After a screening of her previous film “The Departure,” someone mentioned to Lana Wilson that they sensed a recurring theme in her work when the words of her main subject Ittetsu Nemoto, a suicide prevention counselor in Japan — “I don’t want to live a long life just for the sake of it. A short but high-impact life can be meaningful too” — sounded incredibly similar to an archival interview that opened “After Tiller,” her feature debut co-directed with Martha Shane, with Doctor George Tiller, one of the last late-term abortion providers in America before he was brutally assassinated in 2009.
“I guess that’s the universe telling me my own purpose in a way,” Wilson said recently of why she’s continually fascinated by caregivers who take on the burden of their patients in trying to relieve them of their pain. “It’s not like I’m only going to make films about this theme, but I’m definitely drawn to these emotionally intense situations where it’s a doctor-patient relationship and to be in the room and film those extreme circumstances because I think we learn about who we are as human beings when we’re in these emotionally intense and sometimes very stressful, but also very beautiful and moving situations.”
Wilson once again shows great sensitivity in bringing such harrowing moments to the screen in “A Cure for Fear,” a riveting four-part short-form series that’s now streaming on Topic. Traveling to Amsterdam, the documentarian profiles Dr. Merel Kindt, a neuroscientist who has made an extraordinary breakthrough in discovering a method to reduce if not completely eradicate someone’s fears by triggering them to open up their mind and using anti-anxiety medication propranolol to essentially rewire how they think about what they are scared of the most. In an otherwise calm clinic, Wilson quietly observes Kindt scaring the bejeezus out of her patients simply by introducing a spider or a cat to those who are deathly afraid of them, then giving them a pill that will make the lifelong condition be all but erased 24 hours later.
While this turnaround needs to be seen to be believed — and even then may take some convincing, “A Cure For Fear” stays with you even when the shock wears off due to Wilson’s intricate yet rigorous consideration of what such a scientific revelation actually means, witnessing the immediate relief of patients who don’t quite know how to feel once they’ve been freed of their fear, almost as if they were physically paralyzed and told to walk, and ruminating on how a healthy amount of fear is often keep us safe. Once again, Wilson also introduces audiences to a captivating and wonderfully conscientious subject in Dr. Kindt, whose own personal dealings with trauma inform her work.
As “A Cure for Fear” is lighting up computer screens everywhere as well as some big screens too – it’ll be screening theatrically this weekend as part of the New Hampshire Film Festival, Wilson spoke about how she found herself in the Netherlands to make her first episodic series, the cinematic quality of Dr. Kindt’s lab work and why people are willing to open themselves up to filming their most vulnerable moments.
How did you come across the work of Dr. Kindt?
I read a couple articles about Dr. Kindt’s work a year or two ago because she published these first studies in scientific journals that demonstrated the complete erasure of the fear response with human beings that are afraid of spiders and the data was so stunning. It was almost 100 precent successful and people were just like, “Wow, is this real?” But the data and the science backed it up and I learned that the treatment was a situation where she would bring a patient into a room where they had to confront their fear and they’d come back into the same room 24 hours later and be transformed.
That immediately sounded so cinematic to me and I wanted instantly to be in the room to see what it was like, both to see how people performed fear in different ways – because as you see in the series, people get terrified in very different ways; sometimes you have a little bit of anger, sometimes there’s sadness – but I also loved the idea of getting to know Dr. Kindt herself because that process of opening a door into this unknown world and being creative and trying to terrify someone as much as possible reminded me of what a director does, specifically a horror film director. It was so cool that she’s staging these intense emotional experiences for people to walk into and I was as curious about her and her process as I was about the patients.
You always show the intersection between the personal and professional lives of your subjects – did Dr. Kindt know that this would have that scope from the start or did that grow over time?
It grew a little bit over time. When I first met her, she told me that when she was younger, her mother was in a severe car accident and developed PTSD. So I knew from the beginning that this was very personal for her, and that she was willing to go into those waters with me. She wanted to study fear because it’s at the root of PTSD and addiction and depression and other profound challenges we face. And [Dr. Kindt] could choose anything to research as a scientist and she’s a brilliant neuroscientist, but she also was practicing for 15 years as a clinical psychologist, so she does these very serious academic research studies that are published in top tier neuroscience journals and she’s spent 15 years working with people and is really motivated by having the chance to help people and change their lives for the better because she’s seen the impact that this kind of work can have in people’s lives.
Your other two films also involved the patients seeking out help, but since this appeared to be a bit more formal medical study, did it change how you went about things?
I loved the setting of the lab because it felt kind of art gallery like to me – the white rooms and the yellow and blue accent of the space that most of the treatments are filmed in. The patient is opening this door and they don’t know what’s in the white box, and one of my favorite things to film was this woman [in the third episode] who had this fear of butterflies because then there was literally the little white box on the table [with the butterflies inside, waiting to be opened] within this white box room and it was like a Pandora’s Box of terror. I thought it was such a great metaphor.
It also wasn’t how I expected science would be. [Dr. Kindt] is quite fearless as a scientist to take on individual patients one at a time and she’ll see people outside of the context of a specific scientific study because it’s such a great learning experience for her as a scientist and a practitioner to engage with the whole person and their whole personal history, so I’m hoping it’ll be interesting for people, even young people, to see that science isn’t just being locked up with books or in a lab. It can also be engaging with one other human being that looks, at least from my perspective, so deeply rewarding for Dr. Kindt to get to have that experience within the scientific context.
One thing that also was really different with Dr. Kindt from abortion doctors or a suicide prevention counselors is that because she’s a scientist, even a failure is really useful for her. It isn’t all about just curing people. There need to be failures in order for her to refine her research and know what to do next, so it was a little bit of a relief in a way to know that if a treatment didn’t work, it wasn’t the end of the world. It was useful knowledge that would help make the treatment better for the next time because Dr. Kindt would learn something from it.
You’re always so careful with the camera set-ups in those sensitive situations. What was it like in those rooms?
For the treatment sessions, we had one camera on a tripod inside the room and then a mobile camera and I would always talk to the patients in advance of when we shot anything, [either] on Skype or on the phone from the U.S., just about what the film was about and what the filming process would be like. Most people that participated wanted to do so for similar reasons as “After Tiller” or “The Departure,” which is that if you have a severe and debilitating phobia, it affects you every day all the time and most people don’t know what that’s like. People might [think], “No one likes spiders,” but this is really far beyond that, as you see in the first episode. This is something that truly is debilitating and if you have a severe phobia and conventional treatments aren’t working, you can feel humiliated, so it’s a really heavy burden to carry and it can feel very isolating.
So a lot of the people who agreed to participate did so hoping that other people with severe phobias would see this and feel less alone and feel that potential for change. For example, the veteran with PTSD [in the second episode] tried every kind of treatment. Nothing had been very helpful and partly, I think, he wanted to do this because it would shine a light on what it’s like to live with PTSD, and showing one person having an experience where they feel very differently within 24 hours helps people [think] even though our emotions can imprison us sometimes and be out of our control, they’re not the same as us. It isn’t our identity. There is a way forward and I thought it could be really powerful, especially other people with PTSD that change is possible.
Of course, you’re able to give that patient his own chapter – was it interesting to play with the structure for emphasis since it’s episodic?
Yeah, when I read about Dr. Kindt’s work and I met her, I thought she was an incredible character and this could be really interesting to as a longish short, like a 25-30 minute film, about the idea of curing fear or just a debilitating phobia [since it] brings so many murky ethical and moral questions about what the implications of that means. Then Topic approached me and said, “Do you have any ideas for episodic series?” And I thought maybe this project would be great as an episodic series because each episode could focus on a different type of fear or a different theme.
And it was really fun for me as a filmmaker to play with a short form series [because] you want a consistency across all four episodes, but you can also make each episode a little bit different from each other. They can each have their own flavor or mood, like the first [episode] is a bit suspenseful and spooky, [like] is this [therapy] going to work? And then the second [episode] is more emotionally direct with the PTSD, and then the third episode, about failure, is a little more quirky and strange, and the fourth about the scientist [centrally] is more philosophical and personal [where] we have a chance to get to know Dr. Kindt the most as a person and she becomes really endearing. So it was really freeing to give each episode its own mood and slightly different approach to it while also trying to maintain a general consistency over the course of a series.
What’s it been like to get to the finish line with this?
It was pretty quick and a much faster way of working for me. The main shoot was in late May and early June and editing over the summer and part of the reason I wanted to do it, [was wondering] what could I make in a few months as opposed to a few years. I finished it in September and we premiered it at Camden, we had a screening at Museum of the Moving Image [shortly after] and we launched it the next day [on Topic], so it’s been of a frenzy. But I hadn’t realized until the premiere how it was really fun to watch with an audience. I was hoping people would give themselves permission to laugh, and that can be difficult to do in these sorts of situations because you can feel like you’re laughing at someone, but the people who have this severe phobia as patients know their behavior can look ridiculous, so I think when they look back at themselves, they’re [can think], “That’s crazy that I did that.” [laughs] They can see that it’s funny, so it was great to watch as a group because I did feel the audience laughing [at times] and gasping a lot and it just felt like this emotional rollercoaster watching it. Dr. Kindt was at the first screening and as soon as the Q & A started, fifty hands went into the air. It was really electric, so in a weird way, this is definitely the most fun film I’ve ever made, which was a low bar. [laughs] But that’s why it was so fun to watch with an audience. I [thought], “Oh, [there’s] all these different emotions people can have.” It was a great experience.