By LAUREN LOFTUS
In 2006, New York filmmaker Jason DaSilva fell down and needed help standing back up. Five years later, he could no longer walk and needed help accomplishing even the most basic tasks.
But multiple sclerosis didn’t stop DaSilva from turning the camera on himself in this deeply personal and honest film.
“When I Walk” opens with DaSilva falling down while on a family vacation to Saint Martin in December 2006, a few months after being diagnosed with MS. He continued filming over the course of the next several years, documenting his bodily decline while attempting to maintain a career, relationships and, presumably, his will to survive.
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system. DaSilva uses animation to explain his condition, depicting his immune system as deranged Pac-Man-like figures devouring nerve endings in his brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control, balance and vision.
DaSilva circles back to these animated graphics often in the film, using them as markers of life (and disease) milestones. One such marker is a trip to Lourdes, France, at the urging of his grandmother. In the scene, an animation of DaSilva is carried into the sacred baths and he pleads with a statue of the Virgin Mary to be healed.
As his body deteriorates, DaSilva progresses from walking laboriously and slowly to using a cane and walker to eventually relying on a motorized scooter. The film punctuates this progress with time-lapse shots of DaSilva standing (or sitting) still as people, cars and bicyclists whiz by him in a frantic stream of motion. DaSilva employs the use of these small snapshots artfully. In one, the shot is centered on his hands as he attempts to button his shirt, one excruciating button at a time. In another, his wife, Alice, dresses him as he lays face down on the bed.
The theme of inaccessibility flows throughout the film, with DaSilva shown trying to catch a cab from his scooter in New York City and calling several restaurants to find one with accessible bathrooms. His frustration prompted him to create AXS Map (“access map”), a mobile app and website that list the closest accessible businesses in a given area.
DaSilva was an accomplished filmmaker before his diagnoses, with award-winning short- and feature-length titles to his name, and he was determined to continue making films even when he could no longer easily use his hands. In one scene, he asks his wife to help him with some film editing and snaps at her when she’s unable to perform the task quickly. He explains that editing the film has been his “only creative outlet” for several years, but it’s getting harder to do. In one of the last scenes, the pair is working more harmoniously. Alice says they are using her hands and his brain.
While DaSilva portrays himself as stuck in a body that’s becoming progressively less functional in a world that won’t bend to his disabilities, he also displays a fierce urge to hang on to what’s made his life purposeful for so long. “When I Walk” is a product of that determination. It testifies not only to the horrors of a degenerative disease but also to the surprising humanity, passion and art that can spring from it.
“When I Walk” was an official selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Screenings are currently being held around the country. It is coming to select theaters Oct. 25.