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Not All Memories Are Lost: The Man Whose Mind Exploded Reviewed
Ben Graham , December 2nd, 2013 11:38

Ben Graham reviews Toby Amies' documentary about a unique, eccentric Brighton resident who was left unable to form new memories

"Don't look at the cocks." This is the advice of director Toby Amies in his brief introduction to tonight's sold-out screening. And it's true that there are rather a lot of rather large cocks featured in his documentary; indeed, as he goes on to say, "If you are not a fan of the hard penis, then this film is not for you." But Amies is right to insist that the cocks, attention grabbing as they may be, are not the point of The Man Whose Mind Exploded. Both literally and figuratively, they are merely the background. And if you let them distract you too much, then you may miss the fact that this is a film about friendship and trust, about memory and family, and how we experience life, and happiness as a conscious choice. And that the nipples are far more important than the cocks, anyway.

Amies spent roughly four years befriending and filming Drako Oho Zarhazar, a Brighton resident in his seventies for whom the word "eccentric" barely does justice. Drako was unique; a self-confessed exhibitionist who took the world for his stage and his life for art and theatre, a blank canvas on which to create and display himself without preconceptions or inhibitions. Heavily tattooed and pierced, with his thin waxed moustache jutting forth at a rakish angle, Drako was for many years a familiar figure around the Kemptown district of Brighton, striding forth with cape and cane, an aristocratic apparition who seemed emblematic of true transgressive bohemia.

Drako's past was spoken of in rumour and anecdote; how he modelled for Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Derek Jarman, and did time in prison for selling hash and acid (the Rolling Stones being supposedly among his clients). Born in 1936, he had been a ballet dancer and a leather-clad biker, and was a respected elder statesman on the 1980s London fetish club scene. But Drako's past was as much a mystery to himself as to others; two separate, serious accidents, both of which put him into comas, left Drako with a rare form of amnesia that effectively prevented his brain from generating new memories. So not only was his long and colourful life reduced to a fragmentary collection of stories that he would repeat to himself, but he was incapable of remembering what happened the day before, or a conversation he had five minutes earlier.

Amies' film reflects this condition by concentrating on Drako's present, rather than attempting to investigate his past. Avoiding the temptation to dwell on his subject's famous connections, or to somehow separate truth from fiction in presenting a cohesive life history, Amies simply shows the Drako he knew, as he encountered him. The documentary largely consists of Amies' repeated visits to Drako's one bedroom council flat, and is mostly filmed in its cluttered, overwhelming interior; part outsider art installation, part indiscriminate rubbish tip and health hazard, the flat is described as being like the inside of Drako's mind.

This is no throwaway comment. Drako's inner life is represented by the gay porn and art collages that hang from the ceiling and cover most available surfaces (these are the cocks that Drako persistently draws your attention to). But there are also hundreds of notes reminding him of what he needs to do, where things are, what is coming up, and what he must not do. His very memory, such as it is, is externalised, and these notes extend to his own body: "trust, absolute, unconditional," is tattooed on his arm, and is the code by which he lives his life, along with his other, oft-repeated maxim, "love it all."

Drako is undoubtedly a fascinating, charismatic subject. But the heart of the documentary is universal; anyone who has had to look after an elderly relative, perhaps suffering from Alzheimer's, who stubbornly resists your best efforts until love turns to exhausted frustration, will identify with the narrative. Amies essentially becomes Drako's carer, trying to get him to see a doctor about his obvious breathing difficulties, or taking him to casualty with a weeping sore on his leg, or trying desperately to let him clear out some of the junk in his flat before either the council put him in a home, or one of Drako's many candles fatally ignites his paper labyrinth.

We also see the efforts of Drako's long-suffering sister, visiting from New Zealand for what she knows will probably be the last time; Drako's more accepting nephew, Mark; and his best friend, Mim, who comes to celebrate the birthday of this elderly, impossible, innocent-deviant with balloons and cake. And then there is Drako himself; surely more aware than he lets on, insisting that while he knows Amies is using him for his film, he enjoys being used, the proud exhibitionist-masochist with his supplicant blow job fantasies who consistently accepts and trusts Amies, the eternal stranger, until one day he calls him his friend.

By turns hilarious, sad, uplifting and inspirational, The Man Whose Mind Exploded never reduces its subject to a case study or a series of symptoms. Drako is presented as a complex individual, with a strong set of spiritual beliefs and a world view born of necessity and illness that nevertheless all of us can learn something from. At the same time, Amies resists exploiting Drako's more freakish qualities, though we do learn that this is a man who has cut nipple holes in all his tops, so he can tug on them at will - and oh, he does.

The documentary maker is by definition a voyeur, and is traditionally encouraged to retain a cold, professional distance from his subject. Amies' involvement with Drako's life, and his obvious affection and concern for him, breaks both these rules, as the prurient voyeurism that may have made this a more sensational picture is curtailed by a friend's reluctance to debase or embarrass a man he has grown extremely close to.

If the film has flaws, they are the result of being unashamedly a no budget production, with a relatively inexperienced, skeleton crew. The single handheld video camera can be annoyingly shaky, especially when trying to take in all the overcrowded details of Drako's home - though there are some spectacular shots of Brighton skies and sunsets. Similarly, it's hard to catch everything Drako says; but all the more reason to splash out on the eventual DVD release, I suppose.

For me, The Man Whose Mind Exploded was an emotional experience that hit uncomfortably close to home. Literally, as most of it was filmed within a mile of my front door, in the Brighton neighbourhood where I've lived for the last decade or so. And although I can't say I knew Drako, I knew him well as a familiar sight around the battered, bohemian seaside town I chose to live in. Drako in some ways seemed symbolic of everything I loved about Brighton, and why I moved here in the 1990s; with his passing in 2011, something of that old, weird Brighton, that sheltered and celebrated the strange and the marginal, the outcast and the deeply odd, vanished forever. We still all live in too-small flats, encroached on by unvalued art and artefacts of lives largely ignored, all destined to end up as so much landfill. Amies' film provides a poignant record and testimonial to one such life, lived larger than most. Not all memories are lost. Love it all.