It is no secret that what lies as the foundation of my creative self, a writer and activist and practical theologian, is an enormous amount of trauma.
From birth with Spina Bifida and a short life expectancy long ago passed to years of childhood sexual abuse to multiple experiences with violence and trauma as a young adult, much of how I express myself now is influenced by memories that have faded yet will likely never completely disappear.
I am acquainted with What Lies Inside director Luke Renner, whose film crossed my desk some time ago amidst the busyness of healing from yet another illness, my brother's death due to pancreatic cancer at age 43, and my feeble attempts at balancing life and awards season and work and new limitations in my lifelong journey with disability.
Sadly, my journey never found its way to What Lies Inside until I started to see what many describe as "the light at the end of the tunnel" and began working my way back through those e-mails that I had fortunately saved.
What Lies Inside is one of those films that you wonder "How could this possibly have not been seen by a wider audience?" Yet, to reflect upon the film is also to understand that Renner demands a lot of his audience with What Lies Inside and as a human being and a filmmaker he refuses to compromise.
The film is better off for it.
The seeds for What Lies Inside were essentially planted in 2010 in, of all places, Haiti. Having been a missionary to Haiti myself in my younger years, this fact alone immediately bonded me to What Lies Inside and to Renner. Renner experienced Haiti's devastating earthquake in 2010, an experience so traumatic that it was initially thrust to the side in favor of continuing life until, as life tends to do, life demanded Renner pay attention to these memories and the subsequent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In dealing with these memories and this trauma, Renner uncovered an older and deeper childhood trauma that he had locked away.
Again, for most of us eventually there will come a time when our hearts and minds, bodies and souls demand that we pay attention to the past if we want to rescue our futures.
And this is What Lies Inside, one of the true sleeper indies of the past year and a film that I'd dare say is a must-see for survivors of trauma and those who love them, care for them, or simply want to understand.
It is difficult to describe What Lies Inside without giving away its stories and its points of view. It's a film better seen than described and I dare not influence that experience. Suffice it to say, however, that What Lies Inside is practically the definition of a passion project and you can feel Renner's love for this material in every single frame. David Neidert's lensing is simply extraordinary here, simple yet intimate and warm and uncomfortable and challenging and everything and every place that it needs to be. It's lensing that should be used as a textbook example of how to effectively lens a docu-narrative motion picture.
Original music by Phil Larson enhances the film's immersive qualities and, in some weird way I can barely describe, provides a layer of emotional safety in a film that may, in fact, trigger those with traumatic backgrounds. As a personal note, however, I will say that despite a myriad of traumas in my background I did not personally find the film to be triggering.
You will hear Renner's voice in the narration of the film and it is quite sublimely suited to the material. You can hear and feel Renner's healing yet emotional connection to this material and you can also get a sense of the layers of meaning and purpose woven into the film's tapestry.
In initially pursuing his own healing, Renner discovers the insidious nature of psychological trauma and the reality of a public health crisis looming like a tornado alley dark storm cloud over humanity.
As is often true of the most compassionate creatives, Renner's healing lens began to widen and he seeks with What Lies Inside to speaks about the darkness that binds us to our suffering. What Lies Inside is unflinching in this exploration yet resolution in its vision and commitment toward healing and humanity and hope. Rather than healing in isolation, in essence, renner creates a village with answers and resources including creators, survivors, experts, and those who ultimately reveal what lies inside each of us and what may, if we're willing to look at it, actually set us free.
What Lies Inside is an over 2-hour immersive experience that feels at times uncomfortable yet always necessary. The film is challenging yet meditative, informative yet also undeniably emotionally resonant. Renner has chosen his documentary voices well and they're people you'll find yourself wanting to sit down with yourself by film's end. As Renner lives in Indiana, it feels a little unusual to see and feel so many familiar places throughout What Lies Inside. Likewise, as I journeyed through the film's credits there were names, both known and unknown, who have a place within my own creative circle.
Renner, who also runs the podcast Inside Out, is truly dedicated to both healing and wellness (and yes, there's a difference). You can feel this commitment throughout What Lies Inside and you can also feel in every fiber of the film that Renner understands the importance of storytelling even with documentary filmmaking.
The story matters.
My story matters. Your story matters.
Luke's story matters.
In a just world, What Lies Inside would find the global audience it so richly deserves. It is available for viewing and can be licensed for educational purposes. These are, perhaps, the best avenues for a film that has such deep meaning that plopping it down in a multiplex would be to misunderstand its cinematic soul.
By the end of What Lies Inside, I found myself wanting to watch it again.
I found myself wanting to experience the people again. I found myself wanting to hear the music and see the images. I found myself wanting to be immersed in that experience once again.
I found myself wanting to heal and I found myself wanting to envelope others in that healing. As a wannabe compassionate creative myself, I practically swayed with the rhythm of What Lies Inside and easily gave myself to it.
For more information on What Lies Inside, visit the film's official website linked to in the credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic