From a quick perusal of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival programme one spots there are at least four films whose title contains the word "breath" or "breathing", two that feature the word "corpse" and another whose full title is "Everyone is Going to Die". Perhaps just a coincidence, or maybe there’s an unintended overriding theme emerging - an examination of what it means to be alive.
This it turns out is exactly what local directors Morag McKinnon and Emma Davie’s gentle, humbling and deeply affecting documentary I Am Breathing portrays.
At the age of 33, architect, husband and father Neil Platt is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, a relatively rare and degenerative neurological condition affecting the brain's control of the body’s muscles. Prior to diagnosis, the illness had already claimed his father’s life at the relatively young age of 51.
Not only does Neil know what to expect from experience but by being afflicted 18 years earlier than when his father’s condition started, he will only have a fraction of the same period in which to watch his own son grow up. It’s a cruel blow indeed for any person or family.
As the illness progresses he begins writing a regular blog documenting his experience, both keeping in touch with his friends as well as raising a wider awareness of this lesser known disease and its increasing toll on the body. In one of his introductory pieces he writes this will be ‘a tale of fun and laughs with a smattering of upset and devastation’.
Eventually, he and his wife Louise take this to another level, inviting the filmmakers into their home to chart Neil’s last few months and his own self-examination of the process along with the practical and philosophical questions it raises.
It sounds grim and there are some moving and upsetting moments but principally it’s a very warm, humane and occasionally humorous look at the process of dying. It’s also an affectionate, occasionally poetic portrait of Neil’s life as a whole, especially of past memories and the love, care and friendship of those closest to him. If anything it shows that time well spent is spent with friends and family.
Roughly divided into three strands, the bulk of the piece interweaves between the daily blog (courtesy of temperamental speech recognition software), video archive of healthier times past and the filmmakers' presence in his home, where he spends most of his time chair- or bed-ridden and attached to breathing apparatus.
Behind the survival equipment and the gallows humour is a human being inviting us into his private world at a critical moment of his life and we’re fortunate to have been let in by such a likeably warm, witty and welcoming man. It’s also something to behold to see his wife Louise tenderly and gently deal with each moment and task with patience and grace. This isn’t just a document about dying, it’s a depiction of love.
It’s an odd paradox that what many of us spend a great deal of time and energy on is avoiding thinking about or dealing with our own endings and how they might unfold. Neil’s blog and this film is a thoughtful reminder that perhaps we shouldn’t so that we can use our time more valuably.
In his words: ‘My re-acquaintance with the when of things has confirmed how right I was to value my time. You could all do me a favour – don’t let yours slip by unnoticed.’
Thursday 20th June at 6pm – Filmhouse
Sunday 23rd June at 4.25pm – Cineworld