Review by Andrew Wertz
Transfatty Lives is an autobiographical documentary by Patrick O’Brien, an artist and filmmaker who was diagnosed with ALS in 2005. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, eventually totally paralyzes the body while the mind remains active, making it a truly terrifying disease. O’Brien captures his life and his emotions in this intimate documentary that shows him continue to live and create as his body withers.
Upon diagnosis, O’Brien was given 2-5 years to live. He is currently still alive, 10 years after the diagnosis, and continues to post blogs and updates online. His film is an extension of that, and allows people to really see the disease, as we hear O’Brien narrate his day while he sits immobilized in bed. Transfatty Lives is by no means an easy watch, but O’Brien’s positive and surprisingly funny outlook on the situation allows us to really connect with him as a person.
The film follows O’Brien from his diagnosis, which interrupts other projects he is working on. From that point on, the film starts to shift to be more and more about the disease as it immobilizes O’Brien more and more. It’s difficult to watch the vibrant and energetic young man lose the ability to work his arms and legs, but as the disease progresses, so does O’Brien’s film and his passion.
A large part of the film focuses of Patrick’s relationship with his son, who is born after he is largely immobilized by ALS. The film is structured as a letter to his young son, who is 7 years old at the end of the film and largely kept out of O’Brien’s life at the mother’s insistence- a heartbreaking detail that is mainly left in the shadows of the film.
Throughout the film’s runtime, it’s interesting to witness O’Brien develop his vision and artistic voice. As he becomes more confined, the film takes on a more experimental quality to show his true point of view. It often focuses on small details, like a fly landing on his arm, or shows extreme angles from O’Brien’s bed to emphasize his situation.
The most fascinating thing about Transfatty Lives is O’Brien’s dedication to making this film, and how well he directed the project and expressed his vision and feeling to the producers and cameramen. Transfatty Lives may not be an easy watch, but it is a captivating look at life with illness that does an excellent job at showing the director’s point of view and personality.