The thin space between life and death becomes an unlikely source of optimism and hope in the face of grueling adversity, in this powerful yet restrained documentary. It follows the last months in the life of Neil Platt, a Yorkshire based architect who contracted Motor Neurone Disease in his early thirties and was left paralysed from the neck down and dependent on breathing apparatus. Under no illusions to the outcome of his diagnosis, Neil welcomes the filmmakers (one of whom he befriended at art school in Edinburgh) into his home and family life and communicates, via interviews and an online blog he sets up, his struggle with the disease, his reflections on his life to date and the legacy he wishes to leave behind for his infant son Oscar.
From its opening scenes, any sense that we the audience are in for a thoroughly maudlin and downbeat experience are quickly and quietly dispelled by Platt’s engaging and immensely likeable presence. The most courageous acts can be the most subtle and the calm and dignity that he approaches his situation with is incredibly moving. Directing duo Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon keep interviews and observations stripped down and low key, settling for tight close ups for interviews and a handheld roaming camera to follow Platt’s interaction with family and friends and his daily tasks. There’s a genuine ‘fly on the wall’ feel to the proceedings and lengthy sequences that follow the minute details and tasks that suddenly seem to require a Herculean effort. There’s a sharp juxtaposition between a recognisable suburban home setting and the cold, sterile heaps of medical equipment that clutter the family home. However far from settling for a miserabilist tone there’s a gentle and inspiring sense of humour in Platt’s observations of this new take on home life and his struggles with faulty assistance equipment. In one great scene, he recounts how his phone company can’t quite grasp that he won’t be alive in order to renew his phone contract (‘We can offer you three months for free?’)
When the directors do decide to break away from the low key formalism, they thankfully do it in tasteful and reserved manner. We are treated to animated depictions of Platt’s blog posts on Plattitude (every bit as droll and upbeat as interviews), diagrams of his work in architecture home albums and video of early life and university where he met his wife Louise, who is never far from his side and appears as rocksteady support for her husband. Platt recounts his eventful life prior to his diagnosis, his passion for motorcycling and the close knit unit of family and friends he has met over the years. The depictions of an active and healthy lifestyle underline the tragic nature of the illness without oversentimizing the issue. As well as creating an itemised catalogue of personal items that he plans to leave to his son for later years, Platt intends the film itself to be a testament not just to his struggle with the disease but as a human being. In this regards I Am Breathing takes on an astonishingly personal and thought-provoking edge. How do you begin to sum up your life when you when you know it is being robbed from you in such a cruel manner? What do you plan to say and leave behind for your son who will have only vague memories of you? The honesty and straightforwardness of these reflections is quietly devastating.
As the inevitable draws closer and Neil’s methods of communication begin to fall away, the filmmakers keep their respective distance but stay with him to record his final blog entry and goodbyes at a hospice. It’s these scenes that are the most gruelling and challenging to get through. Some may argue they toe the line of taste yet it is utterly to the filmmakers credit that they tackle such a painful, intimate moment with such reservation. Rather than trite sentiment they end on an image of seeming mundanity yet heartbreaking pogiance. As harrowing as the themes approached in I Am Breathing can be, the tone of the direction and the inspiring nature of the man at the heart of it create a warm, rich and incredibly moving portrait of not just a fight against illness but the rhythm of life itself. Along with a premiere screen at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I Am Breathing is set to have its wide release in the UK and international community screenings on 21st June, Motor Neurone Global Awareness Day. The Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI) and Motor Neurone Disease Association (MND Association) are collaborating to promote screenings of the film and awareness of the disease in general. A fitting tribute to both the film and the man at its centre.