoticed. It’s a universal and very human tragedy, as time in the shape of motor neurone disease ravages his body, leaving Neil desperate to be himself for longer, to eke out more time. But with death approaching, life isn’t just about breathing, it’s a question of dignity. And when Neil stops being able to swallow, and the camera pans away respectfully, it’s a very life-affirming choice to draw the curtain on what for Neil has been a devastating and degrading chapter.
The question posed in I Am Breathing by its very title is, assisted by modern medical equipment, when does a life end? Who is breathing? For Neil, it’s not enough to be present – just a pair of eyes haunting his family, unable to communicate or participate. Trapped inside his body, life becomes a question of freedoms, and for Neil, communication is the most powerful freedom and one he exploits to its fullest. He writes a letter to his son trying to capture in words who he is. He leaves Oscar a memory box of treasured objects to conjure an image of himself – a leather jacket, a lighter, a ring, a watch. It’s a reliquary, like the bedroom left empty once Neil has been taken to a hospice to die, but in multimedia – using his blog, the documentary, his letter and his possessions to picture his life. It’s a message to his family but also to the world beyond, telling his story in I Am Breathing to raise awareness and allow an understanding of what life is like for MND sufferers beyond the chipper stiff-upper-lip of his blog.
It seems to be missing the point to deconstruct I Am Breathing as a documentary evaluated against the usual cinematic strictures. Instead, like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, I Am Breathing is an existential cry – simultaneously desperate and life-affirming. For Neil, it’s a clarion call to raise awareness, galvanising the spring breeze of his blog into a tree-uprooting gale on cinema screens, and doing so by exploring the disease in grim, debilitating detail. For us the viewer, it’s a test of compassion and humanity, watching the suffering and death of a man beyond the fourth wall. But it’s more than a devastating snuff movie. And I Am Breathing leaves an emptiness like the bedroom missing a bed. An emptiness approaching grief that manages to put the ravages of time and motor neurone disease on the human scale. And an emptiness that exhales its breathless call to action.
I Am Breathing is released on 21st June 2013 in the UK