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

Not Rated | | 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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Credited cast:
Mark O'Brien ...
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Ian Berzon ...


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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Documentary | Short


Not Rated




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Mark O'Brien: Everybody becomes disabled unless they die first.
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Piano by Sandra Tsing Loh
Guitar by Mike Miller
Cello by Mark Salzman
Cello improvisations by Mark Salzman
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User Reviews

The equal of King Gimp, this is an incredible piece of work!
7 January 2003 | by See all my reviews

This is probably the second most difficult comment I have written on anything at the IMDb, but I saw this yesterday and, if I didn't comment on this, I likely would regret not doing so, so here goes:

Mark O'Brien was born roughly ten years before I was and contracted polio at age six, in 1955. Thus he was in an iron lung before I was even born. I have Cerebral Palsy, but even in that, I am comparatively fortunate. Mr. O'Brien struggled just to stay alive, to draw breath. Placed in context to that, my difficulties are a minor inconvenience. But, be that as it may, the reason that this struck me so profoundly is that, despite the major differences in our particular circumstances, at times in this documentary, his remarks were all too familiar to me. The disabled are viewed quite differently by a large segment of the "presently able-bodied" (that's as logical and meaningful a label as "differently abled", a phrase that is such a null that I hardly know where to begin in discussing it, so I won't) and most disabled individuals put up with things on a daily basis that would send the average person to the top of a building with a rifle and a scope inside of a week. On bad days, I think most people would probably breathe a sigh of relief if we, reminders of humanity's fragility, would just vanish. O'Brien not only thought that, he said and wrote it out loud.

One segment, toward the end, made me start crying, it hit so close to home. I won't discuss it here, but O'Brien talked about something in front of a camera that I doubt I could have even tap danced around. To anyone who has seen this, what O'Brien talked about here, it's not just an isolated instance, not just one voice in the wilderness. I'd wager that there are a lot of people out and about who'd say the same if pressed.

Disabled people are just that-PEOPLE who happen to be disabled. Treat us as such-people, more or less like you, just a bit different.

This should be in print and available. Well worth tracking down. Most highly recommended.

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