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Morag McKinnon & Emma Davie talk I Am Breathing

Scottish documentary I Am Breathing follows the final days of Neil Platt who, at 34, died after being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. Determined to raise awareness, he enlisted two filmmaker friends to make a documentary.

“Well, Neil was a 33 year-old architect and a new father when he discovered that he had Motor Neuron Disease, which was an illness that ran in his family,” said Emma Davie ahead of The Global Screening day of I Am Breathing, part of EIFF 2013.

“He decided to use his remaining 6 months to communicate about the illness and he wrote this incredible blog. He wanted to raise awareness of the illness through television, film, journalism – anything. He asked his friends to find someone to come and, as he put it, ‘tell his story’.”

Old university friend and co-director Morag McKinnon answered the call, encouraging Davie to join her in making a film about Neil.

“I was really reluctant to make it in the beginning,” Davie continued, “but Neil was such an incredible person with such a force of life in him and such an urge to rise above his condition and tell his story that that’s how he managed to really make this whole film journey happen,” said Davie.

For McKinnon, it became more of a personal journey, a focus on the personal affects of a terminal diagnosis such as Neil’s. “I think [our aims] emerged gradually. You start making a film then you discover things as you go, and I think what we discovered was this incredible sense of wisdom that Neil was giving us,” said McKinnon, “to really think about what life is, and really challenging us to look at how we can really appreciate what life is in the here and now.

“I think that was something that emerged that became very important in the filmmaking process. If I think about how I would be in that situation, I think I’d have the temptation of self-pity and a lot more anger, but he didn’t succumb to that particularly often.

“When somebody is taken to such a challenging place I guess you find out the true qualities of a person. It’s like he said, ‘I think the best in me is coming out,’ and in a funny way, it did. It’s when our backs are up against the wall that the truth of our personality comes out, and I think he was so generous in the way he dealt with it, and also really forward-thinking in terms of not wanting anyone else to go through what he and his family went through.”

The film is part activism, part exploration, blending Neil’s goal of awareness-raising and the co-directors’ goals as filmmakers. Both co-directors spoke about their journey and challenges in making the film a reality.

“It’s been challenging in every way,” said Davie, “but in a way that has led me to the core of filmmaking and asking, what is it to get a camera out the bag? What is it about? Why do we do it? That involved the choice of every shot, of every frame, every camera move, everything was motivated by those questions. So I think it made me to back to the essence of filmmaking and work out what it’s about for me, personally.”

First-time documentarian McKinnon agreed, adding, “I think, in hindsight, I’ve learned that there are a lot of similarities between drama and fiction: you’re really trying to find the core of the story and once you’ve got that you’re heading in the right direction.

“But there were basic protocols that I really had to set my mind to. Like, ‘you must not make a cup of tea to try and help.’ You have to position your mind completely differently. That was really difficult in the beginning but I got there and Emma guided me through it very well.

“We would talk intensively about what the film was about and how to approach it and how we didn’t want to tread on the family’s toes and impose; we wanted to be really sensitive to what they were going through. For me what was my favourite part of the process was getting to share that with somebody, and I think through discussion and having this constant dialogue it helps to clarify an awful lot.

“I think collaboration is really underrated in film and when you are able to have that dialogue it takes you forward... I feel like I’ve really grown – not just as a person but as a filmmaker. I feel humbled by it and it’s been a real honour to do it as well.”

Also humbling are the filmmakers’ plans for the I Am Breathing Global Screening Day. On 21 June, people have volunteered to screen the film in village halls, schools, living rooms, and pubs around the world.

Alternatively, you can get a first glimpse of the film at its UK Premiere here at EIFF on Thursday 20 June, or the second screening on Sunday 23 June. Buy your tickets online, by phone on 0131 623 8030, or in person at any Festival Box Office.

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