America has become increasingly familiar with mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit disorder, especially since America’s occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Often, those who live with these disorders are prescribed medications to help them deal with everyday task like sleeping or paying attention. Free the Mind, a documentary by Phie Ambo, looks into Richard Davidson’s innovative new study in alternative methods of treating such conditions.
So what works better than Ambien and Ritalin in this day and age? Apparently, a couple of deep breaths and controlled meditation. Davidson is a professor of psychology and head of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin. His unorthodox methods stem from his early practices of meditation.
The documentary focuses on two men in particular. Stephen Lee is a husband and a father of two young children and a former military intelligence investigator in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Since his homecoming, Lee has been haunted by the faces he has interrogated and constantly confronts his behavior during his missions.
The second man, Richard Low, was a U.S. Army captain and is undergoing the stress of a divorce. Low suffers from the constant guilt of his assumed responsibility for the deaths of two of his own soldiers, and wonders if a third soldier who lost his limbs in a surprise bombing in Baghdad managed to survive. Both subjects are often depicted in solo scenes showing their solemn faces, stares jumping from place to place – or to nowhere in particular.
But Free the Mind also looks at the development of a young boy named Will. Will is a child in foster care who was diagnosed with ADHD, and who, for some reason, is deathly afraid of taking the elevator. His feelings are vocalized in frequent temper tantrums, convulsions and screeching.
In an unlikely narrative, Free the Mind brings two men, two soldiers, and a little boy down to the same humanized level. While the boy is the physical embodiment of innocence, the veterans crave the memory of being innocent. And all of them are undergoing a similar treatment. Inhaling – exhaling – stretching – meditating – remembering – feeling.
Past the lengthy standard documentary interviews, the colorful illustrations and diagrams of the human brain, the transitions of the documentary sew together Davidson’s active experiment group to Will’s development pre-school. In one shot, the veterans are wrapped up in fleece blankets trying to balance on one foot. In the next shot, young Will and his pre-school do the same. These images bind together the mental similarities of the soldiers to Will, creating a theme of everyday frustration and progress.
The documentary doesn’t show just how conclusive Davidson’s study is and leaves some unanswered questions, including if there were suicides or relapses outside of the experiment. Or if post-treatment subjects kept up with meditation. At the very least, Free the Mind shows further insight on increasingly common mental disorders and reveals an honest relationship that those afflicted have with themselves.
FREE THE MIND (2½) Directed by Phie Ambo • Featuring Richard Davidson • Not rated • 80 min. At Osio Cinemas.