Highlight: Doctors Don’t Cry

Nathan Xia’s “Doctors Don’t Cry” takes a look at the prevalent link between pressure, academics, and depression in Asian culture. The story is given a modern twist by the use of social media.

Tai’s mother is very proud of him. She spends all day long messaging her friends pictures of achievements like his science olympiad award. This becomes a sort of game of one-upmanship as other Asian moms text back with their own stories of their children’s prestigious internships and test scores. In perhaps the funniest scene of the film, the script is flipped and the moms begin one-upping each other with disappointments like “mine listens to rap music,” and “mine watches “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”

All the while, Tai is beginning to visibly buckle under pressure, looking increasingly strained. One night at dinner he tentatively asks his mother, “Has there ever been any sickness in our family?” Reflecting cultural norms and stigma, his mother talks about people, including his father, being “unlucky,” and other people having “weak minds,” which obviously doesn’t help Tai feel any better.

It soon becomes obvious that Tai is falling further down a spiral that he can’t see his way out of, and that his mother is oblivious to. Like many of our films, “Doctors Don’t Cry” balances humor and pathos very well, and it shows what untreated and exacerbated depression can turn into.

“Doctors Don’t Cry” played in the second shorts block on Saturday 10/12/19, from 5:50 to 7:00 p.m. This is one you don’t want to miss.

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Highlight: Jeff Vs. The Mailbox (Unofficial Audience Award Winner 2019)

Mental illness as pseudo-horror film: that’s close to what “Jeff vs. the Mailbox” is, with a touch of jet-black humor as well. Agoraphobia is a very specific anxiety disorder characterized by fear of unsafe environments with no escape. In very severe cases, the afflicted cannot leave their homes. Jeff’s case is severe, and he can’t seem to leave his home.

Agoraphobia often goes hand in hand with, and can be triggered by, other mental illnesses, often post-traumatic stress disorder. It is never specified exactly what poor Jeff suffers from, but from his symptoms it appears he may be wrestling with a combination of agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Jeff has been lucky enough to have Christopher, a kindly postal officer, bring mail straight to his door rather than leaving it in the mailbox. His fortune turns when Christopher is replaced by a new employee who doesn’t feel like going outside the scope of his job to do this. A manager tells Jeff this is an exception that isn’t typically made unless the receiver is handicapped. It’s a shame they don’t realize Jeff is clearly “handicapped,” just not in a physical way.

Jeff collects and labels his mail in meticulously dated and organized manila envelopes, even though it doesn’t appear that he reads it. This, along with his sister’s offer to come over on the weekend and “rearrange his desk drawers,” point to obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Jeff is calling his sister, by the way, to beg her to collect his mail–and then to ask if his seven-year-old niece can. She refuses to enable him, saying he has to “put on his big boy pants” and do it himself.

Director Dru Wortham succeeds in making every step of this task as daunting and horrifying as it likely feels to Jeff. A fear of leaving the house will no doubt resonate with many people who have experienced mental illness. Jeff looks down at his slippers, puts them on, takes them off, puts them on. He opens his door, closes it, then tries to run back and open it again. Relentless noise and a score worthy of “The Exorcist” by Dreamoir assault his senses. He begins hearing voices and seeing apparitions. It is clear that it is here where Jeff begins experiencing PTSD, hearing voices about traumatic incidents from his past. The whole sequence is as terrifying to the viewer as it must be to Jeff.

“Jeff vs. the Mailbox” is a stunning and accomplished low-budget indie film. It manages to be scary, funny, and empathetic all at the same time. We were happy to have screened it during the second shorts block on Sunday 10/13/19, from 5:50 to 7:00 p.m.

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Highlight: All That You Love Will Be Carried Away

Even having received such a diverse variety of films, Kasey Rae’s “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” stood out as being utterly unique. Based on a Stephen King short story, it’s an exercise in dark, almost Lynchian surrealism with its odd dreamscapes, ambient soundtrack, and cryptic messages.

Alfie Zimmer is a traveling salesman who carries a notebook full of bizarre drawings and sayings he collects along with him (including the titular “All that you love will be carried away.”) His plan while he is in the cold and forbidding Lincoln, Nebraska, is to shoot himself in a motel room.

However, after he has what he believes is a final conversation with his family, he has what appears to be a fictional conversation with a farmer and his wife, set against a completely white, vacant backdrop. The couple question his book and his motivation, imagining what his daughter would say about him and how people would think he was crazy because of the book left behind.

The soundtrack here should really get second billing as a part of the cast. From the radio fuzz and crackle in the beginning to the buzzing in the motel room to the sound of rushing wind, it beautifully portrays a near-constant sense of doom.

I think my favorite part of the film, however, and what set it apart for me, was the haunting ending. The way it is filmed, cutting in and out and using close-ups, heightens its palpable tension and ennui. And that’s probably all I should say about it (unless you’ve read the short story or Google a plot description of it, then you already know).

“All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” screened in the second shorts block on Sunday 10/13/19, from 4:50 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

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Highlight: The Bird (2019 Empathy Award Winner)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often manifests itself in repeated thoughts and routines that can be very time-consuming and disruptive to daily life. Finnish director Sakari Sankinnen captures the overriding nature of living with OCD in her brief portrait of 12-year-old Matias, “The Bird”.

The short begins with a bird’s-eye view of Matias as he races breathlessly home from school. For people who live with severe mental illness, just completing another day can sometimes feel overwhelming.

One would think Matias could relax a bit once he got home, but not everything is in order to his sensibilities. He has to count and rearrange a rug, and he notices to his horror the TV remote control is titled at an angle, not perfectly aligned with the table edge. In fact, Matias’s inability to ever fully relax conveys just how stressful it is to live with OCD. The frantic zooms in on what he perceives to be the room’s disorder, each one of them up to him to set straight, and his labored breathing, help an audience who doesn’t understand these kind of compulsions realize just how all-consuming they are.

Just when he think he’s “fixed” his environment, a chaotic accident ensues and we get another glimpse into Matias’s train of thought. If he doesn’t act the right way in this scenario, he tells himself, “bad things will happen” to his mother, who is running late coming home. She will get into an accident. As if the demands of OCD aren’t already enough of a burden to bear—if you don’t meet them, if you can’t control your environment, bad things may happen.

What we wanted one of the distinguishing qualities of a Mental Filmness film to be is something that would allow an outsider to completely empathize with a mental illness they have never experienced. “The Bird” is a stunning success at placing the viewer right into the shoes of someone who must live with OCD.

“The Bird” screened in the first shorts block on Sunday 10/13/19, from 3:00-4:20 p.m.

Highlight: Stepping Out

Billie Eichstadt’s “Stepping Out” takes a short, sweet, and lighter look at obsessive-compulsive disorder. In her director statement she says: “I have always wanted to make a film about a person with OCD like me. Before this, I’d only ever seen one film that portrayed my type of OCD – not the cleaning kind.”

Penny, the skittish and shy lead played by Olivia Grace Fildes, has been accommodating her lifestyle to fit her OCD. She mostly stays at home with her grandmother for fear of the possibilities of the outside world. All this is challenged when Todd asks her on a date.

Penny’s OCD is often very subtly depicted, like when she covertly brushes her hand against her side after contact with Todd or places a puzzle piece in place a few too many times. As she practices to herself in the mirror before she goes on the date, she thinks about different stories to present to Todd to hide the truth of her condition. Finally she pictures herself saying “I have OCD. But it’s not the cleaning kind. Nothing in my apartment is clean.”

There are so many stereotypes out there about mental illness that it’s really important to realize there are so many different facets to every one. It’s refreshing to see one of the most prevalent stereotypes of the disorder challenged.

When she finally decides to go on the date, and put herself out there, it really feels like she is overcoming so much to be “stepping out.” We won’t reveal how it goes, but it almost doesn’t matter—her courage and willingness are what does.

“Stepping Out” played in the second shorts block on Saturday 10/12/19, from 5:50 to 7:00 p.m.

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Highlight: Farewell Happy Fields

A bit of a darker, deeply literate look at the link between art and mental illness, and definitely one of our artier and more experimental films, is Australian writer-director Kyle William McDonough’s “Farewell Happy Fields.” Taking its title from “Paradise Lost” and drawing generously upon “The Waste Land,” it sets out its bold, some might say pretentious, agenda early. It reminds me a bit of one of my favorite movies from last year, “Madeline’s Madeline.” Much like that film, it features artists who find catharsis for their mental illness through performance, but almost to the point of compulsion, where they can no longer separate it from their personal lives.

McDonough states from the beginning that the intent of his documentary is to explore mental illness through Sydney poetry–specifically the award-winning poetry of Fiona Wright. Fiona is a perfect subject for this cause, reading a chilling and beautiful poem about her struggles with anorexia that plays on T.S. Eliot and especially his line “Do I dare to eat a peach?”

What happens backstage becomes equally as important though. McDonough and Wright discuss the onset of their disorders, his being depression and hers being anorexia, and how they have upset their lives. McDonough is very candid in his recounting of suicidal ideation, to the point where he deeply disturbs one of his crew members, who tells him he hopes he’ll be around for many years to come.

Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, flashing lights, and a sense of disorientation as to what is happening during filming, and where the line between that and real life is, slot “Farewell Happy Fields” into the arthouse film category. It has more in common with poetry than it does with narrative, which is entirely appropriate.

“Farewell Happy Fields” played in the third shorts block on Sunday 10/13/19, from 7:00 p.m.-7:40 p.m.

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Highlight: Royal Blood

Benjamin Rouse’s “Royal Blood” uses the idea of class to explore mental illness. On two ends of the spectrum are a rich, spoiled former beauty queen (Shannon Currie as Brandy Foley) plagued by narcissism and neuroticism, and a mentally ill homeless woman who envisions herself as royalty and calls herself only “The Queen” (Peggy Mahon). Caught between the two of them is the down-to-earth, seemingly more balanced Tiffany (Maarika Pinkney), Brandy’s daughter.

It’s an interesting approach to feature two characters who come from opposite ends of the financial spectrum who both have the same delusion—that they have royal blood. For some reason Tiffany seems to empathize more with The Queen. Is it because she’s just grown tired of her mother asking ten questions about the sea scallops in a restaurant? Or because of the shopping cart of “treasures” The Queen pushes around? The fact that The Queen is obviously destitute, yet proud of herself and what she has, whereas Brandy is entitled but never happy? Is royal blood defined by wealth, or beauty, or character, or something else?

This film raises all these questions but I think, most importantly, shows how certain kinds of mental illness are “acceptable” in society, and certain kinds are not. Both women are clearly equally matched in terms of mental illness. But people like Brandy masquerade around the world every day in fancy clubs and restaurants, receiving the best possible service. And people like The Queen prompt people to look the other way when she wanders into their space telling them she hopes they enjoy their luncheon.

“Royal Blood” screened in the first shorts block on 10/13/19, from 3:00 to 4:20 p.m.

http://www.miltonfilmfest.com/por…/benjamin-rouse-filmmaker/royalblood