Documentary filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett, makes his feature length debut with Alive Inside, winning the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Originally made as a short film, Alive Inside reveals a day in the life of Dan Cohen, a social worker and volunteer who treats elderly people suffering from dementia with music that revives their memories. Inspired, Rossato-Bennett ends up following Cohen for three years, gaining an insight into the cultural impact of music, the treatment of the elderly, the American medical model and conservatism within the medical industry.
The director was clearly passionate about his subject as his narrative becomes highly emotionally near the end. It is hard not to be moved by scenes of elderly people, isolated in their bodies, experiencing a mental, physical, and emotional awakening upon hearing their favourite songs. This becomes the springboard for the documentary’s wider thesis. Cohen, medical professionals, and neuropsychologists explain how music gets ingrained in all parts of the brain, which results in it becoming a part of our memories and, on a cultural and anthropological level, a part of the human experience.
Rossato-Bennett interviews Cohen and doctors who criticise the treatment of the elderly and the American healthcare system. They argue that the elderly become withdrawn in American care homes because of the lack of mental stimulation and the cold, empty, hospital-like setting. They complain that the health industry is willing to spend millions on drugs, yet resists spending a little money on an alternative treatment. Although the documentary is about the American experience, there are universal themes regarding the care of the elderly, many nations having aging populations and the treatment of mental health conditions where drugs are used over talking cures.
The documentary mostly uses interviews with medical professionals, ranging from neurologist Oliver Sacks to people who work on the frontline. It also follows Cohen and features interviews with patients. Rossato-Bennett makes the documentary very personal by telling the background story of the patients, using home videos and photos as well as archive footage of musicians. There is also a historical element and use of statistics.
Alive Inside is a detailed documentary that looks at a wide subject in 78 minutes, showing how one small idea can be expanded into a much broader study. A wonderful result of people whose empathy and drive to help people gives us hope about our old age.
Alive Inside is released nationwide on 16th August 2015.
Watch the trailer for Alive Inside here: