As the director and primary protagonist of Locked In, Xavier Alford has a breezy and personable presence, which is extremely advantageous given the frankly harrowing specifics of the medical condition that his documentary explores. Alford has made the film (broadcast as part of the BBC’s Storyville series) as a way of processing his own experiences of multifocal motor neuropathy, which he refers to as a “rare, weird neurological illness.” Although this is an accurate statement, it’s also a considerable understatement.
Essentially the body’s immune system attacks its own peripheral nervous system, leading to muscles disconnecting from their nerve fibres. This ultimately leads to paralysis where the person often retains their cognitive abilities, but is unable to move in any way, becoming locked inside their own unresponsive body (hence the film’s rather generic if apt title).
Alford helpfully sets out the documentary’s purpose early on, stating that he wishes to understand his own future. The filmmaker has been living with Guillain–Barré syndrome for some years, and is beginning to lose motor function in his hands. Just how far the syndrome will progress is an unknown quantity, but he might well end up like some of his subjects, confined to an intensive care bed with a respirator to breathe for him, only able to communicate yes or no answers by blinking. Although a slow paralysis and eventual lock-in is seemingly inevitable, Locked In isn’t an unrelenting parade of grimness. Far from it, in fact.
There’s an unanticipated undercurrent of optimism throughout, even when Alford is literally staring his worst fears right in the face. The film is peppered with moments of hopefulness, because just as mysteriously as the syndrome can arrive, it can fade away, even if recovery is a long and arduous road. Several of the documentary’s more joyous sequences are courtesy of Scotty, an upbeat, chatty Australian who has made it out the other side. He remembers when the syndrome’s early stages rendered his hands rigid paddles, causing him to wonder just how he was supposed to masturbate. One of his measures for recovery is that his penis now works again, which shows that his nerves are reconnecting.
Locked In takes an immense scope and refines it to an intimate, highly affecting level.
Locked In is released digitally on demand on 30th November 2020. The film was made with the support of the BFI Doc Society Fund.