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‘Extraordinary life’: Documentary explores legendary neurologist, author Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks in a metal elevator with his cane. (Courtesy of Bill Hayes)

Oliver Sacks lived a life full of happiness and trauma.

The legendary neurologist and storyteller is the focus of the “American Masters” documentary “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” which will premiere at 9 p.m. Friday, April 9, on New Mexico PBS.

The two-hour film explores the life and work of Sacks as he shares intimate details of his battles with drug addiction, homophobia and a medical establishment that embraced his work only decades after the fact.

At the helm of the documentary is Emmy-winning filmmaker Ric Burns.

Burns was invited into Sacks’ life in 2015, weeks after Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“From the start, this project has been one of the most moving and revelatory I’ve ever had the privilege of being involved with,” Burns says. “From the moment my colleagues and I walked into his apartment on Horatio Street in New York in February 2015, it was clear that virtually every issue of importance about what it means to live a life and to be a human being was concentrated in his unusual life story: survival, beauty, art, science, storytelling, love, individuality, difference, dignity, autonomy, agency, wonder, language, meaning, consciousness, community, friendship, yearning, loss, connection with something larger.”

Burns says this project was unlike any he’s ever done.

Burns and his crew had five 12-hour days with Sacks.

“We were in the sitting room where he worked and lived,” Burns says. “Oliver had just gotten the diagnosis and felt it was time to tell his story. He was really determined to talk candidly about every high and low of his life. We ended up with about 90 hours of footage.”

Drawing on these profoundly moving reflections, the 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, Atul Gawande, Roberto Calasso, Paul Theroux, Isabelle Rapin, Bill Hayes, Kate Edgar, Mark Homonoff, Jonathan Sacks, Steve Silberman, Shane Fistell and Lowell Handler.

“This was a passion project for not only Ric Burns, but for all the production partners on this thoughtful and emotional film,” says Michael Kantor, executive producer of “American Masters.” “There is so much to learn from Oliver Sacks’ story and so much to be inspired by. We are thrilled to bring this program to a broad and diverse public television audience.”

Oliver Sacks with his 250cc Norton motorcycle in 1956. (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks Foundation)

The filmmakers had unparalleled access to the extensive archives of the Oliver Sacks Foundation. The materials helped them share the life story of an extraordinary physician and writer who was dogged by his own neuroses and by the rejection of his medical colleagues as he nonetheless redefined for millions of readers the nature of the human mind, through the simple act of telling profoundly compassionate stories. The film also illuminates the exploration of the science of human consciousness and the nature of subjectivity and provides a meditation on the deep and intimate relationship among art and science and storytelling.

“Oliver led an extraordinary life,” Burns said. “But he also left all of us a lesson for how to think about our lives as we confront our own mortality.”

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