American filmmaker Jessica Yu won this year‘s Oscar for best documentary short for her film Breathing Lessons, on the physically handicapped poet and journalist Mark O’Brien. ULLA JACOBSEN met her at the Festivals of Festivals in Århus, Denmark.

Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.

JESSICA YU
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.
What is your approach to documentaries?
As a filmmaker it is curiosity. The desire to know something new about the world. It is a very good starting point: I you yourself are curious about a subject, you can assume that other people might also be curious about it. In fiction films everything is planned, down to the smallest detail. In documentaries there’s room for spontaneous things to happen. I don’t give the interviewee the questions beforehand. They are more natural and energetic the first time they answer, and I think it becomes very interesting if they actually think and realise something new while they are talking. I prefer to keep a certain distance to the people in my film while we are shooting, because I think they can speak more openly and freely to me. If you have a personal relationship it will interfere and make people adjust what they say according to the impression they want to give me.After the film is shot you can become friends, because of course you get close to people during a shoot. As a viewer of documentaries I appreciate the moment of surprise. The film doesn’t have to have some specific style, I just like to be surprised by something unexpected. Usually documentaries are perceived as “eat-your-spinach” films: you should see them because it is good for you to learn something. I like the element of humour. People do not expect it, because documentaries often deal with severe and serious subjects. But when the interviewees say something funny, I want to use it.Mark for example made many funny observations.When the spectator laughs, then you know you have got them, that they are into your film.

The film won an Oscar. Has that helped your fund-raising for new projects?
The Oscar and the other prizes it has won at different festivals have made it much easier to raise funds. I am now working on a featurelength documentary called “The Living Museum,” about a building where mentally ill people come and paint. The film is commissioned and fully financed by Cinemax/HBO. For the first time I actually have a crew! I might also make a dramatic feature film about Mark O’Brien. It is still being discussed and I am not ready to compromise – to do a happy ending, for example. Some people have asked me: “So, how do you get him out of the iron lung?”. But of course I will not let him get out of the lung in the film, because he can’t get out of it in real life.

Breathing Lessons
is about the 46-year old poet and journalist Mark O’Brien. At the age of 6 he was paralysed by polio. Ever since, he has spent most of his life in an iron lung – a cylindrical machine made of metal which was designed in the forties. Mark is forced to spend practically all his time in the lung, with only his head visible. He has a bachelor degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and he works as a journalist and poet. He lives in his own apartment and writes with the help of a mouth stick. Mark tells his life story through interviews, where the director is never seen or heard, and by reading excerpts from his poems.
The film won the 1997 Oscar for best short documentary, as well as several other prizes. Breathing Lessons has a web page with a link to Mark O’Brien’s homepage:
http://www.pacificnews.org/jinn/people/marko/breathing-lessons.html

 


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