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by Carlin Carr
Wednesday, Jul. 20, 2011 at 3:13 AM
Interview with filmmaker Michael Burns on his new film EMDR.
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EMDR is the new documentary by director Michael Burns. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and is a powerful therapy tool that helps clients to confront and move beyond painful memories. This film looks closely at how practitioners and researchers believe EMDR works, who it can help, and how it can play a role in limiting unnecessary suffering for those dealing with the effects of trauma. I interviewed Michael in the summer of 2011.
Tell me about how this movie came about.
I had just finished a long film project, an academic project that lasted three plus years and that I did virtually on my own. I was exhausted mentally and physically when a good friend of mine suggested I make a film about EMDR. When you make documentary films, you hear a lot of suggestions and most of the time I just end up agreeing that they’re great ideas and leave it at that- there’s so much involved in making and financing a movie that you need more than a good idea. But this one nagged at me and I couldn’t stop thinking that this was something that I should do. Eventually it became something I wanted to do. I believe it’s an important project that could prevent unnecessary suffering for some of the people watching it who are currently struggling with things that happened to them in the past. EMDR is a real gift, and I wanted to do my part to share its story with as many people as possible.
Why not make a film about just those struggling individuals- in other words, why EMDR?
To me, EMDR represents an efficient and effective way to deal with memories that are blocking us from reaching our full potential in life. It’s a very empowering treatment where you work with a therapist who serves as a guide, accompanying you through memories that have amounted to obstacles in your life. What happens- and this is different from traditional talk therapy- is that when the therapist adds bilateral stimulation- both sides of the brain being stimulated at the same time- this journey through the painful memories results in new interpretations of those events, new insights, new understandings, and new conclusions that we can apply to our lives immediately. In other words, EMDR allows us to go back to the traumatic events in our past and unravel them so that we can move forward today without the guilt, shame, and paralysis those past events used to hold us hostage with.
What’s special about EMDR compared to other therapies?
The main thing is that for many people it’s faster. In the film, Francine Shapiro- the founder of EMDR- jokes about the Woody Allen version of therapy that we all have: the idea that you go to see a professional for years and years but you don’t make any progress. Therapy doesn’t have to be like this! With a trained therapist that you feel you can open up to, therapy can work, and with EMDR it can work quickly which is absolutely essential if someone is suffering now. With EMDR, the brain is rapidly making connections between important events in the past and their triggers in the present, leading to results that many clients can notice after just a few sessions.
Tell me about one of the highlights in making this film?
With the generous permission of clients willing to be observed, I watched dozens of EMDR sessions during the course of making this film. I saw some extraordinary things- things difficult to put into words because of how moving they were. I specifically remember one client who was asked to trace back a current, destructive belief about herself as far back as possible into her past. She came up with a startlingly irrelevant image from her childhood and told the therapist that it was obviously a meaningless memory, admitting with trepidation that it was a sign that EMDR was not working for her. Fixated on this image and discouraged, all of a sudden she realized that this image was a key element of a scene where her current belief about herself first came about and was the root of what was causing so much anxiety and anguish in the present. I was left shaking my head. I couldn’t believe the power that the mind has to catalog through our memories and find ways for us to heal, even ways that appear nonsensical to the logical, analytical parts of our brain. It reminds me that we are emotional being as much as we are intellectual. Sometimes you have to let go of over-thinking and let that other part of yourself lead you to insights about you and the world that there’s no other way to reach.
Whom do you think EMDR could help?
I actually think EMDR could help everyone. EMDR is about addressing painful memories that are stored in our brains in a way that causes problems. I can’t imagine anyone getting through life without having some memories like this. It would have to be a miracle to get through life untouched by an accident, the death of a loved one, an argument, or an embarrassment that hurt us deeply and has echoes in the present. Life is wonderful in so many ways but it’s punctuated by pain for all of us. EMDR offers us a way to deal with these things we’ve been through. That being said, there are many of us who you could say are in more acute need of help. I think of soldiers, abuse victims, and those putting the pieces together after natural disasters- but of course there are others. With soldiers for example, there are so many of them, literally hundreds of thousands according to surveys, who are regularly reliving incidents in the past that overwhelmed their systems. These flashbacks are eating them alive and are causing tremendous heartache for them, their families, and their friends. It’s absolutely, one hundred per cent, not a sign of weakness to deal with these memories. In fact, the strong thing, the warrior thing to do is to take care of yourself so that you can be the parent, son/daughter, or friend that those around you need you to be.
Why isn’t EMDR better known?
It depends on who you ask. In the psychotherapy world, EMDR is well known as a power tool in the trauma treatment toolkit. And within this world, therapists will tell you that the research on EMDR is voluminous. As a result of the research out there EMDR is recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the Department of Defense. You don’t get their top-tier stamp of approval unless you can back up your claims with evidence.
As far as the mainstream public, EMDR is still lesser-known. I think this is for two main reasons but there are more. One, EMDR is so new, just twenty-plus years old. Other therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) currently have more proponents and practitioners and so when references to therapy come up in conversation or in the media you’ll hear CBT or others before you’ll hear EMDR mentioned, but that’s just a function of the numbers and the schooling that people have been through which include more traditional methodologies. The other reason is that I think therapy is still both a stigma and a taboo subject to talk about openly. In some demographics more than others for sure, but many people are embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about therapy, even if it’s worked amazingly for them. And it’s Ok not to talk about things if you don’t want to- I’m not blaming people of course. I’m just saying that as a mainstream, public conversation, we’re not openly sharing the details of our therapy’s effectiveness.
The great news is however that you can find tons of articles on EMDR on the web and in print. I see articles in mainstream newspapers on a regular basis and of course there are many links to stories and research studies at sites like emdr.com.
You’ve directed four films now, how would you describe your style and overall approach as a filmmaker?
With my documentaries I’m looking to shine a spotlight on something that in my opinion deserves attention. I work in a non-narrative style, which is something I enjoy and appreciate in other filmmakers. I like narrative too, but it’s possible to get caught in the trappings of a story, one that can be a lot more complicated and a lot less resolved at the end than the filmmaker lets on. In other words, reality can’t often be tied up in a nice little bow. A non-narrative approach allows me to focus less on the personal and more on the ideas that I think are worth investigating. In this new film, I’m looking to introduce EMDR to those whose lives have been touched by trauma either personally or through someone else. I’m hoping this film’s clear, plain-spoken message will serve as a catalyst or an inspiration that will lead to a viewer pursing therapy, or encouraging someone else to. There are far too many people out there who feel like they have to live with the pain they have- maybe they feel like they deserve it somehow or that they just don’t know how to live without it at this point. The truth is that much of the pain in the world can be let go. We just need some help sometimes to do it.
The film’s websites: emdrmovie.com, michaelpburns.com
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