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Movie Review: Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

This week for “Close-Up with Camenker”,  Zach reviews . . . OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE! (July 2, 2021)

Click here for the blurb and viewing link of OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE!

I’m sure that many of you have missed the movies as much as I have, especially all that Concord’s beloved indie cinema has to offer. While I have delighted in the selection of films available virtually, I cannot wait to return very soon to Red River Theatres and am thrilled at their reopening! 

Due to this transition time for the theatre and my being out of state over the next couple of weeks, “Close-Up with Camenker” will take a brief hiatus until at least the end of July. I anticipate returning with a review of one of the new releases at Red River, hopefully the Rita Moreno documentary, on my next installment.

In the meantime, back to the present!

I had the good fortune awhile back to see OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE, a documentary about the eponymous British neurologist and author who rose to fame in the late 60s and early 70s with his “awakenings” research in patients who had been victims of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic in the 1920s. A long-time employee of Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, Sacks was born to an Orthodox Jewish family outside of London in 1933, the youngest of four sons. His father Samuel was a prominent physician and his mother Muriel Elsie Landau was an accomplished gynecologist at a time when there were few women doctors in London.

A fascinating man full of character, wit, and profound intelligence, Sacks grew up at the height of World War II and was evacuated to a boarding school in the Midlands at a young age with his brother, Michael. He returned to London to attend St. Paul’s School, where he found himself one of the only Jewish students, subsequently causing him to put his religion to the side along with two other close Jewish friends.

The early traumas of his life, including being taunted and bullied by older children while in the Midlands, as well as his own struggle with his sexuality and being accepted by his parents, led him to leave England for the United States not long after graduating from Oxford.

The documentary tracks Sacks’ career, including time spent in California at Mount Zion Hospital and his eventual arrival in New York, where he would practice medicine, conduct intense research, and write a variety of novels for almost half a century until his death in 2015.

One piece that I found most intriguing was how Sacks overcame an early struggle with drug addiction, something he turned to during his challenging years in California. A brilliant but quirky mind, Sacks had some friendships and relationships that ultimately crumbled. That, coupled with his own desire for seclusion, riding his motorcycle, and spending time outdoors, left him with little in the form of connection with others. 

Not long after arriving in New York, Sacks turned his life around and focused intently on his research, especially his awakenings experiments, which led to a 1973 novel called Awakenings in which he recounted his work administering the L-DOPA drug to patients. 

Since Sacks was very experimental in his work, it often caused others to reject his intellect and not take him seriously. He fought with being taken seriously for his entire life, but his rise to prominence really did not come until the 1990 film Awakenings, directed by Penny Marshall and based on his work at Beth Abraham, opened to critical acclaim. Starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro, the film received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Lead Actor for DeNiro, and Adapted Screenplay. This gave Sacks a renewed focus and interest. 

Following that, Sacks continued publishing a variety of non-fiction about medical subjects, as well as personal experiences. 

The documentary focuses on Sacks as he nears the end of his life, taking several interviews he gave to close friends and collaborators from his New York apartment in the winter and spring of 2015, at which point he had been diagnosed with melanoma that had metastasized to his liver. 

Unlike some documentaries, this one focuses beautifully on the subject himself, delving into Sacks’ uncanny but loveable personality from his early days in the United States to finding love in his late 70s. Sacks, who died on August 30, 2015 at the age of 82, is remembered well here by filmmaker Ric Burns, documentarian and New Hampshire resident Ken Burns’ brother. 

As a result of this fine documentary, Oliver Sacks can rest peacefully knowing that so many people, including the variety of prominent interviewees, have finally taken his work seriously and paid homage to his genius.

If you’re looking for a movie at home before returning to the theatre in person, this is a great reminder of one of the types of films Red River audiences always love: documentaries that teach, inform, and delight, all things that Sacks does here through his insightful conversations.


“Close-Up with Camenker” will take a brief hiatus and return at the end of the month with updates on the titles featured in person as Red River reopens!

Click here to learn more about Zach Camenker!

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