Inside Story

Inside the Mind of Neurologist and Author Oliver Sacks

A new documentary gets up close and personal.

By Kay Kipling March 2, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Neurologist-author Oliver Sacks in a scene from a documentary by Ric Burns screening at this month’s Sarasota Film Festival.

Image: Billy Hayes

The Sarasota Film Festival, March 27-April 5, typically works up to the last possible minute to finalize its line-up of movies. But we can tell you now about one headed here. It’s a documentary about a unique individual—the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks—titled simply Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, by filmmaker Ric Burns (The Way West, Coney Island, and, with brother Ken, a collaborator on The Civil War series).

Ric Burns

Image: Corey Miller

Burns’ involvement came about in a most unusual and urgent way. Sacks, famous for his exhaustive case studies into patients with mental disorders, had been diagnosed with a cancer that was going to kill him in just a few months’ time. He reached out to Burns, and, without doing the months of research typical before shooting, the director instead began immediately sitting down for interviews with Sacks, filming 12 hours a day, five days a week.

“It was an amazing way to get a deep immersion into who Oliver was,” Burns says. “Here was an 81-year-old man, at a critical moment, who had just finished but not yet published a memoir about his life’s struggles.” Those struggles included coming to terms late in life with his homosexuality after decades of celibacy, and working for years, often ignored, outside the traditional data-driven mindset of his scientific profession. Burns describes Sacks as “this Wizard of Oz character—bearded, Jewish, avuncular,” hiding his own deep wounds behind the curtain while detailing his patients’ lives with boundless empathy.

“Oliver brought science, art and storytelling all together in such a way that you cannot tease them apart,” Burns says of his subject. For an intimate glance into an amazing person, take a look at Burns’ film this month.

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