When diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) at age 36, filmmaker Ben Byer began recording a video diary.  Episodes from his diary create the engaging, coherent narrative of "Indestructible," a documentary that intimately, but unsentimentally invites viewers to witness Byer's and his family's responses to his diagnosis.  Their first impulse is to search for a cure for this degenerative disease, "the grim reaper of neurological diseases," a physician tells him.  They also find themselves seeking ways to understand living with loss, most centrally losing the illusion of control over their lives. 

Over the course of three years Byer and family travel to six countries, including Greece, China, Tibet, and Israel.  During his journey, Byer, an irrepressible extrovert, also seeks the companionship and insights of other ALS patients and families, wishing to create a world-wide bond among people who struggle daily.   A montage of clips from family videos prefaces the film, revealing Byer in the decades before his diagnosis.  The images show a luminous child, who grows into a playful, photogenically handsome teen ager and young man, husband, father, son, and brother.  His exceptional force of personality, incandescent smile, and spontaneous sense of humor fill the screen.  These robust images contrast touchingly with the thinner, clumsier Byer who later struggles to remove a t-shirt.  But they also reveal continuities between Byer's capacity to enjoy his life during seemingly carefree days and his strength of spirit as he becomes increasingly more disabled, disappointed, and introspective.  Although even such strength can't alter his condition, it nonetheless sees him through to the next day and fresh adventure.

The family in the montage and the film emerge as Byer's source of support as well as conflict.  One of the most devastating conflicts arises from his father Steve's restless determination to find treatments to reverse or retard ALS.  After searching the Internet for remedies, Steve turns his garage into an ad hoc distribution center for an herbal concoction he encourages his son to drink.  To advance his son's place on the waiting list of a Chinese neurosurgeon who performs olfactory cell transplantation, he recruits other ALS patients for the procedure.  The results are dubious, in some cases perhaps fatal.  After these strategies fail to reverse Byer's physical decline, and place others at risk, the camera rolls during a family showdown that exposes their fears and desperation as it acknowledges their love.  This memorable scene does so in a way that's consistent with the rest of the film: by letting the camera show, not tell. 

Even the many moments when Byer's family help him with daily activities and his most reflective moments at the end of his film resist sentimentality and easy didacticism.  Byer's equally irrepressible young son John raises a fork wound thick with pasta to his father's mouth and loops his belt through his pants, setting off giggles all around.  The ordinariness and extraordinariness of these acts, the learning of selflessness, the uneasy acceptance of dependency, the inevitability of loss are told through such images or captured in fragments lifted from daily conversations.  Bathing Byer, his brother Josh matter-of-factly says, "You don't have all the time in the world":  a searing acknowledgment of Byer's decline that reminds us of all human fragility.  The closing scenes of the film unobtrusively place Byer's solitary experience in the long history of the search for meaning in human struggle.  They record his wobbly, yet victorious ascent of Masada, supported by Josh, right after we hear a rabbi recount Camus's version of the myth of Sisyphus. 



 "Indestructible" is an accomplished documentary that deserves viewing by members of the health care professions, its students, teachers, and ethicists.  It also offers companionship to those with ALS or other degenerative conditions and their families.  It's an adventure to watch.   Each scene brings unexpected revelations or ironies.  But the film is most remarkable for the way the camera lingers, often in extreme close-up, to allow viewers to take in intimate, nuanced scenes of struggle, joy, hope, disappointment, courage, foolishness, and vulnerability. 

At times, the family narrative pauses as the screen fills with a physician or spiritual leader speaking in words, often sounding like clinical or philosophical cant, that disregard Byer's vulnerability and that refuse to acknowledge the depth of his inquiries to them.  Byer captures the difficulty of their position and his when he turns to the camera and summarizes the contents of an office visit: he's "going downhill" and "see you in six months."  Buddhist monks speak in formulas about living in ignorance of one's disease that ignor Ben's claims that knowledge and filmmaking allow him and others to face catastrophe.  Oliver Sacks, by contrast, seems to grasp Byer's plangent search, encourages his filmmaking and relationships, and bravely asks the audacious question, "What is life like for you when the camera isn't running?  Do you have bad times?"  Byer quietly nods. 

While the version of "Indestructible" currently in distribution runs 153 minutes-too long for many teaching circumstances-the film's website says that a shorter version is in production.


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