5 Questions with Michael Rossato-Bennett, Director of ALIVE INSIDE

 Michael Rossato-Bennett-PhotobyMarc Arias

Michael Rossato-Bennett. Photo by Marc Arias.

Michael Rossato-Bennett is the director of Alive Inside, winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for U.S. Documentary. The film examines the profound results of Dan Cohen's practice of creating customized music playlists for people living with Alzheimer's Disease and dementia.

On Friday, November 13 at 7:00PM, Ernest McBride High School is hosting a special screening of the film to help fund an "Adopt an Elder/Build a Bridge" pilot program that connects local youth with local elders. The program is a partnership between McBride, Grace First Presbyterian Church, and Brittany House, a facility in Long Beach that supports people affected by Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and other forms of memory loss. Rosatto-Bennett, who will be attending the screening, took some time to answer five questions.

Long Beach Post: What was the impetus for making the film?

Michael Rossato-Bennett: It is very simple. I was asked to make a short film to raise awareness for Dan Cohen, a social worker who was bringing music to elders in nursing homes. The first day I entered the nursing home and I saw hundreds of people in the hallway in wheelchairs, lined up against the walls, alone, lost in their own world, and it was one of the saddest experiences I've ever had. I wanted to run from the place.

But then, they rolled an old man before me, and we knew the music that he liked when he was young, and we gave it to him. His music was gospel and Cab Calloway. This old man, Henry, was 94 years old. You can see what happened to him on YouTube—it changed my life. You can see the first day I started shooting on this film on YouTube: its called, An Old Man Reacts to His Music.

So, we put the music on this man, a man who was hunched over like there was nothing inside. We couldn't talk to him, but we gave him his music and it did something to him. It fired his brain in a way that sent shivers up my spine. Literally, I started crying when I was filming this guy and I knew, in that minute, that I was going to make a film. I was naive at that point. I thought we'd discovered the cure for Alzheimer's, (laughs) but the truth was what we'd discovered was what Music Therapists have known for 50 years: That music has this capacity, when it can wake emotion, to wake something in the mind. The old, old pathways that are there, but haven't been used in a while. The most amazing thing, to me, when we took the music off Henry, was that his mind was still alive and still sparking.

Now, we've seen this over and over again, hundreds and hundreds of times. This miraculous capacity that music and emotion have, that connection has, that it can wake the mind of a person.

And it's not just the music. It's the connection and the care of another person that is so beautiful and liberating. We need each other! I heard a quote, today, from Lau Tsu: "When someone loves you, it gives you strength. When you love another, whole-heartedly, it teaches you courage."

That's really why I started the Alive Inside Foundation. This is the courage that seems to be missing in the world, today. We need to allow people to open their hearts and learn the lessons that come from aging, and from opening one's heart. Many of those lessons are there, stored deep inside music.

Who was the film's intended audience?

I didn't expect anybody to want to see the film. I actually wasn't going to submit it to Sundance because it was $100 and I was dead broke at the time, but my wife made me do it. On the very last hour of the very last day that you could submit it she made me take it to FedEx. I did. FexEx was closed. I was like, "Ok. I've saved a hundred bucks."

We went home and watched TV but my wife said, "Wait a minute! The 34th Street Post Office is open 'til midnight!" We jumped in the car and we ran uptown and I literally dove through the door as they were closing it and put the film in the box.

Believe it or not, Sundance accepted the film, which is the most amazing thing. 12,000 films are submitted every year, and they only accept 16 for competition. They picked Alive Inside! Wow, and I thought that nobody would want to see this film about dementia aging, and music, but I was deeply wrong. We won the Audience Award at Sundance which, for me is the top, just under the Academy Award.

What are your feelings about the response the film has received?

First of all, I think it is amazing. Dan Cohen's program, Music And Memory, has blown up. When we showed the film at Sundance there were 56 programs. Now, a year later, there are 2,000. The Alive Inside Foundation is inspiring tons of kids and schools and churches and universities to bring themselves and music to these elders. Now, there are dozens, hundreds, of people who are taking up this idea, from recreation therapists, to people starting foundations. All over the world, this idea is the biggest low-hanging fruit in elder care, that, through music, you can create connection to the mind, and to the community. I'm thrilled. This problem is so big that it will take many more people than us to make it be successful.

What has the success of this film meant for you, professionally?

It has meant something profound. For a long time I wanted to be Steven Spielberg. I wanted to make feature films... but I did not succeed at that. So, I had given up. Finally, I said, "You know what? Forget it! I'm just going to try and help people and at least, if I die, I'll know I've helped people." What's happened has totally blown me away. Now, I'm able to help people in a way that is expanding. It is so cool the way this good deed is growing. It is literally blossoming. I feel like my life now is full of connection, full of music, dancing, and aliveness. It is thrilling to me!

What's next?

I'm producing a film on elders in nursing homes... There's a nursing home in Washington State where they also have a nursery school in the same facility. It is about the dynamic between the very young and the very old, which is something that's very dear to me.

I'm also consulting on a film about Giuseppe Verdi's nursing home in Milan, for old musicians and ballerinas and artists that have fallen on hard time. It is very beautiful to see these elders age with such art central to their lives, steeped in art. The wisdom of Giuseppe Verdi is pretty profound. I'm also doing a film that I hope will stop the over-use of anti-psychotic medications in nursing homes. For me, it is a crime against humanity. We are already reducing the over-use of anti-psychotics, but there's room to succeed more.

Advance tickets are $15, and are available at AliveInside.org/LongBeach. At the door, tickets will be $20. The screening will take place at 7:00PM at McBride High School, which is located at 7025 East Parkcrest Street, just south of Carson Street and just East of Los Coyotes Diagonal.

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