Scottish filmmaker Amy Hardie’s brilliant ninety-minute documentary film, The Edge of Dreaming , was shown on PBS last night.
Ms. Hardie had a vivid premonitory dream that she would die in her 48th year; this greatly focused her attention on what was important in her life and on the reality of dreams. During the course of the year, she developed severe lung problems; she came very close to death. She finally found her way to a shamanic healer (Claudia Goncalve) to “re-program” her dream (“I had to get back in my dream in order to change it”), had a intense vision of a huge snake and of the the scarred Earth (potentially symbolic of her scarred lungs), and gradually became healed after this experience. For Ms. Hardie, the image of the scarred Earth was also a very real representation of the damage being done to the planet…
For me, the documentary at times was self-focused, too much time spent on Ms. Hardie’s personal angst and not enough time on the nature of dreaming. I almost turned the TV off after the long opening about Ms. Hardie premonitory dream and sequence about her dead horse; I am glad that I didn’t. (I am also aware that people experiencing chronic illness and mortality changes become very self-focused — it goes with the territory.)
Ms. Hardie chose to go to a shamanic healer to deal with the premonitory power of the dream that she was going to die. (In an interview with Ms. Hardie, she said that she went to three different psychotherapists first… I would still suggest that an experienced depth psychologist who works with trance and dreams might also have been as effective as the shaman.)
Nevertheless, as a result of the competence and the setting created by the shamanic healer and Ms. Hardie’s belief in the power of the shaman, Ms. Hardie clearly went into a profound altered state of consciousness that altered her pysche and,consequently and profoundly, altered her physical body. (During an interview, Ms. Hardie said that she was absolutely sure that she had been healed after the shamanic intervention.)
Interestingly, Ms. Hardie’s experience was a parallel journey to an ancient healing ritual that lasted over a thousand years, of visiting the temples of Aesclepius in Greece in order to have a healing dream. One had to journey far to get to these places, and the dream pilgrim was almost always in the midst of a crisis of mortality. Snakes were often strongly featured in these Aesclepian healing dreams. [They are a symbol of re-birth (from the shedding of their skin) and a symbol of ancient, deep animal instinct.] This particular sequence of the visions during the shamanic healing was quite well done.
I would hope that this film itself is a premonition of an increased in the power of dreams and healing in this dream-aversive and overly-rational culture. We have already had the film “Inception” this year; this is an excellent sequel.
This is the synopsis from the PBS website:
Can dreams predict the future? The Edge of Dreaming is a year in the life of a woman objectively researching death who finds that her research has taken over her life. Literally. Amy Hardie, a wife, mother and maker of science films, was involved in a documentary investigation of death when she had a startling dream — her beloved horse George was dying. She awoke disturbed enough to go out into the field and check on George. She found him dead, though he had shown no signs of illness. As unsettling as this was, Hardie’s rational temperament led her to see it as a coincidence. Then, in another dream, her deceased partner of many years, the father of her oldest child, warned her she would die at age 48 — the following year.
The Edge of Dreaming: A woman walking in the snow
Hardie’s documentary research took on new urgency. The first dream had come true. Did that mean she really was under a death sentence? Hardie documented the entire year, exploring neuroscience and family life and recording her increasing alarm as eventually her lungs began to fail. In The Edge of Dreaming, thoughts and dreams combine with neuroscience as Hardie explores every avenue to prevent her dream from coming true.
“Some people love to find meaning in their dreams,” says Hardie early in the film. “I don’t think I do.” In The Edge of Dreaming, however, dreams force themselves into Hardie’s research on death, as death comes into her life. The death of George the horse (who in the first dream asked Hardie if she was ready to start filming) was one amazing coincidence. But the second dream, with her late companion Arthur delivering the message that she, too, would soon be dead, shook her out of her rational skepticism. “Arthur was too real,” she says. And this happened, after all, in her 48th year.
To address her growing dread, Hardie turns first to the science of dreams. In this post-Freudian age, it turns out dreams are almost as mysterious as they have ever been. Dr. Irving Weissman, a professor of developmental biology and director of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, offers an evolutionary perspective. “Dreams have something to do with reality or we wouldn’t have evolved and retained them,” he says, and he goes on to tell a story of having once dreamed about doing a dance he didn’t know how to do and then, upon awaking, finding he could perform it. Professor Mark Solms, a neuropsychologist best known for his pioneering research into the brain mechanisms of dreaming and REM sleep, tells Hardie, “Dreams give us information we know subliminally but don’t want to know. Our prefrontal cortex may not accept it, but it sneaks into our consciousness in dreams. So our dreams can be signals from the real world.”
All of this is of little comfort to Hardie. In fact, the science seems to support her growing realization that her progressive lung illness is somehow caught up with the reality of the dream. Her family offers emotional ballast, and so her dread of her 48th year is balanced by an idyllic life — a happy couple doing work they love and living in the Scottish hills with three kids, a dog, a cat and, until a short time before, a horse. Hardie’s husband, psychoanalyst Peter Kravitz, has a vast knowledge of Jungian theory, as well as a sophisticated theoretical framework helpful in understanding his wife’s struggles. Initially, he strongly believes that she is taking her dreams too literally. Hardie decides not to tell her daughters about the dream so as not to frighten them. But at school one daughter learns to read palms, and looking at Amy’s hand, she announces cheerfully that her mother will have a “happy life, but a short one.” When Hardie has a third dream, showing how she will die, even her husband loses his composure. As her lungs deteriorate further and she is hospitalized, she realizes she has to take urgent action.
Ultimately, this self-proclaimed skeptic and science filmmaker has a session with a Brazilian shaman, Claudia Goncalves, who is practicing in Scotland. Throughout The Edge of Dreaming, Hardie mixes the techniques of documentary research with more abstract sequences and animation to capture her inner experience. During Hardie’s session with Goncalves, both she and the film plunge deeply into her dreams in an attempt to disable their potency. The result is a cathartic and emotional resolution that may or may not show dreams in a more rational light. For Hardie, her 48th year turns out to be the year that rocks her scientific reductionism and expands her sense of what science really is.
“This film actually began nine years ago, when my mother died unexpectedly,” says Hardie. “I knew I needed to learn about death and, as a filmmaker specializing in science documentaries, I committed myself to filming every aspect of my investigation. Then came my dreams, which gave the film a new urgency and propelled it into a more emotional and poetic space. I realized I was really in danger — and that I had to get back inside my dream in order to change the dream.”
The Edge of Dreaming is a production of Amy Hardie/Passion Pictures/Hardworking Movies.
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