Neil Platt is a 34-year-old husband and father who, months after the birth of his son, Oscar, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, leaving him paralysed from the neck down and with little more than a year to live. I Am Breathing documents the months and weeks leading up to his death, revealing a man fighting against an unbearably harsh condition but displaying incredible reserves of humour and courage along the way. In his own words, his story is ‘a tale of fun and laughs with a smattering of upset and devastation,’ and it is this positive, gutsy attitude to life that ensures the film carries an earnest message of hope in spite of the sadness.
I Am Breathing was made primarily to raise awareness about MND, but it also forms part of a set of memories that Neil is compiling for his son to remember him by. The filmmakers are invited into his home and allowed to capture every aspect of his family life, giving the film a heightened level of intimacy. The support of his close friends and family, in particular his wife, Louise, is extremely touching and their attitude towards Neil reflects his easy going character and the warmth he feels for them. Never afraid to make jokes, they try to normalise the situation as much as possible, making sure Neil is able to participate in their lives as much as he is physically able to.
It is a mixed blessing of motor neurone disease that, aside from the deterioration of motor functions, the mind remains intact; Neil retains his intelligence, feeling, memories and personality, giving him an agonisingly complete understanding of his loss. Directors Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon illustrate this using extensive home video footage from before the diagnosis, showing an active, creative young man that tragically looks almost exactly the same. The archive clips are recent enough to be contemporary, bringing into sharp relief the rapid progression of the disease.
An excellent storyteller, Neil relates his own version of these memories and his life as a whole in a letter to Oscar, which is read out in part during the film. Meeting his wife and having a child are by far the most significant events but, looking back, they seem unreal. There is something in his voice, in the way he tells it, that makes this ordinary tale fairy-like; without a future, it is imbued with fatality and given a bittersweet tinge. He also reminisces about his youth, particularly the years spent at Edinburgh College of Art, and remembers his father, who also died from MND at the age of 51.
Despite knowing that it could be hereditary, Neil put it out of his mind and got on with his life. ‘My re-acquaintance with the when of things has confirmed how right I was to…value my time,’ he says, although he regrets not having done more to raise awareness. The theme of time recurs quite naturally throughout the documentary as Neil frequently contemplates how much he has left and what he has achieved in that which he was given.
One of the most amusing scenes touches on this issue, as Neil relates the story of trying to cancel his mobile phone contract. Despite being told that he is dying, they unbelievably try to offer him three months extra free. With his trademark wit and strong sense of irony, Neil quips, ‘If you can do that, you’re better than all my doctors put together‘.
The largely unspoken subtext running through the film is that Oscar, a toddler during the six months of filming, also has a 50:50 chance of getting MND, and nobody will know either way until it happens. He is rapidly learning new abilities just as his father is losing them, and it is hard to imagine that he might suffer in the same when he grows up. This factor provides a strong motivation for Neil to make the film, which he hopes will raise awareness among a wider audience and drive research into finding a cure.
He wants I Am Breathing to expose the worst that MND is capable of, which makes for increasingly difficult viewing as he reaches his final few days. In a film ripe with moments of astonishing bravery, one stands out above all. Almost completely paralysed, Neil is receiving chest compressions to help him breathe. The camera, which is balanced on the bed, topples over, but, struggling to speak, he calls it back, determined for us to watch on.
Later that night, he used much of his remaining strength to dictate his final blog post to Louise, which lacks none of his usual spirit and humour. The words gradually appear on the screen in an extended period of silence, giving them ample opportunity to resonate through the audience. It is a rare moment of cinematic intensity, devastatingly sad but, at the same time, curiously life-affirming. In the absence of any sound, all you can hear is breathing, and that, in this context, is a beautiful thing.