Throwback Thursday – How It All Began

How’s this for a throwback Thursday?

The very first Mental Filmness film festival took place on Saturday, October 12, 2019. You can see how special it was from the program, because the next day was magically Saturday, October 13th! šŸ˜‚

Very few artifacts exist from Number One. I told everyone to take pictures but I think the only one who actually remembered was my best friend Jim, so most of these are from him. Thankfully the kind Comfort Station volunteer on Sunday night, Matthew, snapped the adorable photo of me and Kat Dolan so I have some evidence of how we were blessed with her amazing presence. I didn’t even realize at the time these would become the sole representative photos of the fest for awhile, as its future was to shift online.

At about the time the festival was about to start, I thought I recognized two of the visiting filmmakers, my family, and a couple of other people. It turned out there was some kind of technical glitch with my laptop where they couldn’t connect it to the projector, probably a bad port. Yeah I know, as everyone told me then, always make a backup, and always make a backup for your backup (and then test that a day beforehand).

I felt like everyone was burning holes into my back with their eyes as I kept force-laughing and telling them we were having technical difficulties. I remember a professor once joking he’d never seen anyone actually die and get swallowed up by the earth when they were about to give a public speech, but that’s just how I felt. Probably the only thing that kept me from having a full-blown panic attack was Jim being the picture of calm, saying stuff like “This is going to be so much fun, a film festival” and then starting to play the piano.

And, lo and behold, somehow it all worked out. By the time we uploaded the films for the first shorts block from my busted laptop into a flash drive and transferred them over to the good backup laptop, some more of my friends had filtered in, and even a few strangers. People weren’t upset, they just talked and joked that I was having regular first-year initiation problems.

We were graced with filmmakers visiting from Philadelphia, California, and North Carolina when I couldn’t pay them a dime. They were just really passionate about their mission, seeing their films with an audience, and also, I think they all said, seeing Chicago. Philip Brubaker with his film about the connection between mental health and art, Travis Neal, with his “comedy of suicide and pizza,” and Kat Dolan with her love poem about depression were all fantastic guests, so gracious, interesting, funny, and smart.

Of course I had no idea what I was doing, and thankfully had a lot of help. We received over 1,200 submissions on Filmfreeway and over 50 or 60 percent I’d say had nothing to do with mental health. By the grace of God, there was a fierce jury to help find the diamonds in the rough. Surprisingly, as has always been the case, there were still enough relevant, insightful, and entertaining films to run for a festival twice our length, and some tough cuts had to be made.

I didn’t realize then I’d have to make the festival shift online due to a pandemic. One thing the virtual fest most certainly does is takes away the anxiety of waiting with a visiting filmmaker in an almost empty room. Being able to expand the viewer base as well as the programming offering and length of time has certainly led to more viewers. Of course, a lot of those personal and very human foibles and moments that make life both humorous and embarrassing are lost.

I like the idea of a hybrid in the future: I’d like to continue to include a virtual component and just host a one-off night here in Chicago (with only one night to embarrass myself to full capacity).

It is absolutely amazing how we have grown, how people have found us and connected over us, since the night of maybe 25-person capacity or so premiere in Comfort Station. It was amazing, in its own way, from the start though, because it had heart. šŸ’“

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