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The Being Human festival is a UK-wide celebration of the humanities – in an academic arts and humanities sense – running from the 15th to the 23rd of November this year. I got quite excited when I heard about it, because as much as I love science and technology I was an arts – rather than an art singular – student and as such have first hand experience of the ‘second class’ status that large parts of academia label art and humanities with. It’s nice to see a festival celebrating its perspective for a change.

Part of the festival was being held in Edinburgh, under the auspices of Edinburgh University and hosted by the National Museum of Scotland. The event I attended, Visualising Voices, involved two documentary screenings and a panel discussion on the possibilities of film as a way of giving a voice to people with terminal and degenerative diseases. Given that both films were the stories of – very different – brushes with death they were both quite uplifting documentaries.

I Am Breathing is he better known of the two, following the last months in the life of Motor Neuron Disease campaigner Neil Platt. There’s no omniscient voiceover to the film, the nearest we have are sort-of title cards with excerpts of the blog he kept right up to his death – the final entry was dictated to his wife on his actual deathbed. Everything else is interviews with Neil and his friends & family. Between this and the plethora of home videos from before he became ill, the film manages to be informative and eye opening about the disease without feeling exploitative or voyeuristic about the person himself. We see the strangeness and difficulties of living with the disease without the indignities and – as a gentleman I spoke to afterwards put it – ‘messy realities’ of his life. Even something as practical as the winch used to move him from bed to chair is claimed back for him with most of the sequence shot from his perspective as he travels through the house watching the light move across the ceilings above him. It is quite an art to make a film as moving as this one without indulging the sentimental or maudlin potential. It says a lot for the director Emma Davie that she could step back from her own artistic vision and make the film so much about Neil and his experience and perspective.

Edge of Dreaming is an utterly different film, though no less fascinating. The film feels a little at war with itself almost as though an anthropologist was trying to make an art film as it mixes unflinching reality with the mutable, uncertain world of dreams. Some of the tension and emotional engagement is doubtless lost when you’ve seen the director/protagonist, Amy Hardie, all cheerful and fully recovered in the flesh before the screening. However, that doesn’t make it any less an interesting exploration of an encounter with a potentially fatal disease and how much our brains are a complete mystery to even experts on them. Was it all a creepy co-incidence or was her brain trying to give her a heads up that something was seriously wrong with her lungs? Who knows? The film claims no sweeping solutions or pat answers, the twist in the tale appears to be that she overcame her crippling fear of the unknowable to view it as yet another exciting mystery that would be eventually unravelled by science, something strange and wonderful to be respected but not feared.

The panel for the discussion afterwards was at first glance a little bit of an odd mix, both the films’ directors, alongside the curator of the science and technology gallery of the National Museum itself, and an art therapist – and the rare pleasure of a majority female panel too. It was utterly fascinating the way the curator and the directors interacted on issues of medical technology, audio-visual technology and issues of ethics and authenticity in their respective works. In a way they were the perfect mix as both sides work in jobs that cross the boundaries between the arts and the sciences combining the disciplines to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It gave me all sorts of complicated thoughts and feelings on the use of sound in documentary, created reality and authenticity in documentaries that are still percolating away at the back of my brain. A fascinating and intriguing evening…

…and those canapés were excellent…

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