My Beautiful Broken Brain
30 August, 2016
My Beautiful Broken Brain is a documentary directed by Sophie Robinson and Lotje Sodderland, which was released for streaming on Netflix in March 2016.
The film chronicles the experiences of the then 34 year-old filmmaker, Lotje Sodderland, after she suffered a haemorrhagic stroke affecting her parietal and temporal lobes in November 2011. This was later found to have been caused by a malformation of blood vessels present from birth.
She was left initially unable to speak, read and write or to sequence thoughts and actions in a coherent way. The stroke also left Sodderland with a profoundly altered self-awareness and perceptual disturbances that included the exaggeration of sounds and seeing heightened colours in her right visual field, which was also significantly restricted.
These visual impairments are brilliantly portrayed using special effects in many ‘point of view’ shots throughout the film.
My Beautiful Broken Brain came about at the instigation of Sodderland who, in the first two weeks after waking from an induced coma in intensive care, grasped that she was a filmmaker and realised that she could use the medium to record valuable memories of her daily life.
There is a very good article written by Sodderland about her experiences and the making of the film published in The Guardian Weekend Magazine in 2014.
My Beautiful Broken Brain is so valuable to clinicians because it is underpinned by the authority of the lived experience of the filmmaker, showing us what it actually felt like to her as she suffered her acquired brain injury as well as charting the many challenges of her neuro-rehabilitation.
My Beautiful Broken Brain begins with a narrated account by Sodderland of her stroke accompanied by images that express the feelings she had retrospectively of those moments.
Woken in bed one night with an excruciating headache, knowing that something was seriously wrong, she somehow managed to get out of her flat in East London and into a nearby hotel where staff subsequently found her collapsed in the toilet.
The filming begins within two weeks of her stroke, using her own iPhone and then proceeds over the next year with the help of director Sophie Robinson with whom Sodderland had collaborated in the past.
Sodderland sees the film as a means of making sense of her story by recording a linear narrative that she could review as and when she needed it. Her brother, Jan, and other friends provide an understanding of the person Sodderland was before her stroke, namely bright, energetic, articulate, very sociable and extremely good at multi-tasking. She was a passionate reader and an expert communicator.
The film depicts the total assault that has occurred on all of these aspects of her person that render her so bereft in the immediate weeks after the stroke. Sodderland describes her predicament fearfully “I can’t write at all or be clever at all…..it’s terrifying”. She also experienced an altered sense of time, noting that “Time is elongated and transient” and she felt sufficiently strange to compare the experience to living in a David Lynch movie.
As a result, Sodderland recorded and sent a series of video messages to the famous director, which ultimately resulted in Lynch becoming an executive producer on the film and meeting up with Sodderland in person.
The documentary moves through the first year after Sodderland’s stroke chronologically, using much footage from her personal iPhone videos as well as special visual effects, to record her progress, including a three month admission to a Neuro-Rehabilitation ward, enrolment in a research study using transcranial direct current stimulation to aid post stroke recovery, the set back of a grand mal seizure and, later on, to Sodderland’s first foreign holiday in France.
At all times the film offers us insight into how she is feeling about her altered place in the world through the interface of her ‘new brain’ as well as through the objective opinions of those closest to her.
Relevance to the Field of Mental Health
My Beautiful Broken Brain is an incredibly compelling film to watch. Most useful to all health professionals is its first person portrait of the post stroke period of recovery.
It should be essential viewing for anyone working in the field of Acquired Brain Injury. Of particular interest is the understanding, brought by various professionals during Sodderland’s rehabilitation, of her cognitive deficits and how these are worked on. My
My Beautiful Broken Brain gives the viewer the chance to observe closely someone struggling with nominal aphasia, emotional lability, the inability to write meaningful words on a page, and also with the strangeness of being able to touch type again, but not to be able to read the words that have just been typed.
It is well recognised that there is an increased risk of seizures in the year following such a haemorrhagic stroke but Sodderland’s grand mal fit may also have been triggered by the transcranial direct current stimulation administered to her as part of the research study she joined (the study subsequently excluded people in the first year after a stroke).
There is an article entitled Review of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation in Poststroke Rehabilitation written by Feng, Bowden & Kautz in the journal called Topics in Stroke Rehabilitation, in 2013 Jan-Feb;20(1):68-77 (abstract available) that offers the opportunity for further discussion and learning on these topics.
As a personal video diary that conveys an intimate portrait of recovery after stroke, My Beautiful Broken Brain exceeds expectations because most of all it is a film filled with hope, courage and the acceptance of a new and altered life that was not chosen by Sodderland but that is now her reality. This is a perfect reminder that it is always the whole person that we must understand and engage with whenever we support someone in his or her recovery. I could not recommend this film more highly.