Digital healing

By Allan I. Ross

4th Annual Capital City Film Festival demonstrates mass media’s therapeutic power

When people talk about the effects of entertainment on society, it’s usually not in high regard. Movies and video games are blamed for desensitizing people to violence, while each new wave of pop music is summarily dismissed as mindless dreck. Decades before people were dissing the wup-wup-wup-WHOMP of dubstep, they were scandalized by anything with an accentuated back-beat. Today’s old guard is always yesterday’s vanguard, where controversy plus time equals quaint.

But can movies and pop music be beneficial? Can they, in fact, be used to heal?

On Thursday, these questions will be answered — or, at least, they’ll be addressed in a meaningful dialogue — at the opening night of the 2014 Capital City Film Festival. The physically, mentally and spiritually rejuvenating power of music and film will be illuminated in a pair of buzzy new documentaries. In “Girl,” a novice filmmaker sets out to make a movie about female DJs but inadvertently captures three dark years of her life after getting sucked into the club scene. It will play directly after “Alive Inside,” which won the Sundance Film Festival’s audience award (and left crowds blubbering) for its inspirational portrayal of music therapy working on catatonic dementia patients.

“I’ve never had a movie affect me the way (‘Alive Inside’) did,” said Dominic Cochran, co-founder of the Capital City Film Festival. “It was so good. As soon as I saw it, I knew I needed to bring it to Lansing. It’s life-changing.”

In its fourth year, the Capital City Film Festival continues to push the boundaries of what a film festival can be. Sure, there are more than 70 movies on the docket — including world premieres, experimental contest entries and an anime classic — but there will also be cutting edge technology demonstrations (featuring the new Oculus Rift virtual reality device), a retro video game station and roughly two dozen live music acts, including the incidental star of “Girl,” world famous DJ Sandra Collins.

“The music and technology aren’t just after thoughts — they’re consciously built in to make this an immersive, stimulating event,” Cochran said. “We debated changing the festival’s name (to reflect its change in scope), but decided to just clarify our mission statement instead.”

After Thursday’s red carpet gala at Troppo, “Alive Inside” and “Girl” will unspool two blocks over at the Lansing Center; the concerts, meanwhile, will be split up between the Loft downtown and Mac’s Bar in the city’s East Side Neighborhood. (See page 15 for the full schedule.) Rachael Parker, a Lansing electronic dance music artist who goes by the name DJ Rachael P, opens for Collins Thursday at the Loft, which she calls “a dream.” Parker is the one who suggested “Girl” to the festival’s section committee after hearing about its subject matter.

“I’ve gotten the ‘you´re pretty good for a girl’ comment a thousand times, which is infuriating,” Parker said. “But I was once told that a friend’s daughter saw a clip of me DJing and said, ‘I didn´t know girls could DJ.’ That one girl´s mind was opened to the idea that a girl can do something that’s typically done by males, and that thrills me. This film has the potential to do that on a much broader scale.”

Kandeyce Jorden, the director of “Girl,” will also be in Lansing Thursday to talk about her film. She said that her intent initially was along the lines of female empowerment, but while shooting, her focus … shifted.

“(‘Girl’) definitely became something different from what I imagined,” Jorden said by phone from her home in Venice Beach, Calif. “I never imagined being part of the film, but as it progressed, it became about my own awakening, fantasizing about this life of being a DJ and the complexity of being a woman and pursuing your art. It became about finding your identity.”

In the film, Jorden begins by interviewing several of EDM’s biggest-named women, including DJ Rap, DJ Irene and DJ Colette, but then she falls in with Collins after meeting her at an awards event. The two strike up a friendship, which takes a bizarre turn when Jorden’s personal life starts falling apart. She talks frankly in the film about her crumbling marriage and the guilt she has partying all night despite being a first-time mother.

“Anyone who’s ever had an addiction or an obsession will be able to get something out of this movie,” Jorden said. “But at the end of the day, I just needed to tell my story. I found it to be a very therapeutic experience.”

Therapy goes from being a tangential fluke to the driving force in “Alive Inside.” Dan Cohen is a social worker who invited filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett to tag along as he made his rounds one day. What started as a oneday affair, intones Rossato-Bennett in the film’s opening narration, became a three-year journey.

One by one, Cohen approaches patients in assisted living facilities and group homes who appear to be lost in states of advanced dementia, Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia. After consulting with their families, he finds out what kind of music these people used to listen to, and then puts headphones on them playing jazz, blues or early rock ‘n’ roll.

“I thought you were going to grow wings,” Cohen says to a middle-aged woman who leaps up and starts dancing along to a ‘50s rock band despite being unable to name a spoon moments earlier. “I was trying,” she replies, choking back tears of joy. Similar examples are shown with a catatonic woman who begins dancing and mouthing words while lying in bed and a gruff WWII vet who couldn’t even pick himself out in a picture, but who starts dancing and singing when he begins to hear songs from his youth.

Despite his seeming success, however, Cohen runs into roadblocks in the film when he tries to get music therapy added to the treatment plans at assisted living centers.

“The science hasn’t caught up to anecdotal evidence,” said Denise Travis, who works at Eastern Michigan University’s Autism Collaborative Center. “But we can show now that listening to preferred music releases dopamine into the neural pathways.” (That’s a good thing.) “Rhythmic temporal stimulus helps regulate to make those timed responses to make those neurons connect. Neurons that fire together wire together.”

She hasn’t seen the movie, but she told similar stories about Alzheimer’s patients, including a former child star from Broadway who ended up in a Lansing-area assisted living facility with Alzheimer’s. She wasn’t surprised at the emotional response the film has been getting.

“Music is a distinctly human invention,” Travis said. “When we’re watching someone else’s experiences with music, we can relate to that humanness. You know how profound music can hit you, and when we see that happen to someone else, it’s very, very powerful. Music can change your life.”

And so, apparently, can a movie.

4th Annual Capital City Film Festival

Thursday, April 10-Sunday, April 13 Various Lansing venues (for full schedule, see pullout on page 15)