is an independent filmmaker and writer based in Los Angeles. She has made several short films including Better Late and Sour Death Balls, both of which have appeared at numerous festivals. Her feature documentary Men of Re-enaction recently aired nationally on PBS. She is currently working on The Living Museum, a feature documentary for HBO about an art space in a psychiatric institution.
ULLA JACOBSEN: Why did you want to make a film about Mark O’Brien?
JESSICA YU: It wasn’t actually my idea. I wrote a piece for Pacific News Service, and a woman working there phoned me and suggested that I make a film about Mark. He writes for Pacific News Service, and she thought that somebody should make a film about him. I wasn’t sure I was the right person, because I hadn’t actually made a documentary before. My previous films were all funny films, and when I heard about Mark’s situation I thought it was a very heavy subject to deal with. But then I read some of his poems, and I got curious. I like them because they are very direct. Some people like poems that are mysterious, but I like the way he expresses his thoughts directly.When I met him it turned out that he was a very vivid person with a lot of humour, and then I was absolutely certain I wanted to make the film.
How much influence did he have on the film?
I wanted to make a film about the person Mark O’Brien and not a ‘courageous cripple’ story or a pitiful story.Mark has been featured on television a couple of times, but he never says anything himself. Only the moderator talks and the tone is ‘feel bad.’ I wanted to tell the story from his point of view, and that was also how he wanted the film to be made.We agreed on the subjects we should talk about. I said he should tell me if there were subjects we should avoid, but he was ready to answer any question. From that point of view, he
gave me almost total freedom to make the film. His only wish was that the film would show the importance for him of living an independent life, and that was very much in line with my idea. He didn’t want a polite interview, avoiding any touchy questions. He has actually written a poem called “Questions I Wish Journalists Would Have Asked Me”! People think they show respect by not asking certain questions. But I think it is better to acknowledge that he and I are human beings and it is obvious for both that there are some questions you are burning to know. He tells about a time when he hired a sex surrogate. It was very easy to ask him about that because he has written a poem about it, so I knew he wouldn’t mind talking about it. Only one time he asked us not to shoot, and that was when he was being washed, because he didn’t want to show his naked body. But after a few minutes he changed his mind and asked us to shoot anyway. I think he found it was important that people could see that he actually had a human body like anyone else, only a little differently proportioned.
Mark O’Brien says in the film that his ambition as a journalist is to be able to write about anything, not only disability issues. What do you think is Mark O’Brien‘s message to able-bodied people?
Mark has a lot of time to think about things. His ideas are often complex.He is very involved in the issue of assisted suicide and has written some articles about it. Before I met him, I thought that if a person was suffering from an incurable disease and was full of pain, it would be allright to help them die if they wanted, but after hearing Mark’s opinion I can see the problem is much more complex than that. Mark is also a religious person and he has really thought it over. He has his own personal approach to God, and I really respect that, when a person is not just saying “I am so religious,” but really means it.
He is very open and easy to be with. You get close to him much faster than to your new neighbour. He can’t go out and meet people, so when somebody comes in through his door, he has to grab the chance to communicate a lot of things and make friends, since he doesn’t know when he will meet somebody again.
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