Land of the Young: A Filmmaker’s Collision with GBHI

Zach Bandler is a film director and screenwriter. In this perspective, he reflects on his transformative journey as an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health, emphasizing the imperative to portray people living with neurodegenerative conditions with compassion and hope. His feature film screenplay “Land of the Young” is the winner of the 2023 American Zoetrope Screenplay Competition

Land of the Young poster

Promotional poster for "Land of the Young," a film led by Atlantic Fellow Zach Bandler.

Those of you who know me know I do not adhere to the idea of resting on laurels — I would rather just keep writing and making films. But with the recent support for my screenplay Land of the Young by Francis Ford Coppola and American Zoetrope, it feels appropriate to use this moment to acknowledge the place where I wrote it, and reflect on how my experience as an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health has affected my own mission as a filmmaker:

People living with neurodegenerative conditions, and their care partners, deserve to be represented on the big screen in ways that support their agency, reflect their experience with compassion, and replace stigma with a sense of hope.

This is now non-negotiable for me, yet it was not always my priority. In my industry, we of “the craft” have always lived by a rule. Call it our own Hippocratic Oath, of sorts: “first, tell a good story”. But just as the medical maxim was never uttered by the real Hippocrates, nor (as a non-clinician) do I even believe it to make that much sense, so too does the oath of the professional storyteller need updating and editing.

Land of the Young began several years before I wrote it in the halls of GBHI at Trinity College Dublin. The first version of the film was written in early 2015, titled The Lightkeeper, and was a completely different story. It began from a personal place: I was in the process of losing my mentor to vascular dementia, a long goodbye that ended with his death a few brief months before making the proof-of-concept short film of the same name in 2017. Upon that film’s release in 2018, audience members’ personal connections to the story gave me a new intention to re-envision the full-length screenplay with more clinical accuracy.

Enter, Bruce Miller. A meeting at UCSF in late 2018 to do some targeted research on dementia proved prescient, leading me to put my trust in him and take a leap into the Atlantic Fellowship world — a position I knew little about — and a journey across the actual Atlantic to a new home. Seven years after the initial film work commenced, I was beginning all over again…in Ireland.

Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health Zach Bandler

Zach Bandler, Atlantic Fellow, film director and screenwriter.

Over my year at GBHI, this new story took shape, inspired by the places I visited, the people I met and the myths I read. It is not just a labor of love, but something of a love poem — to Ireland, to self-growth, to facing our traumas, and to meeting our loved ones exactly where they are on the road. 

I would also be remiss if I did not acknowledge five individuals at Trinity who were there day-in and day-out through the writing process: Ian Robertson, Brian Lawlor and Dominic Trépel with creative and institutional support, as well as my Irish colleagues Mike Hanrahan and Gráinne McGettrick providing cultural accountability and language translation.

I could never have imagined what I would learn as an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health and how it would affect not only this film, but all of my work henceforth. This unique ecosystem we have the immense privilege to be part of gives all of us the potential to totally reimagine our approach and contributions to our respective professions. Researchers, artists, clinicians, policy advisors, economists, engineers, journalists, all sharing space together; all collaborating, discussing, arguing (yes, at times with fireworks), and making things. We are like a bunch of individual particles in a hadron collider, accelerated and smashed together in order to discover something exciting…and something completely new.

For me, that something-new has been profound. I can no longer just tell (or show) a good story. It’s not enough, because I now see film as an impact tool. Narrative film, not solely documentary, can be a place where we don’t just consume the stories of our subjects’ lives, it’s where we can help carry them: where we give them power, witness, imagination, humanity, and where we invite the community that inspired us to contribute creatively.

Whatever happens next for Land of the Young, or any other collaboration that GBHI has led me intoI will continue to evolve in my mission simply because there is more to learn. I believe in our collective potential now more than ever. I am not just one, single particle rushing around anymore. I am part of a complex organic molecule — a neurotransmitter, in fact — with all of you.