A documentary that manages to be a crowd pleaser while also educating, Alive Inside is a unique little thing. It’s also pretty important and perhaps even a vital future tool in the care of senior citizens As such, I was pleased to be able to speak with the film’s director Michael Rossato-Bennett and main subject Dan Cohen, and they obviously were happy to obliged. The doc is very good and hit theaters this weekend, so the march towards an Academy Award nomination in Best Documentary Feature may have just begin. Take a look at the highlights of the interview below (my recording device kicked in and out, so a few pieces of the chat are lost to the universe, but I wanted to make sure I gave this a helping hand, since Alive Inside really deserves just that) and be sure to check this one out…hopefully Oscar voters will too!
Here you go…
Joey Magidson: Hi guys.
Dan Cohen: Hi Joey.
Michael Rossato-Bennet: Hi.
JM: So how did this all get started for you?
DC: (some of the audio is garbled, so I’m picking up from where it kicked back in) …what we did was really changing the nature of their day, every day. So I really wanted to get this on film to show people, so I asked the foundation that was supporting us if they knew a filmmaker, and they said sure. They had a filmmaker they’d worked with before, and that was Michael. Michael came in for a one day shoot and we both were amazed, he was amazed.
JM: What were your concerns when you started?
MRB: You never know what’s going to happen when you put someone on film. You don’t know if it’s going to be interesting, if they’re going to be photogenic, or whatever. It just so happens that Henry in the film was a perfect combination…articulate, expressive, creative, just a wonderful person. A guy who has advanced dementia but has a great voice.
JM: The film hits on very relatable things, but not in a way that brings you down at all, you know?
DC: That was the hope, we’re really addressing something important, and that was the challenge. As a culture, we’re afraid of death and we don’t address it. Luckily, we had music with us, to guide us through the story. When you have music, it’s the soundtrack to each of our lives. Music is one of our greatest senses. It’s one that we created over the years of evolution.
JM: Definitely. And music changes for every generation…
MRB: That’s the interesting thing. In doing this, we’ve been able to listen to music that we either didn’t really listen to know or didn’t pay attention. This older generation of music is phenomenal, so one of the dreams we both had was to create connections between young and old. In our culture, that’s not the case. We used to be a multigenerational culture, but now it seems like all the generations are isolated. The idea of young people bringing their music and computers and youth to these elderly people in need of human connection is a wonderful thing.
JM: It definitely isn’t done to the extent that it should be in our world. The movie is a 90 minute example, but it’s a good one of this being necessary…
JM: What did you think was going to happen when this process began?
DC: I didn’t know what was going to happen actually. I just thought it as a good idea and figured I’d try it. I had a lot of questions and didn’t know. The reaction though was pretty instantaneous. Not even with people with dementia, but just people who are very depressed. Most people in nursing homes never get visitors, studies have shown that 90% of residents spend their days idle. So if you’re in a nursing home, you have no one coming to visit you and nothing to do, that’s a recipe for decline, even if your health is stable. So that’s sort of where it began. As much as we take music for granted, for these people it was so far away and it was just huge for people. The impact for them is so much more powerful for them than it was for us.
JM: And on the filmmaking side?
MRB: You know, I actually learned something very profound in the process. Usually, when you’re a filmmaker, there are a lot of things that you want to film but you can’t because a camera would be intrusive. But in the nursing home we were shooting in…you know, nursing homes are such deserts. 50% of the people in nursing homes get no visitors at all, 90% of people’s time is spent idle…the place is a desert. Actually, it was a compounding of effectiveness. We were giving these people our music, but also our eyes and our interest. I felt like for quite a few of them, we were the first people in a long time who really looked at them and asked, you know, “who are you?”, not just taking temperature. In this instance, the camera was actually a gift. It was another eye giving them attention and wanting to know about them. I think they were actually very grateful that we were coming in and being curious about their lives, and they responded in a phenomenal way. It took me a long time to realize that partially it was due to the desert of their lives.
JM: As a filmmaker, what do you hope a viewer takes away from this movie?
MRB: For me, watching this film is a very interesting experience, because you’re watching people you’ve never seen before. You’re watching people who, I like to say, they’ve forgotten how to lie. They’re vulnerable, and the characters are the most powerful part of the film. When you see Johnny cry, I defy you not to cry. When you Denise struggling, I defy you not to be moved. When you see Marylou getting a moment’s peace, it’s impossible not to have your heart go out to her. It’s because they’re such vulnerable souls and we all dream of having our should received in that way. It’s good education to see that, and I find it a very interesting experience just to witness that. I still cry, even after shooting it and editing it and having seen it dozens of times, there are still moments where I see…and it’s not the filmmaking, it’s the pure humanity of these unprotected people. The fact that this all comes across to me, it gives me great hope for humanity. There are things we can not deny, music is one of them, and empathy is another.
JM: Definitely. Dan, when you finally saw the film once it was done, how did it make you feel? How did it compare to having done the work without a camera for so long?
DC: It’s sort of a two step process. The Henry video was just such a gift, you know. You hope things go viral, but you can’t make anything go viral, so that was kind of a thrill. We were kind of lucky seeing the reaction to this, and it was an affirmation. The end result, which was to my delight, as great as Henry was, and he’s a part of this, the film is better. Henry is a seminal piece in classrooms all around the world now too, from junior high schools to medical schools. Someone was just telling me that they were invited to an international conference on music, and Henry was a perfect example of what music can accomplish. It’s great awareness, and we need awareness for this issue. In all 60,000 care facilities, we want them to use music in this way to reduce depression, reduce medication, etc. It’s not necessarily a replacement for these drugs, but there are examples where music is a great substitute. The drugs are very powerful and are used kind of just to calm people down, so music is a potential substitute.
JM: Awesome, and I just wanted say congrats on the documentary and I’m glad that it’s shown in classrooms. That’s a great thing. You guys might very well be in line for a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the Oscars, so I wish you all the best on that journey going forward!
There you have it. Alive Inside is in theaters now, so check it out…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!