Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Alive Inside" - A Review and Commentary

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory is a 2014 American documentary film directed and produced by Michael Rossato-Bennett. The movie's website summarizes the film this way: "Alive Inside is a joyous cinematic exploration of music’s capacity to reawaken our souls and uncover the deepest parts of our humanity. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett chronicles the astonishing experiences of individuals around the country who have been revitalized through the simple experience of listening to music. His camera reveals the uniquely human connection we find in music and how its healing power can triumph where prescription medication falls short."

I have been preaching for a while that the genre of documentaries has come of age in a big way over the past decade or so. In some instances, they have easily surpassed the average fictional movie in quality and critical reviews. Recently I had the unexpected pleasure of attending the local premiere of Alive Inside, which turned out to be yet another instance of documentary excellence. I say unexpected because I had actually braced myself for a very difficult subject matter: dementia and Alzheimer's disease are not exactly the happiest of topics, especially when it hits so close to home (both my parents have been diagnosed with dementia). But as the film gods would have it, something very inspiring happened: Michael Rossato-Bennett has managed to turn the far-from-happy-ending of our fragile human condition into a story of hope.

Before I get to the hope part, let me make sure you understand just how relevant this story is. First, according to the Alzheimer's Association in the US (and I would be willing to bet the following numbers are relevant across the world)one out of three people dies with Alzheimer's or another dementia.  Let that sink in for a moment. Among you and just two other people closest to you, one will die with dementia and/or Alzheimer's. Every sixty-seven seconds, someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. 

Like the "Six Million Dollar Man", we can keep improving physical technologies, extending the official life of our bodies with every surgical, chemical, or biogenetic breakthrough. But as for the real life inside of us, we haven't a clue. We know that we have a brain, which we prefer to call a mind, and that it is somehow intertwined with something we awkwardly call a soul. As for any breakthroughs in understanding where or what a soul is, we might as well be getting excited about fire and the wheel. Ever since we began suspecting that our mere bodies were not the real essence of life, we have collectively done almost nothing to understand that essence, never mind be able to extend its tenure inside our physical bodies. Spiritual and religious thought leaders may disagree with me here. But with all due respect to them, our mass warehousing of our elders speaks to the contrary. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical and surgical industries have been given all but carte blanche to do whatever they see fit with our aging souls.

Enter some hope, via a man named Dan Cohen. Cohen is a social worker and founder of a nonprofit organization called Music and Memory. In order to capture the significance of what Cohen has discovered, try this mental exercise yourself: think of the last time you stumbled upon an old, favorite song or musical piece you had not heard in years, and think about the instant reaction it stirred in you. Now imagine being in a drugged state of partial consciousness, for what could be a month or a decade -- you're not sure. Imagine finally, someone walking up to you, gently placing a set of headphones on your ears, and playing that same song or musical piece... 

Better yet, don't imagine any of this. Find someone with dementia and do exactly that for them (one out of three elders, shouldn't be too difficult), then sit back and watch them come alive right in front of your eyes. Or, make it a point to watch Alive Inside for yourself. My bet is that, either way, you will experience a soul-touching moment.

"There is no pill that does that..."
- Alive Inside

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