finding 'Euphoria'

Video artist Lee Boot's film conveys a subtle message against substance abuse

June 12, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

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.

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