Oliver Sacks: His Own Life


Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Director: Ric Burns

Running time 114 minutes

Cast: Jonathan Miller, Robert Silvers, Temple Grandin, Christof Koch, Robert Krulwich, Lawrence Weschler, Roberto Calasso, Paul Theroux, Bill Hayes, Kate Edgar, Atul Gawande

Synopsis: The life and career of the renowned neurologist and author, Dr. Oliver Sacks.

URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCF5FvwdPVs

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life  – directed by celebrated documentary filmmaker Ric Burns [PBS series The Civil War (1990),The Way West (1995), Ansel Adams (2002), New York: A Documentary Film (1999, 2001, 2003), The Pilgrims (2015), VA: The Human Cost of War (2017), and The Chinese Exclusion Act (2018)] explores the life and work of the legendary neurologist and storyteller, as he shares intimate details of his battles with drug addiction and homophobia.

Oliver Sacks was a man of extremes. In his youth, he was a self-destructive rebel who fled London for San Francisco to reinvent himself as a bodybuilding biker, struggling with drug addiction and his own sexuality. In his maturity, he became a pioneering neurologist and the author of best-sellers such as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

On January 15th, 2015, a few weeks after completing his autobiographical memoir, the writer and neurologist learned that the rare form of cancer for which he had been treated nine years earlier had returned and that he had only a few months to live. A few weeks later, he sat down with Ric Burns for a series of marathon filmed interviews in his apartment in New York.  For 80 hours, across five days in February and on three more occasions in April and June – surrounded by family and friends, books and minerals, notebooks from six decades of thinking and writing about the brain, he talked about his life and work, his dreams and fears, his abiding sense of wonder at the natural world, and the place of human beings within it. He spoke with astonishing candour and clearsightedness, a profoundly gifted 81-year-old man facing death with remarkable courage and vitality while facing the end. He was determined to come to grips with what his life has meant and what it means to be, as he put it, “a sentient being on this beautiful planet.”

Drawing on these riveting and profoundly moving reflections, this fascinating, engrossing documentary also features nearly two dozen deeply revealing and personal interviews with family members, colleagues, patients and close friends, including Jonathan Miller, Robert Silvers, Temple Grandin, Christof Koch, Robert Krulwich, Lawrence Weschler, Roberto Calasso, Paul Theroux, Isabelle Rapin, Billy Hayes, Kate Edgar, Mark Homonoff, Jonathan Sacks, Steve Silberman, Shane Fistell, Atul Gawande, and Lowell Handler, among others.

The film also draws on unique access to the extensive archives of the Oliver Sacks Foundation. It is in part the biography of an extraordinary physician and writer who was dogged by his own neuroses and by the rejection of his medical colleagues but nonetheless redefined for millions of readers the nature of the human mind, through the simple act of telling profoundly compassionate stories. It is also a deeply illuminating exploration of the science of human consciousness and the nature of subjectivity, and a meditation on the deep and intimate relation between art and science and storytelling.


Oliver Sacks was a natural historian of the human mind: a storyteller at heart, an unraveller of mysteries, and a deep sea diver of a very special kind. He was part Sherlock Holmes, part Sigmund Freud, part Scheherazade – teasing out riddles, unlocking secrets, shining light in the darkness, spinning yarns.

The child of two doctors and the youngest of four boys – English-born and Oxford-educated – Oliver was at once shy and exuberant, immoderate and restrained, and prone all his life to furious bouts both of excess and self-discipline.  He was obsessed from childhood with rocks and minerals, fossils and ferns, with chemistry, geology, biology and evolution, with the periodic table of the elements, and with words.

An atheist, a Jew and a homosexual in Alan Turing’s England, he was denounced as an “abomination” by his surgeon mother after he admitted he was gay. In 1960, he fled to America to complete a residency in neurology in California, and after five vagrant years of motorcycles, drugs, and failed attempts at intimacy, he moved to New York where in a ward of frozen, unreachable catatonics, he finally found his calling. He went on to become an inspired and deeply empathetic clinician, chronicler and writer whose extraordinary six-decade career would parallel and track the rise of modern neuroscience. With an impeccable sixteen books translated into dozens of languages on a bewildering range of neurological ailments and conditions, his work garnered him praise from many publications including The New York Times, who once called him the “poet laureate of contemporary medicine.”

A dogged and intrepid researcher who studied the most remote and inscrutable reaches of the human mind and nervous system, he was an explorer on a lifelong quest for consciousness, the natural world, and the human condition. Right up until the very end, his whole life was a kind of quest for meaning and redemption around the physical roots of human autonomy, dignity and individuality.

His final gift, in the end, would be the astonishing way he brought the story of his own life to a close. In 2015, during the last six months of his life, he showed that the art of living and the art of dying are inextricably commingled, and that redemption may lie in connecting to something larger – the human capacity for love, awareness and attention.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life both celebrates Sacks’ incredible life and reminds us of his most important teaching: that our ability to connect with others is what truly makes us human.

It is a tender, joyous and life affirming portrait of a truly extraordinary man.


Oliver Sacks: His Own Life in cinemas for a One Night Only special event on 29 September Visit altitude.film for tickets and more information.

Images courtesy of altitude.film



Oliver Sacks: His Own Life in UK & Irish cinemas for a One Night Only special event on 29 September. Visit altitude.film   Images courtesy of: Altitude Films