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I had the pleasure of speaking with Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo about her latest film FREE THE MIND (2012), which is screening tonight (10/10) at The Coolidge Corner Theater. Some of her previous work includes her breakout documentary with Sami Saif, FAMILY (2001), and GAMBLER (2006), which followed Nicolas Winding Refn as he risked everything to make Pusher 2. Her new film, FREE THE MIND, focuses on professor Richard Davidson’s use of meditation and other breathing exercises to treat mental health issues.

MM: How did you decide to focus on this subject?

PA: It started because I suffer from pretty severe panic attacks. I was trying to solve my problems through going to the doctor, but the doctor only offered me medication, and when you suffer from panic attacks, that’s really not what you want because you already feel like you are losing control, so just the thought of loosing control even more is just sort of making the panic attacks stronger.  I was looking around to figure out how to work with this because it was nothing like I had experienced before. I felt like it wasn’t something that I could talk my way out of. Then someone told me that maybe it would be a good idea to try mindfulness mediation. So I tried this class and an eight week workshop and I was really surprised how I changed through this process and how the people around me in the workshop changed. I got curious to know if this was just self-suggestion. If we were just telling ourselves that we wanted it to work because everybody was pretty desperate in this group. I was just really curious to know if something physical had changed in my brain, or if it was something that I wanted to happen. I started to look around for researchers who were working in this field and were ready to really question these methods — I wanted to look into this in a more core scientific way. And then I found Richard Davidson because he seemed to have a playful approach to the whole field. He wanted to challenge the whole theory of why or how meditation worked.

MM: How did you choose to follow the veteran and the child?

PA: It seems to me that when you do documentary film, a lot of times the people tend to approach you themselves or its like I can film a lot of different people – at some point the main characters will present themselves to the film in some way. I was filming the whole group of veterans but it seemed to me that Steve and Rich were a nice contrast to each other. They were also the ones who were more willing to be filmed in more different situations. I started filming the first day of the workshops, because when you do interventions like that at a university you have to protect the people who participate. They shouldn’t feel like they had to be in the film in order to take the workshop and vice versa, so I was not allowed to meet them before they came on the first day. I actually didn’t know if I had a film before that day. Because they could have all just said we don’t want to be filmed and I couldn’t do anything about that.


Photo: Miriam Dalsgaard

MM: Was there a certain point during filming where you felt like you really had something?

PA: I was surprised as a Dane who has all these prejudices towards American soldiers. You think that they are hillbillies that have sort of gone crazy, so I was surprised already that people had signed up for these experiments. For me, it was just surprising to see soldiers sit down and meditate and get really open to this whole different world. They had Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who is the inventor of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, which is the program that they were following. They were listening to medatations by him, and they were just all very open to it. To begin with, I just really liked the contrast of them coming from a war-zone and now just trying to sit down and open up, and just being with themselves. And I was just really impressed in how they approached it, because it takes a lot of guts to sit down and just be with yourself and your inner demons through these exercises.

MM: How wide-spread is this program?

PA: The thing that the soldiers are going through, the Sudarshan Kriya yoga, is pretty widely spread. I think that there are around 140 countries around the world where it’s being practiced through The Art of Living. So that’s pretty wide spread, and what the children are doing is more custom-made mindfulness training for children. That’s what they are doing at the Waisman Center (at the University of Wisconsin-Madison)

MM: We have a pretty rough VA system here in America.

PA: Yeah, but you know, I think it’s just impressive that the veterans are open to these kinds of methods.

MM: Yeah, absolutely.

PA: In Denmark, it’s more difficult, they are not as open as the U.S Veterans.

MM: Why do you think that is?

PA: I’m not too sure, I think that the whole system is working a little bit slower. Sometimes in the U.S it seems that new tendencies can work their way through to a wide audience quite quickly. In Denmark, it’s a slower system. It takes a longer time for everything in Denmark — it takes a long time because we are used to things being okay. We are not used to being a nation in war. So nobody really knows what kind of problems follow that.

MM: You are listed as the cinematographer on most of your projects. How important is it for you to be behind the lens or is it more to keep a small crew while filming?

PA: On every film I say to myself ‘now I really want a photographer,’ but I always end up shooting myself because, for instance, with the veterans they wouldn’t have let me in if there was more than just me. They really needed to know who was behind this, who is looking at me, who is responsible, who can I go to if I don’t like what is in the film. I had a strong feeling that it would never have worked if there were more people in the room. Also, I think that if you are doing something with people who are really vulnerable, it’s good for them to know that there is only one person who is witnessing this opening up process. So a lot of times it’s just a lot easier for me to work this way because I can work purely intuitively. I can turn the camera away if I feel like this person is not ready to be filmed and this is some message that I get not through verbal communication – that is something that you can feel when you are looking through the lens. And it’s not as easy to feel that if you are standing next to the person looking through the lens. So I feel that the connection between the participants and me becomes very strong when it’s me watching them through the lens.

MM: It looks like Johann Johannsson did the music for this, how did he get involved?

PA: I was working with another composer who did some of the score but then when we were in the mix I realized that I needed the score to be more like a riddle. I wanted the score to emphasize that there is a riddle that we need to solve, that the brain is a mystery. So I decided to change the score into something that would usually have been made for some kind of spy film. It was really great to work with Johann because when he works with synth music — he’s really precise so you can get very close to the final expression in the computer and then we went to Budapest and recorded the whole thing with a symphony orchestra.

MM: Do you have any upcoming projects that we should know about?

PA: The next one that I’m actually working with Johann on is about a biodynamic farmer. So it’s a little bit away from this, but at the same time it’s sort of the same vibe. It’s a film about how to look at yourself as a tiny part of the universe and not so much as the main character in the universe (laughs) trying to understand how we are part of a huge system and work in respect with each other and nature. But he is an old Danish farmer, he’s a top notch farmer, he sells meat and vegetables to the some of the best restaurants here in Denmark. At the same time his farm is falling apart because he is losing all of his licenses. Because he doesn’t live up to the standards that you need to live up to in the EU.

MM: Is there anything else you wanted to add before I let you go?

PA: I just think that it’s important to say that even though in the film you see all of these people who get better, what was actually my main challenge in this film is that it almost seems like a miracle cure. I was really nervous about this because everyone got better and that’s not a filmic drama and I’m losing my integrity — we have to have someone who isn’t benefiting to really investigate it. It’s really strange. I’ve never been in a situation like this where things seem to be working out too well, so that was a strange dilemma. I talked a lot to my editor; there is a story line about a little boy who doesn’t want to get into an elevator because he is claustrophobic, ‘should we maybe cut out that he actually got into the elevator because it seems to be a little bit too good to be true?’ But I decided to just put everything in there. I think that people can get the impression that the director is trying to sell a miracle cure, but that was actually just what happened (laughs). But it was kind of a strange dilemma to sit in: should we keep away some of this information because it’s a little bit too positive in a way?

7PM//Coolidge Corner Theatre//$ome Cost

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