German-born filmmaker Yasmin C. Rams, together with her producing partner Rodney Charles, founded the production company Perennial Lens with offices in Germany and Los Angeles. After working as Assistant to the Director at Yangon Film School in Myanmar, she co-directed the mid-length documentary “Miriam.” She founded her first production company in 2012 and proceeded to make short films with different filmmakers. She directed her first own short documentary in 2012, “A Life in Blue,” that portrayed a Myanmar sweatshop worker in Thailand. Subsequently, she embarked on the production of the feature length documentary “In Exile” directed by Myanmar filmmaker Tin Win Naing. The film celebrated its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 and screened at the Busan International Film Festival, DOK Leipzig and many other film festivals, winning an award for “Best Human Rights Documentary.” Yasmin C. Rams is an alumna of the IDFA Academy and has been a program curator for the Myanmar Film Festival in Los Angeles and Diversity in Cannes. She is a regional representative for Germany’s documentary association AG DOK.
Tara Karajica talks to Yasmin C. Rams about her feature-length directing debut, “Go Heal Yourself,” that had its international premiere in the Personal Journeys section at this year’s DOC NYC as well as feminism and film and what she is up to next.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Yasmin C. Rams: I’ve always wanted to study Fine Arts and become a painter. So, after high school, I moved to Berlin to prepare my application. When I was there, the Berlinale was taking place and I saw my first good documentary film. It was a film that portrayed two sides of a war and used a meta film technique in order to create compassion in the subjects from one side for the other one. It made me realize that film can combine art and awareness as well as activism. So, I was hooked!
I understand this story is a personal one. How did Go Heal Yourself come about?
Y.C.R.: I had been taking my anti-epilepsy medication for about fifteen years and the meds can have quite severe side effects. So, I felt pretty trapped on the meds when I did not know that there might be other or additional options for me out there. Then, my husband introduced me to one of his best friends, Hillary, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Hillary’s story of being medication-free and symptom-free for ten years was very inspiring to me. She managed her disease with Ayurvedic Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as Yoga. So I wanted to try and see whether I could also find an alternative path for me and my epilepsy diagnosis. I did go into this self-experiment rather blue-eyed, that’s for sure. We also show this pretty bluntly in the film. However, beautiful things did come from it.
The film’s goal is to inspire people from all over the world to try and find their own way of dealing with chronic illnesses. Can you talk about your own search for natural medicine that could help you with your Epilepsy, which is the thread of the film?
Y.C.R.: Since I went into my self-experiment rather naively, I had a lot of setbacks. I tried a form of Chinese medicine, I tried CBD oil and other options. However, since most of these options are not supported by my healthcare provider, one takeaway was that this route is not perfectly suited for those without the means for it. That is unfortunately the truth. And, as a documentary filmmaker, you definitely go through phases in which your monetary resources are very scarce. Despite these setbacks, however, I did realize along the way that one of the most important things that most of us with a chronic illness don’t even realize is how much we villainize our own bodies. We live with them, but not in them. They are perceived as our enemies. So, in the end, my journey became a journey inward, which was a huge step for me and the way I treat my body today.
One important take-away is also that natural medicine takes a lot more work than just popping a pill. It’s definitely tough and can be hard at times. However, it can be so rewarding, if one sticks to it. The wonderful, amazing subjects I was allowed to portray in the film have found great ways of dealing with their own bodies and, most importantly, with their minds. I believe that one of the most valuable treasures of the process the subjects and I are going through is the constant self-reflection and the discovery re-connecting with your own body.
In that sense, what have you found out in your research about chronic diseases and the allopathic treatments thereof in contrast with the natural/holistic approach?
Y.C.R.: One of the most important realizations to me is that natural medicine looks at the entire person. Allopathic medicine, on the other hand, is very compartmentalized in itself and looks at us human beings in a very compartmentalized way. Within allopathic medicine, we have great specialists, who unfortunately mostly don’t talk to each other. If we take general medicine and psychology for example – both of those are highly important for our health and are interconnected. However, they rarely interact with each other when treating a disease. This makes no sense to me, since even conventional medicine knows that about 20% of a pill’s benefits are based on the placebo effect. Thus, our minds are highly powerful. Furthermore, in Go Heal Yourself, we talk about how new studies suggest that the microbiome is significantly connected to neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis. However, general medicine and neurologists still rarely talk to each other. If you ask me, that makes very little sense. Many natural approaches or long-standing traditional medicines such as Traditional Indian Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine look at the body as a whole and at all organs as well as the mind as interconnected. This is something, in my humble opinion, that should be taken more into consideration by conventional medicine.
How did you find other people to participate in your film and get them on board?
Y.C.R.: Choosing my subjects was a quite organic process. Thanks to my dad, I had a strong interest in the Parkinson’s disease. Through research, I was led to Howard and Rick in Portland. Hillary and Junius were in my circle of friends in L.A. Both of them are such incredible people who have an extraordinary determination and belief. I felt like their stories needed to be heard. Whilst researching, I realized that the one disease about which you can find the most information regarding alternative treatments is cancer. Since I unfortunately knew two people who passed away from cancer whilst I was producing Go Heal Yourself, I felt that this was an important topic to integrate. Plus, Fiona’s story was a story that just inspired me incredibly. She survived cancer twice. She is a lionheart. And wonderful Miguel’s story came to me at a point when I was actually about to give up entirely. I bumped into a Colombian producer and friend of mine at a documentary film festival. He then told me about his father-in-law, Miguel. He said, Miguel had been healed from epilepsy with the help of Ayahuasca, a Colombian traditional medicine. That led me to the beautiful Colombian rain forest.
Can you elaborate on the role of their entourage on this journey and more specifically that of your father, a sceptic and sort of your “antagonist” in the film?
Y.C.R.: Our subjects inspired me and kept me going throughout my self-experiment – also during rough times. I oftentimes thought back on what they had said in interviews when I had a hard time dealing with my epilepsy.
It was very important to me to include my father in this film – as the well-humored antagonist as well as an important counterweight to my crazy self-experiment. Luckily, my dad was actually very open to being filmed. I filmed him and myself over a period of about four years. I usually just placed my camera on a tripod and filmed our interactions. He usually didn’t mind the camera at all. Maybe that was because he didn’t take my film project seriously – laughs. I don’t know. However, as a result, I got some quite honest and real material from the both of us. I am very happy to have recorded my dad when I did, since he is unfortunately not doing so well anymore.
I am so sorry to hear that! In the film, they show tremendous will power and profound convictions in this alternative healing process and ultimately in their recovery, with no plan B whatsoever. Can you delve into that?
Y.C.R.: Our subjects are tremendously inspiring people. Every time I watch the film, I am again in awe of how much wisdom these subjects have and convey. It’s beautiful. And, of course, the mind plays an enormous part in taking responsibility for your own health. Well, my husband calls it stubbornness (laughs), but I believe that in order to find your own path, intense willpower and an almost unwavering belief are crucial. The route of taking your health into your own hands is a much harder route. Most of our subjects had to go through a lot of trial and error in order to find what works for them. And, just like me, they had – and some continue to have – setbacks. However, if you are disillusioned by allopathic medicine and are not given a healing perspective with it whatsoever, it’s natural that you would try to find a different option. I really adore our subjects. They truly are their own superheroes.
There is a very important message in the film – that the illnesses don’t define whoever has them. Can you comment on that, especially from your own point of view?
Y.C.R.: As people with a chronic disease, we over-identify with our diagnosed diseases so often, which can lead to mental health problems. It can lead us down a very unhealthy path of A.) seeing our body as the enemy and B.) putting ourselves in a victim position out of which we can never become our own heroes and fight for ourselves. And, we do need to be our own heroes. In our current medical system, most doctors don’t even have the time to care for us the way we would need them to. So, it’s up to us to seek our wellbeing. There is so much more to us than this one disease which might hinder us in our lives. But this hinderance must not be the main thing we think about every day. The disease must not control our lives. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to find joy and to focus on the good things that come our way. Of course, the psychosomatic aspect of it all should also not be dismissed. If all we think about is being sick and identify as a “sick person,” the disease is much more likely to take over our bodies faster.
Can you talk about the title?
Y.C.R.: I chose the title as a working title in my rebellious phase at the beginning. However, it ended up describing the feeling I had in the beginning of my journey as well as the one I had towards the end. In the beginning, yes, I wanted to say “F*** you” to my prognosis and conventional medicine. I had enough. However, after a while, “(just) go heal yourself” seemed to represent a request by someone – maybe by my past self – that was easier said than done. Since it has this double-entendre, I decided to keep it as the final title.
The pandemic has ushered in a shift in healing methods, with holistic approaches to health (yoga, meditation, aromatherapy, adaptogens, supplements, etc.) being brought forth as better options. Can you comment on that? What is, according to you, the future of medicine now that it is confronted with this shift?
Y.C.R.: Go Heal Yourself is a film made about people struggling with chronic illness and was shot before the pandemic. To me, it has not much to do with Covid at all, since Covid is a virus and not a chronic illness. One thing that is problematic, though, is that it seems that during Covid, we have begun to see things very much in black and white, disregarding the colors in-between. There is this danger of putting on blinders and adopting a very narrow perspective, which is never healthy or good. A truly scientific approach has always been to take all options into consideration. This approach is especially important for people with chronic illnesses, who will probably continue to suffer from their conditions long after Covid is under control. For them, seeing the colors in-between and being allowed to explore many different medical routes in order to find what works for their bodies is highly important.
In your opinion, do you think this new way of thinking is also hindering the benefits of allopathic therapies that actually work and that are necessary, like what is happening with the Covid vaccines and the anti-vaxxer movements across the globe?
Y.C.R.: My film does not have anything to do with Covid or anti-vaxxer movements. It’s a very different topic, even though it might sound related. That being said, with Go Heal Yourself, it was key to me to express the importance of keeping an open mind in both directions – allopathic as well as non-allopathic. It is my belief that only when we all work together, when we listen to what other long-existent medical traditions have to say, will we be able to create the most optimal paths of treatment for certain diseases.
What impact do you think the film will have?
Y.C.R.: I hope that Go Heal Yourself will make people with epilepsy, Parkinson’s and other diseases heard and inspire them to not give up on themselves or feel lost. Plus, I hope Go Heal Yourself can help initiate a dialogue towards more integrative medical approaches, which create optimal wellness and really regard patients as three-dimensional human beings.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past four years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in the documentary?
Y.C.R.: Aside from directing documentaries, I also produce documentaries as well as fiction films. The positive thing is that there are much more women in the documentary field. However, a recent study by the German documentary association, AG Doc, whose regional speaker I am, found out that there is still not a 50/50 representation of women in documentary. Plus, women have to work with significantly lower budgets than men. Higher budgets are usually only given to male filmmakers even though it has been proven now that female filmmakers and producers have a higher success rate at delivering a film on time and on budget. Sometimes, even under budget. There need to be more well-funded films by female filmmakers – especially because we bring a different perspective as well as oftentimes a different creative approach to a film, which is ultimately a piece of art that reflects reality. This diversity is very valuable for culture and us as a society.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
Y.C.R.: I absolutely love Maya Deren. She is one of my favorite filmmakers. I especially love her film At Land and when you look closely, you will actually find a quote from At Land in Go Heal Yourself. In documentary, one of my favorite films is Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach. Whilst I am in love with her creativity, Alma also has such a beautiful way of portraying her protagonists and putting them on an artistic pedestal. It’s particularly heartfelt and respectful. Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA was the first documentary that I saw directed by a woman. It is such a daring and historic film, which showed me that I, too, could be that woman behind the camera.
What are your next projects?
Y.C.R.: As a director, I am working on a project about current male identity. Plus, our company, Perennial Lens, just received a very competitive slate development fund. We have two documentaries and three fiction features in development. One of the features is an action thriller à la Tarantino and Guy Richie that deals with our current world around Black Lives Matter. We have won a pitch with this project in early 2021 and will probably go into pre-production in 2022.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Yasmin C. Rams.