The Treatment Sounded So Cinematic: Lana Wilson Interviewed by Penny Lane

The two filmmakers probe the ethics and surprise of documentary.

Lana Wilson Director Headshot C

Lana Wilson. Photo by David Osit.

I met Lana Wilson when she was still working on her first feature film, a fiercely intelligent and sensitive documentary about third-trimester abortion providers, After Tiller.  As evidenced by our rapid back-and-forth-interrupting style, we became fast friends. I am constantly inspired by her brilliant work and indomitable spirit—I had the great privilege of a front-row seat during the making of The Departure, her second feature, which circled the work of a Buddhist priest and confronted the topic of suicide. We found an afternoon to catch up and discuss her latest work, the series A Cure for Fear, which brought her into the world of phobias and psychiatry. 

—Penny Lane

Penny LaneNow that you’ve eaten a bite of muffin, what drew you to Dr. Kindt and her work? (laughter

Lana WilsonWell, she released a study a few years ago about a group of arachnophobes undergoing her treatment, and the results were really stunning—a nearly one hundred-percent success rate of complete erasure of the fear response in twenty-four hours. So it got a lot of attention, both because people were asking, “Can this data be real? Can you really completely erase the fear response in that amount of time?” And also because of all the fascinating potential implications of such a treatment. So I read these articles and immediately wanted to be in the room, to witness these experiments for myself. I wanted to see what the patients were like, before and after—if they were transformed, and if that was something you could “see” or not. And I was really curious about the ethical ramifications, too.

PLYou were just reading the newspaper and—

LWYes, which is very dangerous for me. (laughter) I’m always afraid of reading articles now, because I’ll read something and immediately want to open up credit cards and go meet subjects and just start making a film.

PLAnd with this material, what made you think that would be a good film, specifically?

LWWell, two things: one, the treatment sounded so cinematic—this transformation of people in twenty-four hours. I wondered what that looked like, because I thought maybe it would look fake, like people were performing … and I also wondered if people were performing. Faking it a little bit, to please the scientist—

PLRight, because how would you know if I were still afraid of spiders?

LWYeah, exactly. I wanted to know about the performative elements. I wanted to know what that intense fear looked like. I also was drawn to the gray areas where it’s not as simple as, “This does or doesn’t work.” More like—what does it mean if this works? What do our emotions consist of? When should we try to change them versus letting them be what they are?

A Cure For Fear Still

Still from A Cure for Fear, 2018.

PLSo what did you pitch her and why did she agree? 

LWI said, “I read about your treatment and it sounds extraordinary. And the implications could be really profound, especially here with PTSD in the U.S. There are so many conversations happening right now about survivors of rape and sexual assault and military veterans living with PTSD … Your work sounds extremely relevant to all of that. And it sounds very cinematic and like something that would be amazing to film, and I have some experience filming people in really sensitive situations, so I understand how hard this would be, but I’d love to meet you and talk about it more.”   

PLYou do have a lot of experience filming in sensitive situations! (laughter) I would never do that. It would take me forever to think through how to navigate a situation where you’re responsible not only to your primary subject, the doctor, in terms of keeping her happy and comfortable and negotiating her needs and goals for the film as well as your own, but you’re also dealing with this even more exploitable population of sufferers. And all three of the films that you’ve made have different iterations of that. And so when you’re on set … is it … is it just the worst?

LWMy best skill might be getting people to trust me to be in these kinds of situations. Which comes from thinking about what’s in it for them—why would they want to do this? What are the concerns they could have that I can assuage? And what I’ve found is that often people want to be in a film to help other people who are in the same situation as they are. People living with debilitating phobias often feel very isolated—like no one else understands them. The same is true for many people with PTSD. Life is much harder if you can’t hear the echoes of your own experience in other people—which is why we all watch movies, read books, and turn to art in the first place. We’re all hoping to feel like we’re less alone in the world.

I also made it clear that the film would be focused on Dr. Kindt and her work and that there would be several patients in it. So it’s not about one individual patient—it’s not a judgment of them in any way.

PLI feel like this is a very common and irritating misunderstanding that people have about documentary filmmakers: they assume the filmmaker is exploiting everyone and subjecthood is being extracted. 

LWRight, that we’re only ever taking something from the people we’re filming with— 

PLRight, and what people misunderstand is that in many cases the opportunity to tell your story can be intensely therapeutic and meaningful. And people actually want to be heard and seen, and most people don’t feel heard or seen. 

LWIt’s a critique that also really diminishes the agency of the subjects who are deciding to participate. And not only that, I think these decisions which often are ascribed solely to the director—for example, when it’s okay to stage and set up and when it’s not … anything we do operating on the spectrum between documentary and fiction—are ultimately not ones that the director is making alone. You’re making it with the people who are in the film, and they’re making decisions for themselves. I think assuming otherwise really infantilizes the subjects.

PLThe first decision of which is that they can just say, “No.” Were there patients who said no?

LWNot in this case. As you said, for a lot of these subjects, there’s something therapeutic in the experience. With The Departure I totally felt that, because I’d get to know people over years, and they’d … they’d give me gifts, a few of the subjects in the film gave me extraordinarily thoughtful gifts … one woman did a dance performance for me, to thank me for filming with her. With A Cure for Fear, there was one patient we filmed with who told me afterwards, “I felt so supported and held by Emily [Topper],” the cinematographer on the shoot. 

Can I tell you a side anecdote? One day I had to leave early to teach, so I hired a sound mixer to replace me, and when I got the footage back, it turned out that he had never pressed record. I called him and was like, “What happened?” And he was like, “Everyone was screaming. It was really stressful!” And I was like, “Yes, that’s what this work is.” But it kind of reminded me that this is—

PLIt was a professional sound mixer?

LWWell, “professional” for my micro-budget. Anyway, it reminded me how stressful these shoots can be—

PLAs your friend, I can say you often come home from these shoots totally broken.

LWYeah, it’s not easy. But I love being in these emotionally intense situations. You forget yourself and your own problems in a way that’s really liberating. Sometimes when you’re in such an extreme situation you kind of forget that you exist at all, which is a really rare and freeing feeling to have. Self-forgetfulness—being completely immersed in the moment. I also love watching these intense doctor/patient interactions—someone trying to help someone else. How complicated it is to help someone else. And how far you can go. When you can push. And when you have to let go. I’m also always inspired by the bravery of the patients in all of these films as well. The people who say, “I’m going to go walk up to that tarantula.” Or, “I’m going to travel halfway across Japan to talk to this complete stranger and be really honest about what’s going on with me.” 

A Cure For Fear 1

Still from A Cure for Fear, 2018.

PLIs that an interest area that you’ve now fully explored? Or do you think you want to keep entering into that therapeutic environment?

LWWell, I actually want to document psychics next. (laughter) Which is really the exact same thing. You go to a complete stranger and see what they can see on your face, which, as it turns out, is a lot.

I love these situations because you really see something happen in front of you—there’s a lot of “A-roll” footage. You know how some documentaries seem to be constructed entirely out of B-roll? Where it’s all voiceover and B-roll shots. In terms of vérité film, my favorite scenes are always where you really see something happen. There’s this vividness and immediacy. Where you can’t believe it. Whether it’s some big external action or some small internal shift, you’re there for it, and you’re experiencing it. So I think the thing that’s so great about these doctor/patient interactions is that they’re so immediate and you see stuff happen and people changing in front of your eyes.

PLI like that! So how did your ideas about Dr. Kindt’s treatment change from reading about it a few years ago to completing your own series?

LWOne thing that was only clear once I met her was how similar she was to a film director. She’s responsible for staging this experience. This intense emotional experience. You open the door and you go into it. I love that she’s also specifically like a horror movie director, because she has to find creative ways to frighten people. And I liked her adventurousness—

PLWhere does she get all her props?!

LWI know. It’s like, “Oh, a friend has cats, let’s bring them over.” And she really carefully thinks about every detail; she’s totally fearless, in a way. Once she treated someone who was afraid of going to the bathroom in public, a severe and debilitating fear for them—they couldn’t go out during the day because they were scared of being stuck with no restroom. So she took them to a crowded restaurant and had them drink bottle after bottle of water; she thinks up scenarios just like a director does. But she also isn’t attached to success as an outcome, because she’s a scientist. If it fails, you learn something. She’s a scientist in a lab with data, but she also gets to do this creative process of responding to these occasionally very unusual and bizarre scenarios. Like having the butterflies in the little white box. That was such a great symbol, to me—a Pandora’s box containing one woman’s worst nightmare. Another thing that changed was that I initially thought, Oh, we can film this in this austere way, focusing on the cinematic qualities of the before and after. But I hadn’t thought about how hard it was for her, Dr. Kindt, to have to push people toward something they’re so frightened of while also being supportive, which is an interesting line to walk. 

PLGod, what a weird job! Again, sort of like a filmmaker—pushing people to bare their souls in front of the camera, and being like, “Is this okay?”

A Cure For Fear is now streaming on Topic.com.

Penny Lane is a documentary filmmaker living in New York City.

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