As a newcomer to Sundance this year, all I had to prepare myself were legends, rumors and the occasional wise words of those who had gone before. Going in, I prepared myself for exhaustion, altitude sickness and a possible fight between Harvey Weinstein and enter the name of any other powerful person in “the industry.” I also, somehow came up with the idea that since this is Sundance, the best of the best in indie films, every film I saw would receive a standing ovation.
I made it through my week without a single of my expectations turning to reality….almost. I wasn’t exhausted, I stayed hydrated, and as far as I know there was no Weinstein brawl. Lastly, I had not seen a single film receive a standing ovation until my very last day.
What happened after the screening of the documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory was more than a standing ovation—it was a near-revival. People “came forward” with one, two or all of the following three, and, always emphatic, responses: “Thank you!! Me too!! I can help!!” Alive Inside follows the work of social worker Dan Cohen in his volunteer work with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. What director Michael Rossato-Bennett intended to document for one day, he did for three years, following Cohen around as he helped to bring to life those who seemed half-dead—all with a simple iPod.
Cohen would find out through family, friends and relics of the person’s life what kind of music they would have listened to in their youth, put the songs on the iPod, gently place headphones on the ears of these nearly comatose individuals and almost instantly they would sit up if they had been slumped over, stand up if they had been sitting, dance if they had been still. Vacant eyes would instantly become bright, knowing, and often tear-filled as the silence was filled with the sound of voice meeting memory in joyful song. Often when the music ended memories came spilling out, but only after the two words that most certainly are uttered by those who are truly alive: “Thank you.” The music showed that these patients, despite appearances, were “alive inside.”
When the films ended, it was as if we in the audience realized we were alive as well. We stood, we danced, we cheered, most, if not all of us, were crying. Person after person came forward to share their story (“me too”) offer their assistance by way of a connection, a donation, (“I can help) and the two words that point to our own attentiveness to and engagement with life and with the power of story: “thank you.”
While the film itself and the stories it tells are profound, it was the audience response that has been sitting with me since my return. This film actually won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary Competition because I think it speaks to our collective need to remember—to remember who we are and who the people we love are regardless of what has made us all forget. It also speaks to our need to respond in some way to the power of story.
There has been a pendulum swing of sorts in Christianity that has encouraged us to “tell our stories.” While that has come from a good place and is important, the response to this film reminded me of the power of art as invitation to receive. Truly receiving something ultimately requires a response.
Alive Inside invited the audience to receive the film—to think about the ways we all can say “me too”—whether we have people in our lives who struggle with Alzheimer’s, or in some way we are dead to ourselves and our own memories. The film invited us to receive the stories of others and ultimately to respond and help in whatever way our resources allowed. Looking around the room, I couldn’t help but say “thank you” to the filmmakers and to Dan Cohen for telling the beautiful stories, and my fellow viewers for teaching me how to truly receive.