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Exclusive: Director Michael Rossato-Bennett, Dan Cohen talk 'Alive Inside'

Regina Scully, Michael Rossato-Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Pamela Frank, Alexandra McDougald and Dan Cohen attend the 'Alive Inside' premiere at Crosby Street Hotel on July 16, 2014 in New York City
Regina Scully, Michael Rossato-Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Pamela Frank, Alexandra McDougald and Dan Cohen attend the 'Alive Inside' premiere at Crosby Street Hotel on July 16, 2014 in New York City
Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Today on July 20, 2014 had the opportunity to interview "Alive Inside" director Michael Rossato-Bennett and Dan Cohen about their new documentary, which is now playing. The film is a joyous cinematic exploration of music’s capacity to reawaken our souls and uncover the deepest parts of our humanity. 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. This stirring documentary follows social worker Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, as he fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it.

Q: So my first question is for Michael. When did you first decide you were going to film Dan’s work and Dan what was your initial response when it was brought up?

Michael: It started off honestly as a job, a one day shoot and I wasn’t actually looking forward to it; going into a nursing home to help this guy and going into a nursing home for me was a very frightening experience, you know you see rows and rows of wheelchairs against the walls and people who have their heads against their chests for years. It was kind of a frightening place to be for me. I didn’t even really know that these places existed and it turns out that there are sixteen thousand of them in our country. That means that there are three within a mile of you right now!

So what happened was we just started filming and Dan walked in and there’s this one man named Henry with his head down and he was lost to the world and he’s been lost for ten years and this man loved Cab Calloway and we gave him Cab Calloway, the music that he had loved when he was a young man and music has this ability to go into the brain, into the mind and reach parts of the being that nothing else can reach. You know a lot of these people with dementia have a lot of their brain, their logic system, their short term memory; it’s just not functional and gone. But the deeper parts of the brain, the movement systems, the emotional systems are absolutely alive and I did not know that when we started. To see this man who was literally dead and gone to waking up and just seeing this being come out of nothingness was so overwhelming to me that in that first moment of filming when I filmed this man wake up and I saw what a phenomenal human had been hidden away inside this person, inside this institution, I said this is a film that has to be made, we have to tell this story of these millions of people in our country that we think of as gone but really inside of there.

They are alive inside and that it’s so simple to actually awaken them up and the magic is not a pill, the magic is music because it’s a great thing that we can do together. As a people, this is a problem that we can actually solve. An ipod only costs forty dollars and that’s less than one day of medication amongst these people and the medication doesn’t help them. This helps them and can change their lives for the rest of their lives and it’s a gift that we can do as a people that makes us better and makes their lives better. That’s why I made this film, I want to see that happen.

Q: Okay great! So Dan, what was your initial response when Michael wanted to film your work and make it into a documentary.

Dan: I definitely wanted to. My problem is when I would tell friends “You should see this reaction I’m getting from people, it’s amazing” and people would go like “Well, I heard you were giving old people music” and they just don’t really get it. It’s more than that. That’s why having that video of Henry waking up was huge in making that happen, it was magical.

Q: So what drove you to start Music & Memory?

Dan: In 2006, listening to the radio I heard a journalist speaking about how ipods were ubiquitous, they’re everywhere. So I googled ipods and nursing homes and even though there are sixteen thousand nursing homes, I couldn’t find one that was using ipods so I called the local nursing home on my way back and I came in with my laptop, some ipods and gave it to people.

Q: So the film "Alive Inside" has a really strong message regarding our broken healthcare system. In your opinion, what steps should be taken to combat this and how does Music & Memory have a place in all of this?

Dan: So right now, the healthcare system really with Alzheimer’s disease, people are anxious in nursing homes, they’re very agitated when they have dementia or Alzheimer’s and that puts them a danger to themselves or others so they give them these drugs to calm them down. These drugs are called antipsychotics and antipsychotic drugs are a dangerous drug that has psychiatric elements and they haven’t really stopped using them and so doctors are reluctant to stop using them because they feel like they have nothing to substitute the drugs for because if we take them off the common medication, they’ll hurt themselves or others. We’re successful between thirty and sixty percent of the time, which could totally eliminate that class of drugs and so we only want to make this a standard so that the millions of people on these drugs and the billions of dollars that we spent, there’s really no need that we need to rely on these drugs when others can use much lower doses of drugs so it shouldn’t be if somebody’s depressed or agitated, let’s give them a drug that knocks them out first, but instead try music and go with that and if it doesn’t work then it’s fine, but most of the time it does work so why not!

Q: So Michael, your film won the Audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. Did either of you guys think your film would have that effect on the audience?

Michael: No. My wife told me to submit the film to Sundance and I was like "no, they’re not going to want to see a movie about music and dementia" and she said "do it" and I was like "no it’s one hundred bucks, we can’t afford it" and she was like "do it" and at the very last moment possible, I submitted it and I never thought it would get into Sundance. It got into Sundance and then when we got there and the film started showing, all of a sudden people were lining up and everybody was talking about the film and it won! It won the Audience Award, just the most amazing moment of my life as a film maker.

We live in a world where we have all these problems and there’s nothing we can do about it. This is something we can do. I learned today that with the price of one of John Travolta’s jets we could solve this problem for every elderly dementia patient in America. It’s something we can do as people to make us better and this movie, it speaks its own thing that people in this country are very very hungry for right now. It’s about connection and I think all of the people feel disconnected and in this movie, you will see people with pure connections to their own humanity than you’ve ever seen because the people suffering from dementia, this is just me talking but they have a direct pipeline to their pure heart and it’s an incredible experience to witness these people. They have something to teach us actually. Music is actually instructive, I know I’ve learned a lot from it and I encourage people, come to one of our screenings. It’s only going to be a documentary film and documentary films come and go very quickly. Just see what cities we’re coming to, or write us and we’ll bring it to you, let’s wake up on this topic!

Q: So Michael, you followed Dan’s work for a total of 3 years. I know you already mentioned Henry but which moment would you say was the most memorable.

Michael: I think the most memorable for me was one day watching Mary Lou and watching her listen to her music and seeing how at home she was inside her music. This woman who could not navigate life by herself and when she was in the world of music she was so at cool and such an amazing and beautiful face that I actually realized that this woman listened to music deeper than I did and I went home and listened to my music, tried to listen to it the same way that she does with my memory and my heart and my past and I learned from her how to listen to music. It was almost like I didn’t know how to listen to music the more I spent time with these people with dementia and experienced them listening to their music. Music is much deeper in us than we think and has more gifts for us than we think, just like the air around us. We don’t think about it that much, but if you think about it and really take a moment to experience the air or question your relationship to music, you find that it’s a very very deep and interesting road to go down.

Q: What were both of you hoping to accomplish with this documentary and do you feel that you have succeeded?

Dan: Oh you know, we have succeeded in getting as far as we have gotten but we still have a long way to go. I mean right now like one percent of the people that could use this are getting the ipod so that may be ninety nine percent to go, so my job is to make this happen and make this a standard of care. I’m not concerned with "oh so this is where we’ve gotten so far," we understand we’ve really got a long way to go. I know for every one person we’ve bettered, there are ninety nine that aren’t getting help, aren’t getting a visitor, so the goal is to get to all of them. There’s no reason that we can’t get universal access here.

Michael: My goal is to change the world and make it a more human place and I think some real challenges are for us to do some things together and I will know that I’ve succeeded, that we’ve succeeded when people come together and when people see this movie and are inspired to use the lessons that are in the movie to make life better for others and I think we are succeeding, tremendously; the amount of love and concern and help that was offered us.

Q: So one last question for Michael. Now that "Alive Inside" is wrapped up, are there any projects that you are currently working on or planning to work on that you can share with us?

Michael: You know this is honorably my life’s work. My life’s work is very simple - just trying to awaken my country, my people, my friends to do more life. So we’re working on two or three upcoming films all based on the illusion that we are obsessed with and how they keep us from the life that is our birthright and how we can change that.

Q: Is there anything else you wanted to add before we end the interview?

Dan: If anybody wanted to they can visit our "Music & Memory" website if they want to do something for a family member. There’s a resource guide on how to set it up for a loved one. If they want to help we will set people up with the nursing home nearest to them and they can go in and bring music to people. We’ll help to make a good connection.

Michael: And if you come to the film, there’ll be a little box where you can put your old gently used ipods that we send to Dan and he’ll put them to good use.

Jasmine Yang contributed reporting.

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