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Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien (1996)

| Documentary, Short
Portrait of writer Mark O'Brien, who contracted polio as a child and spent much of his life in an iron lung.

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Won 1 Oscar. Another 3 wins. See more awards »
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Mark O'Brien ...
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Ian Berzon ...
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Storyline

According to Mark O'Brien, "The two mythologies about disabled people break down to one: we can't do anything, or two: we can do everything. But the truth is, we're just human." O'Brien was a frequently published journalist and poet, and a contributor to National Public Radio. He contracted polio in childhood and, due to post-polio syndrome, spent much of his life in an iron lung. Yet for more than forty years, he fought against illness, bureaucracy and society's conflicting perceptions of disability for his right to lead an independent life. Breathing Lessons breaks down barriers to understanding by presenting an honest and intimate portrait of a complex, intelligent, beautiful and interesting person, who happens to be disabled. Incorporating the vivid imagery of O'Brien's poetry, and his candid, wry and often profound reflections on work, sex, death and God, this provocative film asks: what makes a life worth living? Written by Meredith Miller

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Quotes

Mark O'Brien: Everybody becomes disabled unless they die first.
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respiration nation
30 December 2015 | by (Portland, Oregon, USA) – See all my reviews

I had never heard of Mark O'Brien when Jessica Yu's "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien" won Best Documentary Short Subject at the Academy Awards. But the documentary shows not only what O'Brien went through, but how he wanted to be known to the world. Basically, he wanted to be known not as a cripple, but as a human. Despite spending most of his life in an iron lung, the polio-afflicted O'Brien managed to be a journalist and poet until his death in 1999.

Progress with polio has gotten made since the documentary's release. In 2014, only Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan saw cases of the disease, and in 2015 Nigeria had stopped the spread. It sounds like a terrible disease. In the end, Mark O'Brien deserves a lot of credit for what he accomplished, and Jessica Yu deserves credit for bringing his story to the world. I understand that her most recent movie was about water crises.

I recommend the documentary.


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