Octogenarian journalist sets down at IDFA this weekend with her debut documentary feature.
IDFA has a long history of welcoming first-time directors to present their debut works, but never before one in her 80s, with actress Tilda Swinton on board as consultant producer.
Veteran journalist and best-selling health and nutrition writer Jean Carper, 84, sets down at IDFA for the first time this weekend with her first feature documentary Monster in the Mind, exploring and debunking some of the media myths around Alzheimer's disease.
"I was 80 years old when I started in January 2012, and I will be 85 next January. I've worked on it for nearly five years. It's completed, but there's now still so much to do in terms of the festivals", says the indefatigable Carper.
"I'd never made a documentary before. I was winging it all the way but I did have good advice. Tilda Swinton, an old friend, was my mentor. I asked her many things. I got people who I knew in the field of producing to help me out too. It's some kind of a miracle it came together. Every time I look at it, I think, 'How did this happen?'"
Carper first started researching the illness some 30 years ago when she worked as a medical correspondent for US news network CNN. Like many journalists covering the disease, she reported extensively on a series of terrifying scientific research reports predicting that Alzheimer's was destined to become the scourge of the West's aging population.
Her interest was reignited in older age when she discovered that she carried one of the genes linked to Alzheimer's disease. "I'd had nightmares as a child about Frankenstein, but as I approached my eightieth birthday, I started to have these very weird and strange dreams about Alzheimer's", recalls Carper.
Her original premise for the documentary had been to explore whether scientists had advanced in finding a long-promised cure. She discovered instead that scientists were increasingly advocating lifestyle changes to prevent a future epidemic of neural-degenerative diseases, and that Alzheimer's was not the all-pervasive monster it had been built up to be. "I had been part of the propaganda machine to feed Alzheimer's to the public," says Carper.
Although the topic is complex, Carper cleverly lightens the tone by treating the disease as a monster in a horror movie, intercutting the work with scenes from old black-and-white films to heighten this theme. It was an idea that came to her after the full implications of her research sank in. "I said to myself, this is a scientific horror film," says Carper, who flew to Detroit where Swinton was on the set of Jim Jarmusch's vampire picture Only Lovers Left Alive, to get her opinion on the idea.
"I wanted to show Tilda where I am going with this. I showed her the opening which set the stage and said, 'What do you think?' and her response was, 'It's fabulous'," she recalls.
Carper is now traveling festivals with the film and is also writing a book summing up research around how lifestyle impacts neural health.
Photo: Felix Kalkman