Keep an eye on this pin for developments on Mental Filmness 2023. The big one is, it’s happening, and it’s Number Five. The other is that just as usual you may submit your film through Filmfreeway here: https://filmfreeway.com/MentalFilmness. Also, just as last year, it will be a hybrid festival. Selection of your film will ensure a place in the virtual festival should you accept it; live screenings in Chicago will depend on resources and circumstances and will be determined.
We are also working to do something that is long overdue, which is building partnerships within the Chicago mental health community. We hope to draw a wider audience to connect with these incredible films, and we also hope to make audiences aware of community mental health resources. We already have a couple of exciting possibilities coming down the pipeline, so stay tuned for those developments.
We hope to make Mental Filmness (5) a huge success! Putting on a film festival is a labor of love. Enough love comes back that it usually seems worth it.
I have to admit, I’m pretty proud of this interview for the Director’s Club, it may be the most personally meaningful to me. The Year Between is a darkly humorous and heartfelt film about a college student who spends a semester living with her family and recovering after her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The film is very obviously set and filmed in the Chicagoland suburbs which was just another connection I had with it. Lead character Clemence is played by writer-director-star Alex Heller and is a semi-autobiographical depiction of her own experience spending a semester off school managing her bipolar disorder. The character she embodies reminds me a great deal of myself, both when I was younger and when I received my diagnosis. She’s brash and intense, having little control over her moods and low self-awareness of how her actions affect others—yet she’s also bitingly witty, creative, and sensitive, secretly hungry for affection.
It’s quite an accomplishment that a talent as young as Alex Heller created a film that shows such self-awareness and perception of her past while balancing the tone between the comedy and the tragedy of coping with a serious mental health diagnosis, sometimes both at the same time. She also created a warm Midwestern family that acts as a foil by accepting her with open arms no matter how melodramatic she can be, including her long-suffering mother and father, played memorably by J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi.
Of course my thanks again go to Jim Laczkowski for always believing in me and finding incredible opportunities to support me like landing this interview. I was very lucky to speak to Alex Heller about a topic so special to me and my identity and I hope to meet her at one of the Chicago screenings. I highly suggest that you check out the film when it plays at the Music Box Theater on March 30th, at Facets starting March 31st, or on VOD
I once asked for, and my sister gifted me for Christmas a few years ago, one of the only books I could find about starting a film festival, appropriately titled So You Want To Start A Film Festival? It consisted of interviews with sixteen film festival directors, and although they all ran indie low-budget festivals they were all way out of my league in terms of budget and programming. I still remember every interview began with the same two lines: “What would you say to anyone who wants to start a film festival?” “Don’t.” Every interview ended with what the director’s plans were to essentially unload the festival to someone else. I can definitely see why. It’s high-effort, low-reward work. Even for someone as small potatoes as me, you have to love it and get some intangible benefit from it, otherwise it’s just not worth it.
I guess knowing all this, it’s no surprise that every year I second-guess Mental Filmness and wonder if I should retire it. I’d been wondering that again to myself lately—I figure if I “give up” after this year, it will at least have been a nice round five years of stories and memories. It’s funny how life sometimes gives you what you need instead of what you want, and kind of out of the clear blue sky, as this has been on my mind, filmmaker Kagan Goh messaged me saying after being in many festivals, his favorite has still been Mental Filmness, where his short The Day My Cat Saved My Life made its festival premiere.
I thanked Kagan, but confessed that I felt uncertain about the future of Mental Filmness, and if it was worth continuing in a world with an increasing number of outlets for films about mental health that could probably find better promotion and more of an audience than I am usually able to provide. He assured me I was giving myself short shrift in these areas and offered to give me a Zoom pep talk.
Kagan is an accomplished multi-disciplinary artist who practices what he preaches. He works as a mental health advocate and writes, performs, and directs pieces primarily based on his own experiences living with bipolar disorder, a condition I share. In our “don’t give up” pep talk, Kagan told me he watched all of the films and interviews from Mental Filmness and felt he learned so much from them. He felt like there was a diverse selection without anything being tokenistic, and he liked how Mental Filmness, putting it kindly, “gives the underdog a chance”—in other words, we’re perfectly fine with showing student shorts, movies made on Iphones, and other sorts of outsider productions if they reflect an authentic voice and theme about mental health. He said he felt I actually gave a lot of attention to the films through reviews and interviews compared to a lot of festivals, and that it was obvious that I approached it from a first-person perspective and really cared.
He said having a few hundred viewers for an online festival isn’t bad, and that he appreciated that I left the viewing window open for such a long time, which he felt was also unusual. I’d love to explore ways to make it more interactive somehow, like some kind of chat/comment board, this year, but I have been pretty happy with the online festival overall.
But, not to burst anyone’s bubble, we are not the first and only film festival about mental health—it seems there are more every year, including the long-runners like Reel Recovery and Rendezvous With Madness. I usually distinguish us by saying we’re a “Chicago-based” film festival about mental health. So while I’d like to keep the online festival running, I’d also love to increase the knowledge of our presence in the Windy City and at least feel some reassurance that when we bring in guests we’ll have an appreciative audience for them.
Kagan told me the same thing most people in our line of work would—go for the people you know you can touch over quantity or a mass audience. That being said, he told me, my real “market” is probably in the mental health community rather than the film festival world—exactly what I’ve been thinking myself, and I’ve been trying to reach out there more.
I’m so glad we had the pep talk not only to hear his motivational praise and about the amazing things he continues to do, but to realize how much I’ve touched one person’s life and to help me vocalize and identify exactly what the festival means to me and what I’d like it to do. He struck another chord with me when he said even if I was reaching my family, friends, and co-workers, and sharing an experience or a new perspective with them, that was still doing something very meaningful, and I *know* I’ve been doing that.
Thank you for the pep talk, Kagan, and for helping so many people by being vulnerable and sharing your stories. I can’t wait to see what we both do next! Mad love and love madly, I hope I get to meet you in person one day.
Hey podcast fans! Check out this *neat* special episode of the Matineecast all about the topic of mental health and film. A handful of insightful guests chose films that have had an impact on their mental health and discuss them. Chicago film critic and festival champion Jim Laczkowski of the Director’s Club podcast gives some candid insights on suicide and salavation in The Sunset Limited, a tense drama he recently introduced me to. Jonathan Barkan of the documentary Mental Health and Horror (who I also just learned executive produced the nightmarish Skinamarink) gives his take on Relic. There’s also a piece on the film that traumatized many a child of the eighties, The Neverending Story, and the Swamps of Sadness. Heck, they’re all pretty great. And of course, I love seeing people do this sort of stuff.
If you can find time on a Friday morning, you really should attend this Juniper Center live talk at 9:30 a.m. Central time! Doug Shaffer is a very kind soul who produced this moving and very relevant film, 5000 Blankets, inspired by the true story of a family coping with mental illness and how it led them to helping communities experiencing homelessness. You just might see it at a future Mental Filmness event!
My brain went on one of those fun, weird tangents yesterday when I happened to see someone online mention that as a child they were terrified by the “robot” in Superman 3. I hadn’t thought of it in years and years, but their mention of it brought some long-repressed childhood horror freshly to my mind, so of course I had to revisit it.
What folks are remembering is this scene in the end where Vera Webster’s machine turns on her and begins to “cyber-ize” her. Though this apparently traumatized many children of my age of eighties-era pop culture, and while the isolated images of it online still look quite impressively disturbing, as an adult (at least to me) the scene is quite brief and plays as fairly campy and innocuous now.
What struck me about the film this time was Superman’s reaction to Kryptonite.
Setting aside the hilarious fact that Richard Pryor was inspired by his package of Camel cigarettes to add the “secret ingredient” to the Kryptonite recipe, Kryptonite affected Superman quite differently than I expected. I thought that it would weaken Superman’s powers, but instead it seemed to weaken his—morals? soul? conscience? —which is arguably worse, because he can use his powers for bad, and does. He does in some ways that show a callous disregard for human life, but of course me being me, I related most to him giving in to his lust for alcohol and women. In what I found to simultaneously be one of the saddest and funniest scenes in the film, after Superman uses his laser-vision to make some beer nuts explode in a bar and tries to drunkenly fly away, you can hear spectators disgustedly saying things like “Superman’s changed,” and “You’re washed up, Superman.” Only one little kid, who still idolizes him, sends a different voice out over the crowd, “No, Superman’s just going through a slump.” “You’re just going through a slump, Superman!” Ricky encourages him.
You can probably see where I’m going with this now.
“Evil Superman” has a metaphorical battle with his inner good guy Clark Kent in an auto wrecking yard. To me this battle is metaphorical on a few different levels, but I think most of us who have dealt with a serious mental health issue can relate to the feeling of having done things we’re not proud of when in the throes of a bad episode, and then having to wrestle with our inner demons of depression or trauma to get back to our “real” self.
When a floozy recognizes the recovered Superman from an earlier indiscreet tryst, he boldly and confidently tells her, “That wasn’t me.” Gosh, I sure do feel that way about some of my manic encounters, and I wish I could be as badass and well-respected as Superman and say “That wasn’t me.” It *was* me, though—I just wasn’t in the driver’s seat at the time. It’s hard to emphasize to someone who hasn’t experienced it just how little control you truly have over your actions in a full-blown psychotic state. The really hard part is, you’re still accountable for them. Sadly, you can’t explain to someone that Kryptonite reconstructed from the input of a deep-space weather satellite and the tar from a Camel cigarette (I’ll never get over that) caused my behavior, but in the same strange way something I didn’t expect came out of the clear blue sky and messed with my chemicals to the point where it pinged all my impulse centers and lowered all my inhibitions, and I really wasn’t, for all intents and purposes, myself. I feel you, Superman.
Antidepressants may not work the way we think they do—but how much does that matter? Initially scientists and researchers thought the drugs worked to correct a “chemical imbalance” in the brain, especially a balance of the chemical serotonin, which was linked with mood. It’s now recognized that the mechanics of antidepressants are much more complex than we originally thought. It’s still not entirely understood how they work, but one newer theory is that they may actually help form new connections between cells in the brain, and they may also increase other chemicals in the brain that aid in that cell growth.
Most people who take antidepressants—and not surprisingly, the numbers have gone up recently—have to cycle through a few until they find one that works well for them. And then, that particular drug usually takes some time to start working. It also may cause unpleasant side effects that interfere with your sleep, appetite, or suicidal ideation—all things you are probably trying to use the antidepressant to treat.
There is still hope, though. In a clinical trial studying the effects of antidepressants, half of the participants had significantly improved after using either the first or second medication they tried, and nearly 70 percent of people had become symptom-free by the fourth antidepressant. Trial and error and perseverance are often key to getting antidepressants to work for you.
Of course, no matter how they work, or which one works best for your personal “brain chemistry,” antidepressants aren’t a magic bullet. Important factors like sleep, diet, and exercise are also necessary, and can work just as well as antidepressant drugs for mood balance. The catch-22 I always find is that depression itself often makes these cures for depression impossible. Depression can interrupt your sleep and make you too fatigued to exercise or cook well, for example. Severe depression can even make it a chore to get out of bed, shower, or get dressed. I had one doctor describe it to me this way: Antidepressants can sometimes help “cut through the fog” long enough to give you the motivation to make the other lifestyle changes you need to treat your depression.
Don’t forget our last event of the 2022 festival season is tomorrow, 2:00 p.m., at the Edgewater branch of the Chicago Public Library. I’m trying to do a last-minute push to ensure that Marty Lang, who is kind and passionate enough to travel here from Memphis to speak about his film, gets an audience to ask him some Q’s!
Stay With Me, a film about a young woman struggling with an unspecified mental illness and the friends coping with the aftermath of her suicide, felt like one of the more relatable films in the festival to me. It had a lot of warmth, some humor, and some impressive writing and acting for an indie drama which made the characters feel very much like real people. I think it’s entertaining and engaging, and a great pick for a live screening.
Writer-director Marty Lang will be in attendance for a discussion after the film and I am very interested to hear his thoughts about it.
This program is sponsored by the Diversability Advocacy Committee of the Chicago Public Library. It screens as part of Mental Filmness, a Chicago-based film festival about mental health.
It wasn’t just a dream…I really was selected for a grant and exhibition by the Ryan Licht Sang Bipolar Foundation! For one night I got to be an artist superstar. The opening night at the Zolla Lieberman gallery was definitely the fanciest and most high-profile art event I have ever been a part of. I wore an “artist” ribbon (that they gave me, of course ) so people could come ask me about my art, and some did. A professional photographer snapped photos (including a photo of me with the photo inspiration and photographer responsible for photo inspiration). There was food that was so fancy and artistic-looking that I actually didn’t know how to eat it, and there were folks pouring your wine and circulating around asking if you needed refills and a special toast to all the artists. Ooo la la!
Of course, as impressive as all that was, the most special thing about the INSIGHTS V exhibition is that it was designed to highlight artists who live with bipolar disorder. I got to meet Dusty Sang, who co-founded the Ryan Licht Sang Bipolar Foundation with his wife to honor the memory of their son Ryan, who died at the age of 24 from complications with bipolar disorder. Some of Ryan’s art and sayings were hung in the gallery alongside the other artists. I got to tell Dusty how honored I was by this exhibit after my own struggles with bipolar disorder, and he told me everyone in the room had their struggles too. That was one of several times I teared up during the evening. The fact that this exhibit exists to celebrate creativity and the bipolar brain, to me, shows a huge leap forward in terms of awareness, breaking down stigma, and celebrating the accomplishments of individuals who live with a serious mental health diagnosis.
I’m glad I’ve gotten so much mileage out of this painting as well, because it occurred to me later it’s the only thing I’ve painted all year (specifically to try to enter the competition, which had to be a painting of a person or place important to you—I had planned on painting four more pieces to submit the max of five and never found the time). It belongs to the foundation’s permanent collection now, and I couldn’t be prouder. It’s definitely time to get back to the old easel though, especially since school break’s coming up.
Tonight, on an election day here in the States, it seemed fitting to tabulate the virtual ballots and announce the virtual fest awards. The way we usually award these is by looking at the films that received the most positive votes and then fitting them within the categories we usually give out: Stigma Breaker, Empathy, Realism, or Audience Awards.
The Locked Door, a short film telling the story of Igor who has been confined to his apartment for months with agoraphobia, earns the Realism Award. Ukrainian director Dmitry Badera was obviously passionate about telling a story about mental health in a culture where it is rarely heard, and spent a lot of time researching and learning about agoraphobia through interviews. I wonder if this film resonated with viewers a bit more strongly since most of us have dealt with being trapped indoors and the anxiety of leaving home in one way or another since the pandemic struck. Badera obviously struck a chord working with few resources, and the way he portrays Igor’s fear is never over-dramatized, instead showing a gradual build-up through therapy and exchanges with his brother to the ultimate moment where he decides to leave the house. It all seems too real, probably to many of us, now.
The unclassifiable video-essay/memoir/see other How to Explain Your Mental Illness to Stanley Kubrick seems to embody the spirit of the Stigma Breaker award to me. The very concept of the film lies in challenging stigmas and stereotypes that Stanley Kubrick presents in his films and that permeate culture in general, such as equating mental illness with dramatic breakdowns and violence. I personally feel the film also breaks stigma in the way the filmmaker Philip Brubaker makes himself vulnerable and relates memories of some of his own struggles with bipolar disorder. Philip has survived severe episodes, has gained stability, and has worked as a successful artist, filmmaker, and video essayist. This helps break down stigma about people who live with serious mental illnesses and what they are capable of achieving.
Just In Case, the empathetic short directed by Kirsty Robinson-Ward and written by the writer-actress April Kelley, seems to be the most likely contender for the Empathy Award. I’m a little biased because as I’ve related here before, the film reminds me so strongly of conversations I’ve had with my own father about my bipolar disorder. However, I’ve heard at least a couple of other people say that it reminded them of different emotionally difficult conversations with their own parents. There is surely something deeply resonant about it whether or not the topic of the conversation was bipolar disorder. However, my hope, and I’m pretty sure April Kelley’s hope, would be that the natural empathy the film generates will serve as an engine for understanding bipolar disorder. Those who live with the condition can feel less alone when they empathize with the daughter in the film voicing some of her darkest thoughts. Those like the father character in the film—who don’t really understand, but truly want to for a loved one or for some other reason—may be able to gain some insight and empathy for what can be a truly debilitating and misunderstood disease.
Where Monsters Lurk, the other top vote-wrangler, seems most well-suited for the Audience Award. This short operates as a legit, entertaining horror film during the ultimate month of horror October, whilst also exposing the ultimate horror—being trapped inside a mind so depressed that it literally turns everything inside your apartment against you. The film works as both psychological horror and as object horror as writer-director Beth Ashby continually finds inventive ways to use inanimate objects that main character Kelly interacts with as a reflection of her deteriorating mind. This invention is essential because Kelly’s mind has become so dark she hasn’t been able to leave her apartment in awhile to interact with a real live human. Congratulations on earning a Realism Award for accomplishing what the best of the horror genre does, crafting a film that is scary precisely because it plays upon the monsters lurking in the back of the mind and in our everyday lives.
I was personally a little surprised by the number of submissions we received this year addressing bipolar disorder. These selections were not my personal bias; in the past we have only received two or three about it, and this year we received several outstanding selections about it. This disorder is fairly uncommon and commonly misunderstood, so my heart was heartened (maybe *that’s* personal) in feeling that it’s gradually gaining awareness and becoming less stigmatized.
I’d also like to share: 466 total orders (passes and tickets), compared to 331 last year, and 121 for year one of the virtual fest. Still not astronomical for a free virtual festival, but hey, growth is always good.
Congratulations to the award winners, and congratulations to all of the filmmakers. Thank you for sharing your stories with us, for inspiring our modest audience and hopefully many others. I know most of you are aware of our uphill battle and say things like, if you could reach even one person, it was worth it. Well, you reached at least a few—including me.
More later. I know this is late and may try to bump it later, but many of y’all are in differing time zones. And more to come about the future of Mental Filmness. I want this all to be about the award winners for now, and mad (pun intended) congrats.