"Wherever you live in this world, basically . . . you are alone. Even if [we] have support systems, we're really alone." Those words, shorn of sentimentality, are offered—and received—as motherly balm in the documentary When I Walk. Filmmaker Jason DaSilva, having turned his camera on himself to capture the ravaging effects of multiple sclerosis on his body and life, sits in a restaurant with his mother, lamenting the slim possibility of ever finding a partner, given his illness. Mom turns hardcore existentialist in response, and Jason nods matter-of-factly, saying simply, "True."
When I Walk probably wouldn't have made its way off the festival circuit were the words "inspiring" and "uplifting" not apt descriptors of it. But it's the intimacy (nicely balanced between discreet and unflinching) with which DaSilva maps his narrative that makes the film so absorbing and moving. Spanning several years, Walk moves quickly but never skimps on the medical or personal—or on revealing the nuanced evolution of DaSilva's emotional and psychological states. And in its rousing third act, it shows DaSilva putting himself to work on the issue of wheelchair accessibility in New York.
Before receiving his MS diagnosis in 2006 at age 25, with several award-winning and politically charged films already under his belt, DaSilva had been leading something of a charmed life. The film opens a year later, with home-movie footage of him on vacation with family in Sint Maarten. His legs suddenly stop working, and he's unable to stand on the beach, collapsing repeatedly until his brothers lift him. From there, Walk charts a steady erosion of his physicality—and his battle to best the illness. "If I just stay strong," he says as we see him working out at a gym, "maybe my case will be different."
Yoga, ayurvedic medicine, a trip to Lourdes, experimental surgery, and lots of prayers and tears later, the disease's toll aggressively mounts; DaSilva's legs and hands slowly stop functioning, his vision weakens. It's all conveyed through a seamless weaving of original footage; interviews with family, friends, and medical experts; and original animation. Those are stock tools of contemporary documentary-making, and DaSilva doesn't push the envelope in terms of form. In part, that's because he simply doesn't have the inner resources to do so. So he trusts the drama inherent in his tale—the despair and frustrations, the unexpected twist of a love story—and is wise to do so. It's an often gut-wrenching viewing experience in which the triumphs of the hero are hard won.
The best moment centers on another conversation between DaSilva and his mom, who emigrated from India. (We see wedding photos of his dad, who is otherwise not mentioned.) Many children of immigrants will recognize mom's no-nonsense pragmatism, the push-pull of her love for her children and her low-simmer frustration at how soft they are as Americans. Outsiders may simply catch the harshness, but the children—if they are lucky—learn to discern the affection at work in the withering critiques. When DaSilva is venting, his mom fires back, "You're always whining and sighing. When you feel down, think of other countries, other people. When you think your life is hard, think of other people who are really stuck."
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"I'm just saying, it's really tough," he says softly.
"Things are tough in life, you mollycoddled North American kid," she replies, and it's almost impossible not to smile along with DaSilva as he looks into the camera and grins.