Music plays an instrumental role in each and every one of our lives. The opening seconds of a song can stir up an entire range of emotions, catapulting us back to that first kiss or the feel of the breeze in our hair on that summer boat ride. In the midst of a winter storm, a breezy melody can transport us to the soft sands of a tropical beach. With its sonic strength, music interlaces itself deep into the fabric of our memory and offers a bridge back to the places, people, and passions of our past. We all know that music and memory are intertwined, yet witnessing exactly how intertwined they are can still surprise us.
After being moved by the work of social worker Dan Cohen while shooting a few short videos for a website, director Michael Rossato-Bennett fearlessly followed the founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory as he struggled against a tired healthcare system to inject the healing powers of music into the lives of individuals suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s – resulting in our touching and beautiful film of the month for March, ALIVE INSIDE.
What is it that drew you make “Alive Inside”?
A friend of mine asked me to do it, to build a website with some films in it for a social worker named Dan Cohen. There was a tiny bit of money, and I did it as a job. I got my equipment and my crew, and we went into this 600 bed nursing home, and there was Dan. and there was Dan. He was trying to spread his idea of bringing personalized music to elders. And he wasn’t having a tremendous amount of luck spreading the idea, so we thought if we could show what he was doing, that might help him. That was it.
When you make a documentary film, you shoot, and you shoot, and you shoot, and sometimes, suddenly, a moment happens- and it brings a tear to your eye. You know you’ve hit something, something real- that your instinct, or whatever it was that set you down this path of shooting, was correct. You have a film! In this case, we went into the hospital, down these corridors of sadness. Here I am, I’m a free and unfettered human being, and I’m walking down these corridors of these silent and shut-off people, literally just waiting.
We go into this room, and see this man–literally a blob in a chair, entirely collapsed in on himself, as inward as he possibly could be, divorced from the outer world. Dan puts a pair of headphones on him, and starts to play the music from when he was young, from 80 years ago, when his soul was just forming. I’m filming, watching this man as he, slowly, sort of come to life- starts singing, and when that happens a chill runs up my spine. It is like seeing Lazarus, a man rising from the dead. And it doesn’t stop, we take the headphones off him, and all of a sudden he is speaking to us in poetry, and singing to us in a voice that is so full of wisdom, so beyond my own.
And I have tears in my eyes. I cried five times that first day of shooting. And I said right there, “Okay, that’s it, this is my next film.” I didn’t have to find “a moment” – it was right here, in front of me. If it hits me like this, there is something here that needs to be told. If there is this much life hidden in these people, if all it takes a little sprinkle of their own past, their own humanness, to awaken this kind of life and poetry, this is where I belong!
Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career as a documentary filmmaker and in other pursuits?
The red thread of my career is awakening. I think we are dangerously asleep. Wake up! lets find a better path!
My skills are that I’m kind of fearless in a way, that’s my whole skill set really. I live my whole life sort of without a safety net, if you will. It gives me a kind of freedom. As a documentary filmmaker, your freedom and your allegiance, these are your true allies. So, for me, my freedom and my allegiance are deeply intertwined.
My allegiance is to that unknown place, that is a part of everyone, that seems to inform all of the best things we do. And so, if you ask me what my work is, I suppose I should say that on every level of my life, including my positions on artistic, political, and social issues, it’s seeking that place. And that is actually what has given what I do some legs- the capacity to touch people. And I’ve found personally, that the deepest, safe thing that you find: that will give you the most nourishment.
The film is very touching, specifically because it deals with the subject of elderhood, connection and memory, subjects we rarely discuss yet many of us fear. What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions and feelings?
We’ve become a tremendously fractured communal being. We’ve separated ourselves from our deepest sources of inspiration and justice, and intelligence, perhaps. So, my artistic and social experiments are based on trying to hit notes that are deeply within our consciousness, that ring. Alive Inside; it’s a film about death, it’s about dying, it’s about Alzheimer’s disease, but that’s ok, it hits something.
A friend of mine said, “You’re making a film about death, dying, and old age: my three least favorite subjects in the world.” And I was like, “Yes, that’s true! they are everyone’s least favorite subjects!”
But this is the key, the key that I’ve found, the choice I’ve made in this endeavor that made all the difference, to go through the door of music and emotion. See, when you seek through music and emotion, it enters humans in a place where it is a reality beneath the mind. And so, people are able to, in my experience, people have been able to open themselves to questions that they usually hide from. Questions that our entire society banishes–literally hides in the darkest corners of our subconscious, attempts to push into the unconscious.
I guess I’m just trying to shine a light on things that are inescapable and interconnected, and I find this in emotion and in music, powerfully.
The film is strangely not disturbing. There are so many messages we get in this culture about division, yet this film is about connection, and it really opens people’s hearts up. I love talking to audiences after they see it. They are very beautiful and open with the parts of their being they don’t usually linger in. I find them both grateful and happy to sit in those places within themselves. My hope is they have to courage to change life for someone. People write me every day to tell me the story of the magic of music and the mind.
Often after watching documentaries, people feel moved to take action or get involved in some way. What actions would you recommend people take after watching “Alive Inside”?
I would recommend visiting aliveinside.org to find out how you can engage further – there you can support the Alive Inside Foundation with a donation, sign up to volunteer or get engaged, and learn about how to make a playlist for someone close to you using the AIF Memory Detective App.
The film is truly a call to action – what were your goals and what kind of impact has the film had? Has anything occurred that has left you with the feeling “this is why we made this film”?
I want to help make the dream of returning connection, aliveness and music to our elders come true. There’s so many people in nursing homes, and, a couple million out of sight, and I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten from people telling me ‘oh my god this is so beautiful, I wish I had seen this before my father passed…’ or even sadder, people say, ‘If I had only known, my father was a composer, he played piano his whole life, and I never thought to bring him his music while he was going through his dementia.’ Or the opposite story, ‘oh, thank you for showing this to me. I went in and my father or my mother was sitting like a bump on a log, and I gave her music, and she was happy for a moment, and she came back the way she was three years ago, just for a moment.’ So, we’re just trying our best.
What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of?
What Happened Miss Simone, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, The Cats of Mirikitani, Into the Abyss, and The Wolfpack.
ALIVE INSIDE is Influence Film Club’s featured films for March. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one (or two) of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film(s) to watch and discuss together. Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film(s), providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.
Interview by: Isis Graham