Eric Ellena

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Bertman, Sandra

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Video


This groundbreaking international film documents the positive impact of art and other creative activities on people with Alzheimer's disease. The film's intention is to change the way we look at the disease.  It does just that.  Brilliantly.

Narrated by the actress Olivia de Havilland, the film opens with a 96 year old woman reading classical music as she's playing at the piano. Her music becomes gentle background sound track for the first vignette, a group of people intently viewing and commenting on Seurat's canvas, "Sunday in the Park."  From their intense concentration and voiced observations, one would never believe this was a group of nursing facility residents on an outing to the Chicago Art Museum.

Throughout the film--at the circus, visiting museums, or in painting workshops conducted at day care centers, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in Europe and the US-- the hopeless, fatalistic, nobody's there stereotypes of Alzheimer's sufferers is unequivocally denied.  We continually witness people with serious memory problems being brought back into active communication and a rich quality of life.  This is more than busywork arts and crafts: trained professionals knowledgeable about both art and Alzheimer's are providing essential treatment "just as effective if not more so than the drugs."  The benefits of the non-pharmacological along with the pharmacological not only extend life, but create a life worthwhile, where people find meaning and connection.
In direct interview, voice-overs and interacting with "patients" and their family members, eminent experts from multiple medical fields - neurology, gerontology, psychiatry- punctuate the film reviewing the latest technologies and concurring that the essence of the person lives on. The latest brain research provides evidence that the parts of the brain related to emotions and creativity are largely spared by the disease and that our technologies for assessing dementia --dealing with sequencing things, dates in order, and what one did this morning--rely on short term memory which is totally irrelevant when enjoying a masterpiece or listening to a symphony.  The documentary also includes comments from art therapists, occupational therapists, directors of specialized care facilities, but the film is anything but talking heads.  The cutaways and extensive footage of the care giving staff and specialists interacting emotionally and physically, visibly bonding with the residents and family members is sincere, loving and inspiring professionalism.

The inspiration for the film and project is filmmaker Berna Huebner's mother, Hilda Gorenstein, once an accomplished painter known as Hilgos.  In one of Huebner's visits to the nursing home, she asks "Mom, would you like to paint again?"  Quite unexpected came the reply, "Yes, I remember better when I paint."  Learning this, the staff psychiatrist who had been prescribing small doses of a tranquilizer for her apathy, anxiety and agitation suggested Huebner enlist art students from the Chicago Museum school to help her mother to begin painting again.  We are not spared the slow and sometimes discouraging process as Mrs. Gorenstein comes alive regaining mobility and communication skills and interacting--bonding-- with the art students.  The film is replete with her colorful paintings created in the next few years until her death at age 93.

"The creative arts are a doorway.  Once that doorway is opened ... things are tapped ... that are genuine and active and alive that don't get tapped in our normal day social interactions when we sit at a table and make conversations over a meal or we read a newspaper article and then talk about the headlines of the day.... The creative arts bypass the [cognitive] limitations and simply go to the strengths. People still have imagination in tact all the way to the end of their disease."

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