“Just because a documentary doesn’t fit into the film festival niche does that make it less legitimate?” That was the question posed to me by The Connection: Mind Your Body director Shannon Harvey, when I suggested her film might not fit the festival mold. “In the brave new Internet world, we don’t necessarily need the golden blessing of a film festival director.”
She’s right. And I know I’m on thin ice with this rough handling of a good, important documentary that I started in a previous post. But I’m going to keep at it because I am using The Connection as my way in to discussing the way that the documentary world has failed to make a game-changing documentary about the subject of mind-body wellness. I agree with Dan Harris, an ABC News correspondent, and author of 10% Happier, who’s been saying that we are on the cusp of the next public health revolution, and meditation could become the craze that jogging became.
Maybe it’s too much to ask that a documentary be at the forefront of this change. Perhaps the subject is so broad. And maybe the subject draws too much new-agey sentiment which is a turn-off for the best and edgiest of filmmakers. There have, in fact, been a slew of documentaries that have chewed on different ends of the subject, from Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, Crazy, Sexy Cancer, Food Matters, Hungry for Change and Forks Over Knives to POV’s Food, Inc., Fed Up, The Beautiful Truth, and Meditation, Creativity, Peace.
It’s a genre unto itself, and clearly the doc world has clearly covered it. But we’re ripe for one film to really capture the zeitgeist.
“After 37 years of doing this work, our time has finally come,” says Dean Ornish, the doctor who has led this charge in preventative medicine, especially in coronary artery disease and prostate cancer. He’s gone from fringe to being mainstream. Heck, this is the guy who counsels Bill Clinton on his health.
“There’s a convergence of forces that make this the right idea at the right time. On the one hand, the limitations of high-tech drugs and surgery are becoming well documented. This is certainly true in the field of cardiology. Angioplasty and stents aren’t working nearly as well as first thought. The same is true for bypass surgery as well as treatments for prostate cancer,” Ornish says. “At the same, the power and effectiveness of low-tech and low-cost life-style interventions, mind-body interventions or whatever you want to call them, are becoming increasingly well documented. With them, we can reverse heart disease. We can reverse type 2 diabetes and prostate cancer.”
Ornish is one of the subjects interviewed by Harvey, along with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Herbert Benson, Alice Domar, Esther Sternberg, Andrew Weil and others.
“Awareness is the first step to healing,” Ornish says. And he might as well be speaking for the individual patient but also for us as a documentary-viewing audience. One of the first humps to get over is the mushy, feel-good stigma that follows the subject. Ornish has been dealing for years with a medical establishment that encourages tough, daunting, scary solutions like drugs and invasive surgery. The ideas that better living, a gentle approach and that the patient him or herself are the keys to better health are too easily dismissed as quackery.
“Yes, it is touchy-feely,” says Ornish, who can now cite numerous clinical studies that support his assertions. “And that’s what it makes it work.”
There’s an irony here that connect this movement to the documentary world. In my mind, many of these documentaries, and I include The Connection and the Oscar-nominated Food, Inc., have been great at delivering information and are well made. But their impact has been cool, not hot. They have failed to burn audiences with deeply emotional storytelling. It’s not that they need to be touchy-feely. But they need to grab our hearts and never let go. Instead, they truck primarily in information and good intentions.
There’s a place for all of that. These films serve a purpose. But it’s like that Maya Angelou quote that Ornish reminded me of — “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I thought a great case study for this idea could be found in An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore‘s Oscar-winning, $24-million-earning documentary that made a clarion call directing our attention to climate change.
But Dr. Ornish finds fault in that film’s approach as well. “Inconvenient Truth worked for a few months,” he says. “But it was too scary to think about. So people stopped thinking about it.”
“Love is more powerful than fear,” says Ornish, who suggests approaching the subject through the guise of war. Recently, he went to the Army War College, where he gave the matriculation lecture about the power of love. He kicked things off with a short intro he solicited from former Gen. Stanley McChrystal who echoed Ornish’s thesis that love is a more powerful motivator than fear in the ranks of soldiers.
See, Ornish has the idea of how to sell a tough idea to an audience, even an audience of top brass soldiers. That’s the kind of heart-grabbing delivery the doc world needs.
The Connection is now available on VOD and DVD. Find out more at theconnection.tv.