Saturday, February 18, 2017

Q&A: Director Michael Galinsky talks protest films and pain for Big Sky Documentary Film Fest

Posted By on Sat, Feb 18, 2017 at 11:55 AM

click to enlarge Filmmaker Michael Galinsky
  • Filmmaker Michael Galinsky

I wrote about Michael Galinsky last February when his photography exhibit, The Meadow, went up at Missoula's now-defunct Brink Gallery. The Chapel Hill, N.C.-based filmmaker was in the middle of making a film called All the Rage with co-directors Suki Hawley (his wife) and David Beilinson. The Meadow exhibit was mostly a street photography-style take on nature—full of gritty black-and-white shots of bees and flowers—but it was also a window into the story behind All the Rage. All the Rage is about Dr. Sarno, a professor of rehabilitation medicine at the New York University School of Medicine who believes that chronic pain is the result of stress and unattended emotional strain that manifests as muscle pain. Galinsky became one of his patients, and the meadow where he took The Meadow's pictures was a place he frequented while trying to heal his back pain.

All the Rage took 10 years to make, and the odd and compelling film gets its Northwest premiere at this week's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. With notable appearances from Larry David and Howard Stern, it goes far beyond a basic medical story, employing personal anecdotes from Galinsky's own struggles and upbringing and weaving in a larger story about the societal costs—both emotional and financial—of a public in pain.
Galinsky and his partners, who run a film studio called Rumur, are also working on a new documentary about protests, which uses footage they've shot over the years of the Black Panthers, the Occupy movement and Trump. I spoke with Galinsky about protest documentaries and chronic pain in advance of his Big Sky screening.

How did
All The Rage come about?
Michael Galinsky: We started All the Rage in 2004. At that point, we saw it as a follow-up to our film Horns and Halos, which played at—and won—the first Big Sky Doc Fest. We imagined a film in which we followed our character, Dr. Sarno, as he fought to get his message out. However, he didn't really fight in a way that we could film, and his message was so thoroughly rejected by most people that it was incredibly hard to figure out how to fund it, or shoot it. It kind of slipped into a hiatus as we worked on other films, like Battle for Brooklyn. When we tried to put out Battle for Brooklyn, I got so stressed out that my back pain came roaring back and I found myself stuck on the floor in debilitating pain. That's when I called up Dr. Sarno and said, "We have to restart this film."
He agreed, and when we got back to work we found that the [national] problem of chronic pain was wildly worse than even a few years prior. We [also] found that people were increasingly open to and aware of the idea that the pain was connected to stress.

The film focuses on Dr. Sarno but it hints at larger ideas about society's ills. Did you know those pieces would be in there, or were there some surprises?
MG: Early on in our process of re-starting we came across an article by Jonah Lehrer called "Why Science is Failing Us." In it, he articulated many things we had been thinking but hadn't been able to explain—about how the medical system was willfully ignoring what Dr. Sarno had to say. Essentially, Dr. Sarno has been saying for over 40 years that the structural explanations for back pain—herniated disc and spinal stenosis—don't make sense, and that the treatment methods he had been taught, that are still in use, don't work. For the past 15 years, study after study has bolstered his argument, and every time they come out they are ignored, and practice doesn't really change. Even as we made the film about Dr. Sarno, we knew that these larger cultural issues that related to both systems and individuals would have to be a big part of the story.

How did you end up talking with Larry David and Howard Stern?
MG: It took many, many years to get to Howard Stern. It was kind of essential that he be in the film because the vast majority of people know about Dr. Sarno because of Howard Stern. His agent, Don Buchwald, told us he wouldn't do it, but agreed to talk with us himself because, like Howard, he owes a lot to Dr. Sarno. Suki and David did that shoot, and after it was over they were talking about what we needed to do to make the film work. Don was like, "All right, I'll ask him." The next day we got a call saying we'd get five minutes the following week. He gave us 12 and it was all great.
Larry David hadn't talked about his experience with Dr. Sarno before, and we didn't know he was a patient until we were working on a job with a 21-year-old guy who had back pain. We told him about [Sarno's] book and he said, "Larry David called that guy for me last week when we were shooting with him..." I guess [Larry David] thought that Dr. Sarno had sent us his way because he quickly agreed to let us come by.

What kind of reactions has All the Rage gotten from viewers ?
MG: We did about 50 small group screenings as we worked to shape the film. We had all kinds of people there, and we found that we had to do some surprising things to make it work. People think they want information. They want to know everything that Dr. Sarno thinks, and how he came to think it. However, when you put that info in a film it leads to more questions and more skepticism. We learned the hard way because we kept putting in more info but that only made people more skeptical, and it wasn't interesting. We started over and we found ways of weaving in ideas over time.
While we have a lot of studies that basically "prove" Dr. Sarno is on the right path, people who are resistant to those ideas aren't going to buy it anyway ... On the flip side, people who are open to the ideas, even a little bit, have been very passionate in their support.

How does it work to have all three directors from RUMUR working on projects like this?
MG: Film is the most collaborative art form. Suki, David and I all bring different sets of skills and ideas to our practice. David often has a vision for the animations and production elements that totally elevate the film. I tend to come at things with more passion than focus, and Suki is able to make sense of the energy and channel it into a film.

When did you start making the protest shorts?

MG: I never set out with the intent of documenting protests. It just kind of happened. The first shoot I ever did was the day after I graduated from high school. The Klan marched in Chapel Hill and there were about 50 protesters to every Klan member. I took my camera up there and shot a couple rolls of film. Almost 30 years later I moved from Brooklyn back into the house I grew up in and I found those negatives. I scanned a few with my iPhone and put them online and a friend from high school pointed me in the direction of sound that had been recorded that day by some guys at the college radio station. Suki married the sound with the images and it really made them come alive.

You take an observational approach to these films. Why is that important to you?
MG: Observational work can seem a bit boring in the present, but later it just has so much more power because it makes the viewer feel like they are in the situation rather than being told about it.
A couple of years after that Klan shoot I started my first real photo project, documenting malls all across America. It started out as a class project for a color photo class in college. My teacher really loved it and encouraged me to continue. I was taking pretty mundane pictures of people hanging out in malls. At the time when I showed them to people they were like, "Um, yeah that's people in a mall." Twenty five years later, when I found the slides and scanned them they exploded on the internet ... The reason I even mention that project is that these images were taking off on the internet right around the time that Occupy was happening. That's when I really started to document more protests, and from my experience with the mall images I had really come to see how powerful simple observation can be years after the fact.

Between the Occupy movement and the Trump election, how has your idea for this feature developed?
MG: I got to Seattle the day after [the Occupy protests] started there. I had gone out to show Battle for Brooklyn—our 2011 feature doc—so I went out and shot for a few hours and cut something that I projected before I showed my feature that night. There was something very powerful about presenting the work to that community while it was still unfolding.
A couple of years after Occupy, Suki and I moved to North Carolina, where the Moral Monday movement was in full swing. I think the second week we were there, we went out and made a short about that. When the election came around, we started to document some of the candidate events. Bernie's message was so connected to Occupy that we made a short about that which connected directly to our previous Occupy shorts. When Trump came to Greensboro, we made an homage to Jeff Krulik's Heavy Metal Parking Lot that we called Trump Parking Lot.
After the election, the North Carolina General Assembly started to pull some crazy shenanigans. They called themselves into session in the last few weeks before the newly elected governor was sworn in in order to pass laws limiting the power of the incoming governor. I was kind of still in shock from the election, but Suki made me come out that first day. Not a lot happened, but it was clear something was up, so the next day Suki stayed home to edit and I went to shoot. There were four days of intense protest around that and we shot a great deal. We also shot at the DNC in August, and then the inauguration, just trying to capture what both sides had to say. We thought we were done, but the Black Panthers marched the next week. Now I think we are done. Suki is doing a lot of editing of the various shorts in order to have it all make sense.

What is film's role in politics and what ideas have you come up with since the election?
MG: Well, I think there are different things that film can do. We were inspired to go down to Occupy after seeing the short films that gave a sense of what was going on. However, those films were very much aligned with the movement. While we appreciated those films and the idea of making activist work, we also thought it was important to document the situation with a kind of longer-term, historical perspective. We believe that this kind of work has much more value later.

All the Rage screens at the Hell Gate Elks Lodge Sat., Feb. 18, at 8:15 PM.

Occupy Seattle from rumur on Vimeo.

Trump Parking Lot from rumur on Vimeo.

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