Local Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett Harnesses Deep Human Magic

As a film critic, every time I settle into a theater seat I prepare myself for an experience that I liken to tapping into memory. The images that unspool before me may not be lived and processed

click to enlarge Alive Inside
Alive Inside

As a film critic, every time I settle into a theater seat I prepare myself for an experience that I liken to tapping into memory. The images that unspool before me may not be lived and processed situations from my own life but they approximate the sensation, and depending on the film, can recall the cascading dream-like state I find myself in when caught up in my memories. And from a literal standpoint, by taking these images in during the screening, they indeed become a part of that vast network of stored data.

Music has a similar connection to experience and memory but, in modern technological parlance, it achieves its effects like an app on the most current (and powerful) smartphone — with blinding speed and efficiency. In the blink of an eye, a song or even a snippet of a melody can trigger a release of memories and a host of other sensory information, and we have barely scratched the surface on the potential of this resource.

Alive Inside, the new documentary from Cincinnati native Michael Rossato-Bennett, follows Dan Cohen, the founder of Music & Memory, a nonprofit devoted to demonstrating how music can be used to stave off memory loss and help restore a key and vital sense of self in those suffering from its debilitating impact. When Rossato-Bennett initially teams up with Cohen, the organization is only working in a handful of nursing homes, struggling to convince managers and staff of the possibly miraculous results that could be seen, and there is tentativeness in the presence of Rossato-Bennett’s camera. It is as if he himself cannot fully believe Cohen’s claims.

But suddenly, as Cohen slips a set of headphones onto a patient locked away inside their own mind, a transformation occurs in both the patient and the film. Sound gives rise to life and movement and Alive Inside breathes deeply and confidently. The song is not necessarily ever the same for any two people but the results most certainly are. Life, a new spring, returns to faces, bodies and most importantly minds.

I spoke with Rossato-Bennett on the heels of his return for the Queen City premiere of the film. I was particularly interested in the viral expansion of one of the film’s key segments, featuring a patient named Henry. It was a somewhat telling moment for a documentary to acknowledge a jumpstart of its own, especially one that seems to parallel its subject.

“The Internet/social media aspect of the film came about 100 percent organically,” Rossato-Bennett says. “In the beginning I was led into a 600-bed facility and it was just a job. The first thing I saw was 100 people lined up against the wall in wheelchairs, and it was a pretty overwhelming sight and I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t even want to be there when Henry was wheeled in because here was another person who seemed like he was out of it, gone, out of touch with the world. [But] when we put the music on Henry’s head and he woke up and I saw this human being that was inside of him, the beauty and the poetry that was in this being — and the beauty and poetry that had been hidden for so long — it was an obvious challenge for me. If I could tell this story and the world was interested, I could make a change for those people lined up against the wall.”

Later on as the film progressed, he says, Cohen needed clips for a fundraising event and for discussion points with people interested in the project, and Rossato-Bennett pulled the segment with Henry for use on the website he was developing for Cohen.

“A mom found it somehow,” Rossato-Bennett says. “At the time it had about 300 views after six months. The mom showed the clip to her son and he posted it on Reddit. From Reddit it spread to Facebook, and my son — we were at home at the time — was on Reddit almost at the moment it was first posted and he caught it. He said, ‘Dad, they’re talking about your film.’ So I ran in there and sure enough, they were talking about the film. We watched that night as it went from 300 to 800 views. By the next morning it was at 170,000 views and the next day around 1 million.

“In an instant, my dream had come true. I had seen something that was good and I had the instinct that if I shared it, we could do some good. And then I think that was the same instinct that everyone had who saw it. We were all documentary filmmakers trying to spread a message to change the world.”

ALIVE INSIDE opens Thursday at Kenwood Theatre with special screening events with the filmmakers at Kenwood and Mariemont theatres through Sunday. Details at mariemonttheatre.com/events.asp.

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