Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

Director: Kirby Dick

Institute History

  • 1997 Sundance Film Festival


The title, Sick, of Kirby Dick’s incredibly powerful documentary about performance artist Bob Flanagan hits the mark on two levels. In one sense, it describes his physical condition; Flanagan suffered from cystic fibrosis all his life until his death at forty-three early last year. The second, more evocative reference is to the shockingly direct sadomasochism of the artist’s performances. Take warning, this is not a film for the squeamish, the prudish, or the faint-hearted. Even hardened viewers may feel disconcerted by his performances, which include piercing and penetrating of almost every body part by practically any sharp object.

No other artist in history has examined so literally the experience of pain and the associated pleasures of sadomasochism and domination. Along with Sheree Rose, his longtime partner, collaborator, and dominatrix, Flanagan had fashioned a number of video pieces focusing on S and M for installations and shows, as well as very intimate recordings. These video and audio diaries are integrated into the film, giving it an autobiographical feeling right from the start. Dick was also able to record a great deal of the last two years of Flanagan’s life, including his death, creating as comprehensive a portrait of an artist and his work as is possible to capture.

What’s fascinating about Sick is that our perceptions of Flanagan moderate as we find out more and more about his compulsions and inner demons. His self-effacement, his disarming humor, and his rational opinions about what may appear to be madness or perversity make sense of his life and give meaning to an incredibly potent chronicle of illness and pain, sex, death, and art.

— Geoffrey Gilmore

Screening Details

Sundance Film Festival Awards

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