I recently screened two documentaries about two admirable and very different men. One film, “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” directed by Ric Burns movingly deals with the famous neurologist and author of such books as “Awakenings” (1973) and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (1985). Burns didn’t start filming until Sacks was given a diagnosis for cancer with likely only six months to live.
Some of the film consists of interviews Burns does one on one with Sacks, but a great deal of the film is shot in his Greenwich Village apartment with Sacks being interviewed by Burns with a number of friends in attendance. Though facing a death sentence, Sacks is always eloquent, charismatic and intensely alive, even buoyant at times. The film shifts from the apartment to archival footage and perceptive interviews with fellow writers like Jonathan Miller and Paul Theroux and neuroscientists like Francis Crick that explore Sacks’ life and achievements.
Sacks is no warm, cuddly Robin Williams (who played him in the Hollywood film version of “Awakenings”) but an extremely complex and tortured man, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish, upper-middle-class home in London — both of his parents doctors. Sacks had an older brother who became psychotic, and a doctor mother who he was close to all his life and whose death desolated him. However, when he came out as gay, she monstrously responded, “you are an abomination.” The film doesn’t try to reduce his torment and interest in extremely disturbed patients to these events, but they clearly helped shape him. For Sacks her “words haunted him” for the rest of his life.
He then flees England for California and becomes a bulked-up bodybuilder and a macho motorcyclist — a rebellion against middle class norms, but also a reaction to his being gay; Sacks suggests it was a homophobic reaction against his own being. Sacks found no peace, and in his unhappiness became addicted to speed, becoming suicidal.
However, when he leaves for a job in New York, he finds a psychiatrist, one he continued to see for the next 50 years. The neuroses and the uneasiness remained, but he functioned much more successfully. Still, until he was seventy-five, he was never able to have a romantic relationship and had remained celibate for 35 years — his profound discomfort with his homosexuality continuing to paralyze him.
The film, however, is much more than a depiction of Sacks’ neuroses and his eccentricities. Sacks was both a brilliant and original neuroscientist and prolific writer — in both cases an acute observer of the human condition. He was always more an observer than a theorist, centering his work on the richness and wholeness of the particular patient, always emphasizing their consciousness. Sacks had a special gift for empathy, becoming deeply involved with his patients, centering on their lives not the disease. Their case histories became the basis for his books, and though at first he was seen as an outsider by the medical establishment, later in life he earned many honorary degrees and awards from those who had rejected him.
Burns’ portrait of Sacks is an extremely sympathetic one without ever turning into hagiography. Sacks is viewed as a man with a great love for life and people, who had to battle his demons for most of his existence. The film presents him as a voluble, honest, self-revelatory and humane man, also as a man of emotional extremes.
In the last five years of his life Sacks finally found sex, love and relative serenity. And in his last book he wrote a series of affecting essays titled “Gratitude,” whose words become a life-affirming conclusion to the film: “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and an adventure.”
The other documentary, “My Name is Pedro,” directed by Lillian LaSalle, deals with a much less renowned figure. Pedro Santana was an educator and school administrator who spent most of his career in the South Bronx, though he worked in developing countries as well. The longhaired, intense Santana grew up poor in a large family, struggling academically and with a stutter, and developed into the kind of inspiring educator who knew just how to emotionally connect with black and Hispanic kids. However, the film lacks the psychological depth of Burns’ film — there is much about Santana’s family life that remains unexplained, leaving a big hole.
The strength of the film lies in watching Santana interacting with kids, treating them with dignity and telling them to “think out of the box.” His enthusiasm is infectious, and wherever he works he both gains parental support as well as produces academic results. Santana is dedicated, passionate and has a big ego. The film could fit into one of the star teacher genre works like “Stand and Deliver,” where a teacher uses unconventional teaching methods to help gang members and other marginal students pass the rigorous Advanced Placement exam in calculus. (Though life is never as neat as Hollywood.)
However, Santana’s career gets derailed when he takes a job as an assistant superintendent in the suburban East Ramapo school district (a suburb predominantly black, Hispanic and Hasidic.) The Hasidim, whose children don’t attend public schools, run the school board to serve their own narrow interests, and they have little use for Santana, who loses his job on a technicality. The film ends abruptly as Santana, stricken with cancer, dies at 47. The film is more superficial than the stirring and intellectually fecund Oliver Sacks documentary, but when public education works, educators like Santana are indispensable.