finding 'Euphoria'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It takes a nanosecond to realize that Euphoria is not your typical educational film that battles substance abuse with an avalanche of really scary facts.

Even before filmmaker and narrator Lee Boot sheds the "Stone Phillips" wig and all clothing save boxer shorts (the better to tell the truth in), the film veers from dry documentary to a quizzical exploration of the brain and its biologically propelled pursuit of happiness.

The digital film, screened three times before receptive crowds at the Maryland Film Festival in May, and at the WorldFest-Houston festival in April, owes as much to Federico Fellini as it does to Bill Nye the Science Guy. A montage of visual metaphors, profiles and scientific fact, feature-length Euphoria is not a documentary in the truest sense, and its narrative arc is as loose and loopy as can be.

Nor does Euphoria attempt to terrify viewers in the tradition of the 1936 cult film Reefer Madness and other memorable media scare tactics.

Instead, Euphoria, through scientific, historical and cultural inquiry, makes the point that the "pursuit of meaning and engagement looks like a good idea," says Boot, the film's director and screenwriter. Its message, though, is not revealed in any one scene or sentence. It arrives by way of a non-stop accrual of symbols, questions and thoughts over the course of the 80-minute film.

A bit disjointed, purposely ambiguous, Euphoria is an accessible viewing challenge. "You almost have to learn to watch it," says Boot in his office at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he is associate director of the Imaging Research Center. Its message is "embedded" in the film, the Rodgers Forge father of two says. "You should let Euphoria wash over you, kind of like you're going downstream, looking at the landscape as it passes you."

"We would like to be in your local Cineplex," Boot says of current efforts to find a theatrical distributor for Euphoria. He and his company, InfoCulture, also hope to market the film, accompanied with educational materials, to classrooms around the country.

Hip and jammed with pop-culture references, Euphoria might never be mistaken for a project supported by the National Institutes of Health -- except that it is. In two phases, Boot, now 48, was awarded a grant worth more than $1 million from the National Institute on Drug Abuse through its Small Business Innovation Research Program, which was supplemented by private support. Over a four-year period, Boot and a small crew, including co-director John Chester, first made a pilot film. That paved the way for funding the full-length project, for which they brought in Baltimore producer Capella Fahoome.

A little risky

Cathrine Sasek, science education coordinator for NIDA, is the first to admit that Euphoria stands apart from the more conventional, science-based projects that her agency typically supports. That's a good thing, she says. "When developing something for high school kids on the topic of drugs, you almost have to be a little risky and try something a little bit different to try and reach them and engage them," says Sasek, a neuroscientist.

Teens, skeptical by nature, won't necessarily buy into straight-forward cautionary tales, she says. "I don't think we can underestimate the way they think about things and the way they process things," Sasek says. "If you can get them to discuss topics and to really think about them, that's going to help tremendously."

After watching Euphoria with her English class, Brittany Harris, a 16-year-old sophomore at the McDonogh School, took part in a taped "model discussion" that will eventually accompany the film. "I connected to the movie a lot," she says. "Normally, they just tell you all the facts. Here, they were telling and writing down things and that reinforced [the message] and made it a lot more real," Harris says. "I could actually understand it better."

Cynthia Cox, Harris' teacher, led the class discussion of Euphoria. "Each kid could respond to something in the film," she says. There were "visual metaphors for the visual kids, the documentary aspect for students who connected with personal stories and a pedagogical aspect to it, [such as] diagrams for the [science-minded] kids." The follow-up discussion, which was taped for future use by other educators, was key to understanding the piece, says Cox, a friend of Boot's. "I don't think it was one they would have [fully grasped] alone. It was really a group effort."

Well-being is the key

Boot, a video artist with a master's degree in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art, taught for 17 years at McDonogh, the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson and UMBC. He came to realize that his students succeeded or failed not on the basis of intelligence, but on the basis of emotional well-being. Those kids whose talents were recognized appeared to be the most emotionally fit -- and the most successful, Boot says.

His observations led Boot to envision an educational film about the brain that would not put students to sleep. It would be a film that celebrated multiple forms of intelligence and acknowledged the emotional damage that can result when kids are denied avenues of expression.

At a Society for Neuroscience conference in 1997, Boot became acquainted with the folks at NIDA who encouraged him to write a grant for a film that would pair his theories on emotional health with an unorthodox approach to fighting drug abuse.

It was a challenging but credible task for Boot, who theorized that kids who were hampered in their efforts to express themselves were prone to risky alternatives, such as drug abuse. "Unlike traditional anti-drug films, Euphoria starts from the premise that no one will abandon one way of feeling good unless they are convinced of another path that will make them feel just as good, or better," explains the film's press packet.

In frequent consultations with Sasek and others, Boot realized that to be effective, his film had to do more than impart information; it had to stimulate discussion. "No media intervention is powerful enough" without discussion, he says. The question became, "How do we create a film that generates discussion?" Boot says.

The result is a film that speaks on many levels: visually, personally, through graphics, charts and jaw-dropping metaphors. (In the film, Boot likens the brain's 1 quadrillion neuron connections to a forest 2 1/2 times the size of Texas.)

Viewers are introduced to those who have found sustainable ways of achieving euphoria through the arts, entrepreneurial knowhow, even working at a bowling alley. Local musician Kelly Bell makes an appearance, as does motivational speaker Gloria Mayfield Banks and Millersville waterfowl artists Earl and Mary Brinton.

Teens struggling with their identities, including a young girl depicted as being buried alive (thanks to special effects by Boot and crew), by family trauma, also populate the film. Their plight is offset by Boot's visual antics: a shopping spree on the beach, super-size smiley faces, a failed attempt to carve an angel from a pile of beef steaks.

'You have to have faith'

In a sense, completing Euphoria demanded the same leap of faith of Boot that he asks of his audience. "It's like a big painting," says Stacy Arnold, who is married to Boot and is developing educational materials that will guide teachers in their discussions of Euphoria with students. She and Web designer Stephanie St. John are also creating an extensive online site as a resource for teachers, parents and others.

"Lee and I are both very comfortable in the process of making and doing something that you're not going to know [exactly what it is] for a long time and you have to be comfortable in that space. You just have to have faith that it's going to work out."

Euphoria ends with a dazzling display of sound and light: An enormous, spinning neuron / chandelier hangs from the Hanover Street Bridge, sending twirling sprays of water, sparks and confetti into the night, while a sharp high school band performs, a step team dances and spectators gape in awe at the power of the human brain.

Lee Boot

Age: 48

Family: Wife Stacy Arnold, artist and teacher; children Max, 11, and Lillian, 9.

Education: B.F.A., Syracuse University, 1979; M.F.A., Maryland Institute College of Art, 1982.

Day job: Associate director of the Imaging Research Center, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Selected artworks: "The All-book Chair," a video and sculpture installation; "Mr. Lee's Avant-garde Conceptual Modern Artshow," a video and animation piece in segments, including "Bulldozers, Pencils and Hotdogs;" "Furry Animals and Power Tower;" "Pine Needles and Bic Pens."

How to see the film

With the exception of some "minor editing and sound tweaks," Euphoria is largely finished, filmmaker Lee Boot says. In coming months, he and his production company, InfoCulture, hope to place the film in a number of major film festivals with the aim of reaching a theatrical distribution agreement. Once Euphoria's theatrical run is complete, DVDs and supplementary educational materials will become available for sale, Boot says.

In the meantime, he is happy to lend preview copies of Euphoria as well as screen the film for small groups. For more information, visit www.the euphoriaproject.com.

Beyond 'Euphoria'

The National Institutes of Health has a Web site with a "ton of information" on substance abuse, says Cathrine Sasek of NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse. For information tailored to students, young adults, parents and teachers, visit www.nida.nih.gov.

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