January 15, 2003
A new film by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Laurel Chiten, TOUCHED, premieres at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on February 20. TOUCHED is much more than a look at alien encounters. It is about the human condition – about longing for connection and fear of separation.
Dr. John Mack, the founder of the Center and a leading authority on the traumatic and transformational elements of alien encounters, invited the Emmy-nominated filmmaker to document the lives of several “experiencers” in the faith that she would see that the phenomenon – regardless of whether aliens are as real as they seem – is ultimately one that profoundly affects people’s lives.
“Following the lead of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell the audience will witness an archetypal ‘Hero’s Journey.'” Chiten explains. “For the subjects of our film, their experiences have resulted in a kind of Holy Grail search for truth. Beneath the sensational aspects of alien encounters, these are real people looking for answers. TOUCHED will follow a human quest to solve a mystery – perhaps only to find that the answer is the quest itself.”
The experiencers, Mack observed, were being forced to reevaluate their sense of the world, and how they relate to it. As one put it, “It makes you feel. It makes you move – sometimes violently – through things you don’t want to move through in your psyche and your ego and any of the other words you choose to call yourself.”
At a Center event in 1999, an overwhelming majority of experiencers supported the position that their alien encounters are acting as a catalyst for their own – and humanity’s collective – evolution. The personal challenges that such an evolution entails for four experiencers, their friends and loved ones, are in evidence in Chiten’s new film.
Chiten’s earlier films include The Jew in the Lotus, which explores the intersection of Buddhism with Judaism, and the Emmy-nominated Twitch and Shout, which focuses on people with Tourette Syndrome. Both of her earlier films have been shown nationally on PBS; TOUCHED is now on offer.
TOUCHED premieres at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts
Thursday February 20, 2003 at 8pm
with reception following. The filmmaker and Dr. John Mack will be present.
Three additional screenings of TOUCHED are planned:
Sunday March 9 at 12:20 (film only);
Friday April 11 at 8pm (filmmaker and Dr. Mack expected); and
Wednesday April 16 at 6pm (filmmaker and Dr. Mack expected).
For advance tickets and for more information visit blinddogfilms.com
Touched will be released on home video after being screened around the country. There are no plans to release this documentary to television.
|Boston’s Weekly Dig
Touched, a documentary by Laurel Chiten, offers a uniquely contemplative perspective on the alien abduction phenomenon. It avoids cheesy flying saucer footage and tabloid hyperbole to focus on real people looking for the truth behind their unique experiences. Chiten presents the “experiencers” and their stories with sensitivity and without judgment, and does not attempt to prove or dispove their theories. She was introduced to their world by John Mack, M.D., a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard Medical School professor whose research into alien abductions has brought him professional ridicule. Initially uninterested, Chiten became intruiged once she met the human beings behind the wild stories. Mack is an eccentric presence throughout the film, which allows him a dignity he doesn’t often receive in the press. Along with Harvard colleague Alan Dershowitz, he provides some amusingly outspoken commentary on the university’s academic politics. Brazilian experiencers and a surprisingly open-minded Vatican demonologist also provide intruiging commentary. Screening at the Museum of Fine Arts on April 11 at 8pm and April 16 at 6pm. See http://www.mfa.org for more information.
Close Encounters with Laurel Chiten
by Erin Trahan
One snowy Boston evening changed the course of things for director Laurel Chiten. “I feel like John Mack abducted me,” she laughs.
“I don’t know what was going on that night, I was being so goofy, making everyone laugh.” The snow prevented a colleague from introducing her film, THE JEW IN THE LOTUS. So she arrived at the MFA, appealingly disheveled, to take his place. It was her sense of humor and her edge that prompted John Mack to seek her out after the film. “I didn’t even know who he was. He wanted me to make a film about alien abductions.”
So who is John Mack? Though a professor of psychiatry at Harvard and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, his celebrity is arguably more attached to his research on alien encounters than more “suitable” subjects for a person of his ilk. Since publishing the best selling book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens in 1997 (and outing him as a presumed extraterrestrial “believer” on shows like OPRAH and the TODAY SHOW), Mack grew frustrated, even bored by the predictable questioning of whether accounts of abductions were true or false. His next book on the subject, Passport to the Cosmos, is meant to move beyond the question of “if” and to a question that he believes is more relevant to earthly life “what do alien abductions mean for us?”
Chiten’s immediate reaction to exploring the topic of alien abduction was to push the project away. “I knew absolutely nothing about the subject, and more importantly, I didn’t care about it.” Her other films like TWITCH AND SHOUT and THE JEW IN THE LOTUS came from her kitchkes, they were personal to her. When she finally started sifting through the first-person accounts of missing time, bodily probing, sperm extraction, impregnation, and apocalyptic warnings, Chiten reacted like most first-time abductees: she was frightened. She acknowledges that the topic called up her deepest fears, fears she cannot necessarily name. “I was emphatic about not making this film,” she reiterates.
But Mack’s persistence led to an encounter at the Harvard faculty club, where Chiten first heard “experiencers” (as they call themselves) speak. She was struck by how sane the speakers appeared. “One woman reached out her hand to describe how it felt to be touched by an alien . . . and she started to cry. Forget aliens, it was so human to me, this longing to connect.” It is the translation of ostensibly inhuman experiences into unavoidably human terms that Chiten explores in TOUCHED.
TOUCHED is Chiten’s third documentary. For someone who never set out to be a director, she’s developed an impressive niche. She started with two series: TWO IN TWENTY, a five-episode satirical soap and a ten-part video series based on Robin Casarjian’s book, House of Healing. Would-be-directors may not want to hear Chiten’s thoughts about joining her ranks. “Don’t become a filmmaker unless you have to. It is extremely hard work.” And has she made money from her films? Not really. Yet every time she engages a new subject, she falls in love, only to revisit the stress and anxiety of wondering if the film will ever be seen or appreciated once completed. Since she is just wrapping production on TOUCHED, in preparation for its February 20 debut at the MFA, she admits to being stretched a little thin.
Fortunately, she surrounded herself with a great crew: “I attract people who are much smarter than I am, they make me look really good.” Perhaps too modest, Chiten has had colleagues claim that it is her credibility as a filmmaker that will get them through the door of seeing her latest, potentially controversial film.
TOUCHED has been unique for Chiten because it essentially has three coproducers: Chiten along with editor Sabrina Zanella-Foresi and DP Andy Abraham Wilson. Even with their camaraderie, the crew approached the subject matter with differing philosophies. “Let’s just say I was Scully and Andy was Mulder. We actually called each other that.” Apparently “Mulder” was eager to experience his own UFO ride.
One unexpected (and still highly confidential) occurrence dramatically affected the film at its zero hour. Let’s just say something happened to a character that in Chiten’s words “had a ripple effect on the entire film.” She promises the newly integrated material makes for an even more intense ending.
“TOUCHED is really the most provocative film I’ve done.” Chiten wishes the film could tour the world, with she and Mack answering Q and A. Not that the film is about answers. But it opens up questions about the reorganization and reevaluation of strongly held beliefs about the cosmos, the divine, and the ever-pressing need for human connection. Chiten calls it a “launch pad” for discussing the pain and healing of transformation, inevitably and ultimately human.
Chiten’s next projects are in various stages of production. She is working on “Freedom Behind Bars”, in collaboration with The Lionheart Foundation, about a ten-day meditation retreat inside a maximum-security prison in Alabama as well as “Twisted” about a neurological disorder even more unknown than Tourette’s Syndrome. Chiten describes, “like a TWITCH AND SHOUT two.” Both of these have footage shot and she is looking for funding.
Chiten chalks up her chance meeting with Mack as serendipitous. But when asked about how she chooses her next film project she says, “Most of the time I don’t pick a project, they pick me.” Maybe TOUCHED will explain exactly who “they” are. Or maybe it’s more exhilarating not to know.
TOUCHED premieres at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on February 20th at 8 pm. Both Laurel Chiten and John E. Mack will be present.. And will screen again on March 9 at 12:20 pm, Friday, April 11, at 8 pm with John Mack present, and Wednesday, April 16, at 6 pm. For more information about TOUCHED or Laurel Chiten, visit www.blinddogfilms.com.
Erin Trahan is a freelance writer who frequently contributes to Imagine Magazine. She is a member of the Board for Women in Film/Video New England and lives in Jamaica Plain, MA.
Drawn to Human Drama
Director Laurel Chiten says that she “keeps making the same film over and over again.” Of course, the parallels between Chiten’s stories of alien abductees, individuals with Tourette’s Syndrome, and a Jewish writer and group of rabbis on a trip to meet the Dalai Lama may not seem obvious, but each is driven by the search for a sense of connection, Chiten explains.
Chiten recently completed the documentary, “Touched,” which will premiere on February 20, 2003 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The film focuses on people who believe that they have experienced alien encounters. This is not the typical tabloid treatment of the topic, but rather an exploration of real people looking for answers. Whether or not the subjects’ stories are real, it is clear that each individual’s life has been irrevocably transformed by their quest to solve the mystery of their experience.
The central figure in the story is John Mack, M.D., a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard Medical School professor who suffered public and professional ridicule when he became a “believer.” Mack approached Chiten about making a film based on his research. She initially had no interest in the subject, but agreed to accompany Mack to hear some alleged abductees, or “experiencers,” speak. Chiten became intrigued once she met the human beings behind the wild stories of bodily probing and alien/human-hybrid breeding programs. She wondered, “What happens when the unexplained intrudes into our lives, and how do lives and relationships respond when credulity is strained to the breaking point?” The resulting film is “not really about aliens,” Chiten said. “It’s about what people do when they’re dealt something difficult.”
“I’m interested in underdog stories,” Chiten said, “giving a voice to people outside of society’s norm. The films are all about going on a journey. And they all have a spiritual underpinning, and a similar sense of humor.”
Chiten finds storytelling to be the most compelling aspect of filmmaking. A certified American Sign Language interpreter, she started her career writing and directing deaf theater productions. She was drawn to film as a way to use her own voice. Her first major project was as producer, director and co-writer or the 5-part satirical lesbian soap opera, “Two in Twenty. ” Originally shown on public access, the series has attained cult status on home video.
She created her landmark documentary about people living with Tourette’s Syndrome, “Twitch and Shout,” with the intention of following it up with a narrative film. Diagnosed with a mild case of Tourette’s herself, Chiten hoped to raise awareness about this often misunderstood genetic neurological disorder which can cause uncontrollable muscle tics and vocal expressions. The film “put Tourette’s on the map,” Chiten said, and eventually garnered nationwide airplay on the PBS series “P.O.V.,” in addition to an Emmy nomination and numerous other honors. However, after five years in production, she was left debt-ridden, exhausted and vowing never to make another film.
But Chiten did not keep that vow for long. Looking for spiritual solace on a Buddhist chat room one night, she discovered the book “The Jew in the Lotus” by Roger Kamenetz, a best-selling account of the 1990 visit of eight rabbis to India to meet the Dalai Lama and share “the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” Kamenetz, who was recovering from the death of his baby, tagged along to chronicle the event,
“Filmmaking is a lot like falling in love,” Chiten wrote for the premiere of “The Jew in the Lotus” at the 1998 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. “We have no control over who we fall in love with. … I never look for a story but wait until I ‘fall in love’ with something that I simply cannot say no to. Then I become elated and driven totally amnesiac, forgetting how difficult the ‘relationship’ can be.”
“The Jew in the Lotus” was broadcast nationwide on PBS’ “Independent Lens,” and has screened around the world. It was honored with the Most Outstanding Personal Vision award from the New England Film and Video Festival.
Among Chiten’s other projects is “Houses of Healing,” a 10-part series she produced based on Robin Casarjian’s emotional awareness course for prisoners. Chiten also is a frequent public speaker, and a teacher at the Boston Film and Video Foundation, Maine Photographic Workshops and the Digital Media Workshops. An artist-inresidence at several prestigious artists’ colonies, Chiten was honored with the Artist’s Fellowship for creativity in video production from the Massachusetts Council for the Arts and Humanities in 1987. She served as a documentary juror at the 2001 Florida Film Festival.
Chiten said that she still hopes to make a narrative film some day, but says, “Documentary ideas keep presenting themselves to me. Who knows what I’ll do next?”
Amy Roeder is a Boston-based freelance writer.