At the crossroads of documentary and animation sits Sheldon Cohen’s latest film, the story of “a nice Jewish boy with Buddhist inclinations” who should have been the last person in the world to need open-heart surgery.
Narrated by Cohen himself, this totally true but completely unbelievable tale traces the events that led up to the filmmaker’s recent heart attack and the difficult recovery that ensued. If there’s comedy to be found in a heart attack, Sheldon is the man to find it.
It all started with a panicked phone call from a dog park, followed by a rollercoaster of a ride filled with wry humour and philosophical musings. While everybody is trying to save a dog undergoing cardiac arrest, Cohen suspects that he might be having a little heart attack of his own. And true to every stereotypical portrayal of married life, his wife is actually annoyed with him.
Cohen’s tender story proves that, sometimes, what feels like the end is really only just the beginning.
The true story of a “nice Jewish boy with Buddhist inclinations” who suffers a heart attack. At the crossroads of documentary and animation, Sheldon Cohen’s film combines wry humour and philosophical musings to show that, sometimes, what feels like the end is really only just the beginning.
Can you tell us about the genesis of My Heart Attack?
The actual heart attack came totally out of the blue. It was a normal day, on a sunny summer afternoon when it hit. The events that followed—all the scenes you see in the movie—actually happened. I can hardly believe that here I am, four years later, having just finished an animated film about it all.
Right from the beginning, it felt like it was a story that wanted to be told. When I would describe to others what happened to me, often they would say “Wow, you should make it into a movie.” But animation seemed like something that was behind me. In fact, I had applied for a master’s degree in Art Therapy. When the letter of rejection came in the mail (soon after my recovery), I was so angry. I had an unexpected knee-jerk reaction. I instantly e-mailed my long-time producer at the NFB, Marcy Page, and asked if she was interested in considering a film about my heart attack. I thought she’d say no. When she enthusiastically said yes, I panicked because I really had no idea how I would actually do it.
It was definitely a huge challenge for me, but by chance the NFB animation studio put me in a room with an incredibly talented artist and animator who eventually took on the task of Art Director on this project. His name is David Barlow-Krelina, and thanks to him and the amazing “dream team” that followed (Velislav Kazakov, Jo Meuris and Jin Park), I was able to bring my entire heart attack experience to life. When Marcy Page retired, she handed the torch to producer Jelena Popovic, who continued to extend the boundaries of this project far beyond anything I envisioned. A major achievement came towards the end of production with the powerful soundtrack featuring the work of composer Judith Gruber-Stitzer and sound designer Olivier Calvert. To top it all off, there’s the song written by Anna McGarrigle called “Heartbeats Accelerating,” sung by her children, Sylvan Lanken and Lily Lanken. Listening to that song at the end of the film, it’s the crowning touch for me.
Can you speak a bit more about the surgery. Not many people know about the emotional after-effects during the recovery period. How would you describe it?
I wasn’t prepared for the feelings that came after the surgery and I wanted to address that issue in this film. The humour was important, of course, but I also felt a big part of the storytelling would have to deal with the emotional impact that this type of operation has after you get home—depression, anxiety, and other unnameable psychological scars. That’s why animation is particularly useful here, because it can take the viewer into those undefined realms beyond words.
You mentioned in your film that you are “a nice Jewish boy with Buddhist inclinations.” Did you turn to your religious beliefs to help you go from suffering to healing?
It’s not especially a religious approach—it’s more of a human approach, and a spiritual approach—kind of where the two meet: humans and spirit connecting.
You see, there is the recurring presence of a candle in the film, and the lighting of the candle. To me, this image is a way of expressing that connection and representing an inner resiliency to help us get through the dark times.
The neighbour’s dog Bailey died. How is Gracie doing?
Gracie is wonderful and happy, although she has no idea she’s a movie star now. She really is the enlightened one in my eyes.
Poor Bailey didn’t make it. My wife tried so desperately to save him. She really is the heroine of this story. This movie is my love song to her, corny I know, but after everything she went through, she deserves it.
And how are you doing?
It’s a miracle of modern science that they can actually open you up, do what they do, and then put you back together. Of course, I’m more careful with what I eat—not as much junk food anymore, but I was always a vegetarian and a non-smoker. As I say in the film, I really should have been the last person to have had a heart attack. All I can say is that Life works in mysterious ways.
As for the surgery itself, I realize the normal response would be to put it behind you. For me, though, I’ve been re-living the experience frame-by-frame now for the past couple of years. But, if anything, making this movie has been a source of great joy—being part of the creative process with such amazing people and also knowing that maybe this film can speak to others during their own difficulties and perhaps help them find some vital connection when they feel the most vulnerable. We all have our own particular hard times. This film is meant for all of us.
I have no regrets about my heart attack. It’s brought me to a better place.
WRITTEN, DIRECTED AND NARRATED BY
ART DIRECTION BY
ADAPTED FROM THE ORIGINAL SONG
Published by Garden Court Music
Administered by Kobalt Music Services Limited
LAYOUTS AND ANIMATION
HYUN JIN PARK
HYUN JIN PARK
BACKGROUNDS, MOTION GRAPHICS AND COMPOSITING
OANA SUTEU KHINTIRIAN
Drums THOMAS GOSSAGE
Tuba CHRIS SMITH
Vocal Percussion ANANT JESSE
Ukulele SÉBASTIEN DUFOUR
Violin TOMMY GAUTHIER
FOLEY AND MUSIC RECORDING
MUSIC RECORDING ASSISTANTS
PIERRE YVES DRAPEAU
SOUND EDITOR ASSISTANTS
JEAN PAUL VIALARD
ROSALINA DI SARIO
A Production of
THE NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA