What do you think of when I say the name "Lou Gehrig?"
New York Yankees? If you are a baseball fan, then perhaps you do actually recall the legendary baseball player's team.
More likely, however, you think of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). ALS is the neurogenerative disorder that claimed Gehrig's baseball career in 1939 and his life in 1941.
ALS is now, to practically everyone who has heard of the disease, known simply as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." As one researcher notes in "Indestructible," filmmaker Ben Byer's first-person accounting of his life after being diagnosed with the disease in 2002, ALS has "brought science to its knees" and nearly 70 years after claiming the life of Lou Gehrig there remains no cure and little in the way of treatment.
At the age of 31, Byer was an aspiring filmmaker who'd studied journalism at Indiana University and film theory at the University of Paris. He'd worked in Hollywood for a B-movie producer and had gathered several acting credits in Chicago at such highly regarded theatres as Steppenwolf Theatre. His first play, "Take It Deep," was successfully produced and it seemed that the 31-year-old Chicago native was on the verge of a successful career in writing and acting.
Then, in 2002, Byer was diagnosed with ALS and, as is true for the vast majority of persons diagnosed with the disease, Byer was suddenly faced with a death sentence to be preceded by a practically guaranteed deterioration of his ability to walk, talk, care for himself and his young son, act or even write on his own.
"Indestructible" began as a series of video diaries in which Byer, sometimes with heartbreaking vulnerability and other times with flippant bravado, begins living his life searching for hope, searching for answers and, perhaps most of all, just trying to live for as long as he possibly can.
It becomes clear rather quickly, however, that Byer is, despite the many common traits and fates he shares with other ALS survivors, just a tad different from other individuals who live with the disease.
It is difficult to watch "Indestructible" without recalling the experiences of Christopher Reeve, a man who garnered mixed support from the SCI (Spinal Cord Injury) community out of the somewhat accurate yet misguided belief that his wealth afforded him healing opportunities not available to the everyday paraplegic.
While the issue of the affluence of Ben's family is never addressed in "Indestructible," it's hard not to watch the film without getting the occasional mixed message. Early in the film, we see Ben applying for disability and, yet, within months he is traveling globally in search of a cure. While this, at times, sends contrasting messages it's worth noting that the film's closing credits recognize, quite literally, hundreds of film supporters and donors who supported Ben's efforts and the production of the film.
While it does, indeed, feel weird to see Ben globe-hopping through Greece, China, Hong Kong and New York, it's equally worth noting that these travels resulted in aid and hope for countless others and the founding of the ALS Film Fund.
At a time when so many would choose to give up, Ben Byer relentlessly pursued hope for himself and, in so doing this, opened the door for others, as well.
Captured on film by Byer's childhood friend and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roko Belic ("Genghis Blues"), "Indestructible" works because Byer courageously submits to it. While Belic arguably paints Byer in a rather glorified light, the scenes that unfold are emotionally intimate and often devastating in their honesty. Belic's camera never flinches, even as it observes Byer attempting to remove his shirt for several painstakingly frustrating minutes.
While Belic's affection for his subject is obvious, both Belic and Byer shy away from glossing over the devastating impact of ALS on Byer's life and the lives of those who surround him.
We share in Byer's frustration as his helpless father grasps onto anything he can find to do, most notably his advocacy for an Asian herbal treatment called BuNaoGao that seemingly curbs the disease's symptomatology. We follow him to expert after expert, some whom wax eloquently about the helplessness of modern science in the face of ALS and others who observe how poorly America treats its disabled citizens as opposed to many other countries.
We follow Byer through the everyday mundane moments of life and the little victories he claims along the way. We follow his parents as they face this harsh reality and we follow his sister, Rebeccah, with whom he moves in and collaborates on the ALS Film Fund and this project.
The film is afforded lighter moments, and gratefully so, courtesy of Byer's spirited three-year-old son, John.
The winner of the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature during the recent Lake County Film Festival, "Indestructible" also captured the Maverick Spirit Award for Best Documentary at the 2007 Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose.
Byer, who is now living in his 5th year with ALS, is primarily wheelchair mobile now with severely slurred speech and, yet, he has appeared at several of the film's festivals and participated in discussions along with members of his family.
Despite being unable to escape the feeling that Byer has been afforded opportunities largely unavailable to the wider public living with ALS, one must approach "Indestructible" with a tremendous sense of gratitude and a deep appreciation for the honest portrayals, authentic dialogue and beautiful cinematography that blend together to tell the story of Ben Byer, a young filmmaker who has faced overwhelming adversity with courage, honesty, humor and, thankfully for all of us, the willingness to creatively pursue his dream of making the film he undoubtedly wishes he'd never had to make.
Even when our body betrays us, Ben Byer may very well prove that the heart and soul remain indestructible.