Pep Talk With Kagan Goh

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.

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