Mental Filmness 2021 Wrap-Up & Awards

Hello hello!

Sadly, the festival for this year has *ended* ended. The good news is, this was by far our biggest year yet and hopefully it will continue to grow. Some analytics:

Mental Filmness 2020 Virtual Festival

61 total passes issued

78 tickets ordered

313 total streams

Mental Filmness 2021 Virtual Festival

150 total passes issued

200 tickets ordered

795 total streams

2021 Mental Filmness Awards:

Orchestrating Change, a runaway leader in audience votes, is a perfect fit for the Stigma Breaker Award given that the very mission statement of the Me/2 Orchestra is to break the stigma surrounding mental illness. This powerful documentary paints an intimate portrait of Ronald Braunstein, a world-renowned conductor who lost his career due to a bipolar manic episode, his wife Caroline Whiddon, a musician struggling with anxiety, and their plan. Their plan is to create an orchestra where they can celebrate their love of music in a stigma-free zone. Thus was born Me/2, the first orchestra for people living with mental illness.

Soon the orchestra becomes a much larger force than the couple had envisioned, and they find themselves performing in venues from subways to concert halls. Ronald also finds himself playing the role of mentor to young musicians struggling with their mental health. Orchestra members heal and change their lives by bonding with others through both music and mental illness.

Co-directors Margie Friedman and Barbara Multer-Wellin trail some of the orchestra’s most well-known long-term members and collect personal stories of struggles from a colorful cast of characters that are all too relatable. The filmmakers strike a delicate balance, not shying away from some of the uglier episodes of mental illness but also portraying characters who have experienced troubling incidents as gentle, resilient, and talented individuals. Through its depiction of so many interesting and creative people living with mental illness, struggling at times but conquering setbacks and finding success, Orchestrating Change humanizes a misunderstood topic and breaks stigma beautifully.

And then we had a, um….five-way tie. Wow! So I’m going to try to sort them out into the categories where I think they best belong.

Why I Disappeared by Maya Sarfowah seems destined for the Realism Award. A product of the mind of a 23-year-old from Ghana, the film’s goal was to create a visual depiction of a poem capturing a severe depressive episode she experienced in 2018. Ranging in imagery from a menacing figure driving with Ms. Sarfowah in the passenger seat, or pulling her along on ropes, it sends a clear metaphor that when you’re coping with heavy depression, you’re not in control of your own life. The short film also focuses on more realistic and less poetic details like how it’s difficult to get out of bed, return phone calls, or even shower when depressed. Maya’s spoken word creates a sad and steady rhythm against a backdrop of melancholy music while the images flash by and ultimately end on a hopeful note. Using sound, writing, and visuals, Maya Sarfowah masterfully and realistically depicts a depressive episode in expressive terms that belie her young age.

Out of the five-way tie, Seeking Oblivion seems like the natural fit for the other Realism Award. It’s kind of refreshing to receive a straightforward, character-based feature-length drama that realistically and humanely portrays depression and suicidal ideation. That is just what Brent Baird has done here with his character Jeremy’s quest to re-integrate into society after his suicide attempt and hospital stay.

Brent Baird presents a triple threat in writing, directing, and taking the lead acting role in Seeking Oblivion, and he makes the most of a small budget to create a very sympathetic story that is easy to get absorbed into. Jeremy’s past is swimming around in the subconscious of his brain, but as Baird has stated, Jeremy is really just a “normal guy” who is recovering from a bad incident. In fact, another major theme of the film is Jeremy assisting everyone else around him struggling with their own mental health-related problems, like addiction or self-harm. By showing that people who think about or attempt suicide are just people and that most people have problems, Brent Baird creates a tight-knit character drama that is both realistic and relatable.

It’s difficult to shoehorn Giulio Fiore’s Liquid Human into a category, but out of the available options it seems like the best fit for an Empathy Award. I say this because it is loosely based on a memoir about schizophrenia, which is a widely misunderstood mental illness. Using first-person perspective and sound design to chilling effect, the film places the viewer squarely in the shoes of someone suffering from disorganized thoughts and voices. It also contains a mystical element that invites the audience to see the main character in a different light. Overall, the film creates empathy for someone who hears voices and even an awed respect for how they transcend them.

Lindsey Doolittle’s Goodnight Mr. Vincent Gogh receives an Empathy Award as well. We may have sent some traffic her way with a library program, but people obviously liked what they saw. Lindsey’s film has been written about extensively here already but I will say it is probably the most empathetic sentiment about a loss to suicide I have ever seen.

And that leaves…bum bum bum! The Audience Award!

The Audience Award is awarded to Mental As Everything, a film so unique it’s actually difficult to describe. It’s kind of a mash-up of a live cabaret stage show, storytelling, and comedy all about mental health and breaking down stigma. Damon Smith openly shares his struggles with his dual diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. He joins his stage partner Adam Coad in this touring show in the hopes of entertaining an audience while also increasing understanding about mental illness and connecting with others experiencing it. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s vulnerable, and often it’s in song. It’s refreshing to see the friendship Damon and Adam have developed, both through their bonding over mental health and their musical creative partnership. It’s always nice to see something that’s a little on the lighter side without sacrificing any honesty about the reality of living with mental illness. I believe this film was a crowd-pleaser because it offers a lot of creativity and joy while at the same sharing some truth about what it’s like to live with various mental illnesses. That’s a tough balance to pull off, but Damon Smith and Adam Coad do it well.

Trailing that were several other films neck-and-neck with high user ratings, but a line must be drawn somewhere. Really all these films were quite excellent already, selected for their merit from a big pool of interesting films. Everyone who submitted, everyone who was selected, and everyone who won audience awards should all be very proud. We need to keep talking about the stigma of mental health to help others and even save lives, so keep up the good work.

Creator interviews are still up at https://mentalfilmness2021.eventive.org/interviews2021 if you missed one for a film you enjoyed.

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