New Pin – Mental Filmness 2022 Developments

This new pin will be at the top of the site this season for news on the developing Mental Filmness 2022 festival (look at me, blogging like a pro!).

So far our timeline has been running along smoothly and we are on track. We notified filmmakers on September 10th and have been putting together the working pieces of the virtual film festival. We should be able to run the virtual fest our originally slated dates, from October 8th (the Saturday before World Mental Health Day) through November 6th. Acceptances have been rolling in, films are being uploaded, and you can check back here soon for a full schedule of our Eventive virtual festival, most likely by the end of next week.

This year will also mark our comeback as a partially live festival, with a limited number of in-person screenings in Chicago. The big one that I have publicized and will continue to publicize is the screening already booked at the Davis Theater with triple-threat talented writer-director-actresses Alyssa Thordarson and Vanessa Leonard in conversation with their realistic and empathetic films on mental health. Please bookmark the date of October 15th at 7 p.m. for that if you are local, you do not want to miss it! We are also looking into a possible Chicago Public Library screening like we did last year, except with a guest filmmaker in person this time, so stay tuned for that information.

As always, all of our programs are free to the public in the spirit of our mission to spread mental health awareness.

You can continue to check this pin at the top of the site for new dates and developments. I say this every year, but 2022 is going to be a great year for the fest!

Spread The Word! – “Marketing” A Mental Health Film Festival

Acceptances have been rolling in, films are being uploaded, events are being planned. Mental Filmness 2022 is starting to gel and cohere in a wonderful way. Now it’s time to get the word out and promote to viewers.

Marketing and promotion is my weakest asset, and I know it. I have a couple of helpers this year, but probably need more. The reasons for this are many-fold.

A lot of it has to do with myself. We all contain multitudes, and believe it or not, in many ways my personality type is that of the classically shy librarian. I never want it to appear that I’m bragging about anything I do—I always want to put the emphasis on the importance of the theme and the amazing lineup of films by the brave filmmakers telling their story. But then I always question myself—is this endeavor, in a way, selfish? Do I want some attention or some validation or gift from the universe for my suffering?

What makes this nagging self-doubt uncomfortable is that the answer to these questions is at least a partial yes. Like most people do, I like being recognized or praised for achievements. I like being associated with a cause. It’s selfish for me in a way because others’ stories about mental health DO validate me and my experiences in a way, and help me feel less alone–even if the hope is it will reach others, as well. And sure, I don’t mind getting kind commentary and compliments for hard work.

Another big reason is because of the sensitive nature of the topic, I want to avoid any kind of marketing techniques that seem….well, kind of tacky. I feel like our biggest and most appreciative audience is probably in the mental health field rather than in the film festival world, and it seems kind of invasive and inappropriate to try to “market” something to a suicide loss survivor or depression and bipolar support group—even when what you’re “marketing” is a free collection of films screened by a recently incorporated nonprofit, and the goal is just to get them seen and related to.

I’m still trying to define the audience in a way. Unfortunately, I feel like mental illness is one of those topics, like the notorious topics of politics and religion, that people don’t change their minds about easily until it deeply touches their life—unless they or a loved one experience it, it’s all too easy to think of as abstract or unreal. I’ve had some people say to me, “This film really helped me understand my son’s depression,” or something along those lines, but I feel like those people already *wanted* to understand. People who are resistant to the recognition of mental illness as a real illness are a more difficult audience to reach, and then does it just become preaching to the choir?

And then people who *do* live with mental illness may not necessarily want to see the films because they feel the films will be too triggering or depressing. I often try to explain we receive a diverse variety of entries, and many filmmakers have found humor in it, and many films are uplifting but I won’t lie to you—some are depressing. Some don’t have happy endings, and I think that’s both by the design of the filmmaker and jury selection. We do have a realism award, after all. I also totally understand that reaction from those who already cope with mental illness on a daily basis.

I’ve had some ask if this is the first festival of its kind, and it’s not, but it’s the first in Chicago, which is usually how I bill it. I’ve researched other mental health film festivals, and many of them partner with a mental health organization and screen at a university or somewhere similar. I do feel like our mission falls under the umbrella of “charitable or educational” rather than “entertainment” (and the former is what we registered our nonprofit under). At the same time, I feel like our visiting filmmakers deserve a real movie theater, red carpet, and audience for being so brave and making such bold, stigma-breaking art, and I feel like we need to fill seats in venues for them, just like any other more traditional entertainment-based film fest.

I guess now maybe you can see some of the issues inherent in promoting a mental-health based film festival. I feel like this is a growing topic and the openness and conversation is building every day, and so may our audience (hopefully).

World Suicide Prevention Day

It’s been brought to my attention that today is also World Suicide Prevention Day. I happen to be in a high-risk group and have had my own brushes with suicide. Researchers have estimated that between 20 and 60 percent of individuals living with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their life. I’ve also heard statistics saying that the death rate from suicide is approximately twenty times higher for those who have bipolar disorder compared to the general population.

Those numbers sound pretty grim, and I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that I’ve had the experiences I have. Oddly enough, when I hear figures like these, I find them somewhat comforting. It’s very sad that so many have lost their lives to such a terrible disease, but it reinforces that it is, in fact, a disease. I can’t generalize and everybody’s story is different, but I believe that at least some people who come close enough to the brink of suicide no longer feel they’re in control or that they are making an active choice. They are very sick and their sense of reality is often skewed. I suppose I am mostly speaking of suicide within the context of mental illness in a broad sense here. My experience was like that.

In at least some circles, there is a greater understanding today that suicide may not necessarily have been a choice. Suicide may not have been selfish. Suicide may not have been a cry for attention or help. It’s more and more common to hear people say someone “died by suicide”—as they would say if you had died of an insidious disease rather than a shameful, stigmatized “act.” Instead of saying someone who died by suicide was weak or selfish, you are more likely these days to hear someone who died by suicide fought a long, hard battle with depression, and they ultimately lost. That takes some grit, after all.

What is the ultimate goal of de-stigmatizing suicide, becoming more accepting of it, classifying it more as a disease? I think the main hope is that when communities talk about suicide more openly without fear or shame, it will make it easier for those who have suicidal thoughts to express them and thereby facilitate early intervention and thus prevention. That is a lofty goal and somewhat idealistic. I tend to be a little more cynical and I think some of the causes of suicide are factors difficult if not impossible to change–financial status, mental illness and the ability to get treatment for it, and social support networks, being among them. Still, even my cynical heart melts a little when people frame suicide as a symptom of a disease. It doesn’t absolve me of the hurt I have inflicted or all of the blame I feel. However, it is healing because in a way, I can realize that I was sick in the same way others with my illness, statistically proven, get sick. And that makes me feel less alone, and a little more willing to forgive myself.

Notification Day! – September 10th

I’ve been wanting to do more with the fest but the past week or two I’ve been watching and re-watching submitted films. I swear, it’s like we’ve developed a “brand” at this point, and every year there are so many more films that hit closer to that target. I think a lot of it has to do with the increased openness and conversations surrounding mental health. As usual there will be some truly PAINFUL cuts to be made, so please don’t be discouraged if we couldn’t screen your film this year please do consider submitting in future years. In addition to film quality there are also several other factors at work like diversity of culture, area of mental health portrayed, tone, etc., where I feel like something that doesn’t fit into the “zeitgeist” this year might some other year.

Anyway, all those who were brave and generous enough to submit should look for a notification by tomorrow night at the latest. Filmfreeway is good about many things, and one is absolutely requiring you to notify your submitters either way. Just to express how seriously I take these final decisions, they have an “auto” function for that, but I don’t use it. I go to each film, one by one, and click the button. I try to remember any jury feedback, and I try to remember what I can about it and if it offered anything unique for that particular year, and if I should give it a re-watch. I want to make sure everything is an informed and heartfelt decision. (And again, submitters should not take this the wrong way if not chosen for this year, there are always selections it PAINS me to pass over).

So….look for a little fairy delivering something in your inbox by the end of tomorrow night. Sadly not a tooth fairy with money, but a film festival fairy with love. And whatever the notice might be? It will be delivered with love. Trust me, we watched your film, we were most likely moved by it, and if not, we were moved that you cared enough to seek us out and submit. Maybe that fairy is just saying, please submit again!

Mental Filmness 2022 – What’s The Plan?

The deadline for submissions for Mental Filmness 2022, August 27th, has passed. So what’s the plan for the fest this year?

Given the uncertain nature of our world the last few years, I’ve always had to be rather speculative in the event description provided to the submitting filmmakers. It would usually say something along the lines of, at the very least, the show will go on and there will be a virtual festival and perhaps virtual interviews. Then depending on the state of things, we may be able to host a live festival in Chicago.

This is the first year since the inaugural festival in 2019 that I’ve felt comfortable enough to host a live event–reasonably certain both that I could secure a venue and that people would come out for it, fingers crossed. And as you may have seen in my earlier post, we are finally hosting that hoped-for live event at the Davis Theater the evening of October 15th, with two really incredible films and guests.

Every other filmmaker who submitted, if their film is selected, will be offered a spot in our virtual festival hosted through Eventive. The festival will be available for viewing and voting all around the world. These films will still be eligible for awards and interviews. Submitting filmmakers will be notified of our decision on September 10th, and they will be notified regardless of the result.

Every year of Mental Filmness has been magical and and a learning experience in its own way. If I had the choice, I don’t think I would have considered hosting a virtual festival. I really didn’t want to let go of the idea or momentum of Mental Filmness after the first year though, so I decided to give it a whirl. (Much of this was planned during an actual shelter in place order in Chicago where we were not encouraged to leave our homes, and my workplace was temporarily closed). I was surprised by how putting together the virtual festival brought me such a sense of comfort and belonging. I was lucky enough to speak to some of the filmmakers via Zoom and feel like I connected with them. I could give the films more exposure by keeping them up longer and opening them up to viewers around the world. By the same token, I could interview filmmakers from Singapore or Australia while sitting in my living room in Chicago.

Now I feel like I can’t really give the virtual festival up. I love the idea that I have friends and family members viewing in other states, and that the friends and family members of the filmmakers can watch from their far-flung locations. I’m almost sure it always means we can include more films and give the films more exposure. Now that I’ve started the virtual fest, I feel like it’s here to stay.

I’ve learned better than to even *try* to predict the future, but I can foresee Mental Filmness continuing as a hybrid festival of some sort—as many film festivals have now become. After dipping our toes back in the water this year with an evening of live programming, I would like to expand the number of films we can offer in Chicago in the future. I know that the feeling of being with a live audience and the filmmakers in person is a truly unique and relatable experience. However, now that it’s been kicked off, I expect the virtual fest will continue work its own magic, hopefully finding its way into the intimate spaces of a viewer who needs it.

Mental Filmness 2022 – Live!

All’s been quiet on the Western Front here, but that’s actually because the puzzle pieces are falling into place for Mental Filmness 2022. This year we’re doing what the kids call a hybrid film festival: the majority of our films will be offered once again virtually through the Eventive platform in our wide-reaching and increasingly popular virtual festival. However, we are programming one *very special* live event from our Chicago home base that has been literally years in the making (no hyperbole).

We’re rolling out the red carpet for our “comeback” live event and hosting it at the beautiful historic Davis Theater in Lincoln Square. Save the date on your calendar, it will be October 15th from 7 p.m.-10 p.m. (five days after World Mental Health Day).

Around 7 p.m. we will screen the short film “After: A Love Story.” A dear friend of the festival noticed this gem when it screened at the Chicago Critics Film Festival and it involves some local talent. Thus, we are going to be lucky enough to have writer, producer, and lead actress Alyssa Thordarson joining us in conversation about it. The film was directed and produced by Clare Cooney, who is well-known for her work in the Chicago film scene but is based out of L.A.

“Quite often in movies we see the most climactic moment of a character’s life, but we don’t always get to see what happens after,” say Clare and Alyssa of the short film. “After: A Love Story” tells the story of a surviving couple as they work to begin healing the emotional and psychological wounds of a shared trauma.

Around 8 p.m. we will screen “A Story Worth Living,” with director, writer, and producer Vanessa Leonard, as well some of her cast and crew members, in attendance. This is the screening that has been years in the making. Vanessa wrote to me after the very first year of Mental Filmness in 2019 expressing an interest in a future screening right before the pandemic hit. The festival shifted to a virtual presence in response to that crisis. Vanessa continued to inquire about the festival and express an interest. However, she only wanted to take part in it if she could visit Chicago and present her film in front of a live audience. This year she will finally get that well-deserved chance. “A Story Worth Living” is a warm and relatable feature film that portrays mental illness in a realistic and empathetic light, perfectly fitting within the mission of the festival. Vanessa’s continued passion for mental health advocacy and the mission of our festival have been deeply moving to me and I am so excited to finally host this big-screen moment.

The virtual festival is still coming together so stay tuned for news about that. As usual, there are so many surprising, challenging, stigma-breaking films that continue to roll in. There will be some difficult decisions made and ultimately, an impressive lineup that runs the gamut from documentary to comedy to animation to horror to the unclassifiable. Our plan is for the virtual festival to become available on October 8th, two days before World Mental Health Day, and stay up through the rest of October for audiences to unlock, discover, and vote for films at their leisure.

Please share far and wide! So excited about this year’s festival!

Creativity & The Bipolar Brain

Years ago now (which I can’t believe) I was honored to be asked to do an exhibit on behalf of the Diversability Committee at the Chicago Public Library (where I work) celebrating awareness of bipolar disorder. One of my colleagues publicized it by making a blog post and a very well-intentioned admin called me before it was published on the site and asked me, “Are you okay with them saying you have bipolar disorder?” I realize it came from a place of concern about privacy and perhaps liability as well. But I told her yes, I had written that, and the point of the art exhibition was to highlight disabilities, including mental disabilities. Again, while I believe it was well-intentioned, it demonstrated to me that there’s still a stigma in society when it comes to revealing invisible disabilities and mental health disorders. https://www.chipublib.org/…/mythical-creatures-art…/

Flash forward to today. Today I am in a whole exhibit where not only do all the artists have bipolar disorder, but the whole darn thing is a celebration of creativity and the bipolar brain! How far we’ve come. There is still stigma but I believe that we are truly breaking ground if something like this can exist, which would not have been possible years ago.

Progress.

Mania: The Cause of, and Solution to, All of Life’s Problems

Earlier this year, I made an appearance on the Director’s Club podcast to discuss the work of Todd Haynes, and to chat a bit about Mental Filmness and mental health movies. 

Most people would agree Haynes’s 1998 film Safe is his masterpiece. It tells the story of upper-middle-class housewife Carol White, who begins to suffer from a mysterious, severe environmental illness that causes her headaches, breathing problems, and even nosebleeds when she is exposed to everyday chemicals. 

One interesting thing I learned from podcast creator and host Jim Laczkowski is that Todd Haynes stated he believed the illness was the best thing that ever happened to Carol. It disrupted her mundane, ordinary existence and prompted her to question her life and her surroundings.

It’s occurred to me recently that I share some similarities with Carol’s awakening. Don’t get me wrong: I hate, hate, hate cliche sayings about how adversity defines us, or how what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. I subscribe more to what famous zinester Aaron Cometbus once said: “Death is painless, but everything else hurts like hell.” And I would never in a million years describe my bipolar disorder as the best thing that ever happened to me. In fact, I still generally consider it the worst thing that ever happened to me. But did it change my life? There’s no denying it did.

I think Haynes’s main point is that Carol’s disorder opened her eyes to the world around her and gave her a search for meaning. Bipolar disorder opened my eyes to the world around me. When I was manic, I walked all over my neighborhood saying odd things and behaving strangely in public. When I see people with mental illness wandering the street behaving that way now, I identify with them. They’re just like me, I think, and they could have been me if they had the privileges I have, or I could have been them if I didn’t. I have, among other privileges, a good job with health benefits that affords me coverage for medication and therapy, as well as a good social support system to hold me up if and when I fall.

I don’t know if I would have gone back to school to earn a JD if I didn’t feel the way I do about mental health. My experiences have enlightened me regarding a broken mental health system and the need for advocacy and justice in that field.

I don’t think Mental Filmness would exist, but for my bipolar disorder. Though I’d experienced depression and anxiety before, it took a very extreme, life-altering mental health episode to convince me I wanted to advocate for others and promote films that would provide a mirror to what others were feeling, to help them feel less alone.

I’m faced with a contradiction: the terrifying period of my life that resulted in my diagnosis of bipolar disorder was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it also shattered a bubble of privilege in which I’d been living for years. It gave me something to fight for—my life, and the lives of others who have to fight to be alive. Most people will tell you having a severe mental illness is hard work. You have to work every day to stay on top of it with all the tools in your toolbox–-diet, exercise, medication, therapy, social support, fulfilling work and hobbies, self-care—and sometimes it still isn’t enough. When you’re doing the work, you become hyper-aware of the world around you, and how everything connects to everything else, in a way you weren’t before, when you were just living your life.

I’m sure most people who have experienced mania felt they had unique insights or revelations they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Even if a lot of them end up being nonsensical, those revelations open a door in your brain that wasn’t there before. They give you, at least momentarily, the feeling of being a special and super-intuitive being. It’s a terrible price to pay for feeling special or unique, and I’d wager most people would tell you the trade-off isn’t worth it when it comes to the depressive crash and a lifetime of maintenance and management. Still, it was a crucial defining experience that became part of my identity. Sometimes I can still feel remnants of that hyper-intuition and what it’s like to play inside the interiors of my mind. The possibilities are endless.

So if people wonder why I’m so hung up identifying as bipolar and this mental health advocacy thing now–it’s kind of the “Safe” effect. Bipolar disorder was the terrible disease that uprooted my life and left me in shambles to recover and reinvent myself. It was also the catalyst that would make me forever curious about my strange brain and the brains of others. Part of that curiosity, and healing process, comes in sharing stories about mental health. That is really what Mental Filmness is, to me.

Julianne Moore as Carol White re-examines her life in “Safe.”

Off The Grid

I love this opening shot of the short Glimmers Of Light of a character who hasn’t left his home in six months after a panic attack. It screened during our first virtual festival in 2020, and I thought it would resonate strongly with viewers during the pandemic, though I think it was a little sadly overlooked. It’s a low-key but effective film—Chicago had a stay-at-home order at one point and I even remember being comforted by having the same meal every day, eggs and bacon and sometimes pancakes, which I often ordered online. I’m not sure it’s fair to say I’ve developed full-blown agoraphobia since that time. However, I definitely have developed much more anxiety about leaving my home, and not even due to fear of illness. I just know the world out there is unpredictable and sometimes painful, and I can’t control it and program it according to routine. I’ve grown so much more comfortable with solitude, some might say too comfortable. 

I decided to take some vacation around my birthday this year, and as usual on my “vacations” now, made a huge to-do list and only chipped away at it. I kind of went off the grid for the most part to try to get things done and work on myself. This wasn’t too much different than my norm recently as I’ve mostly been “off the grid” anyway due to busy-ness and my overprogrammed life and some of that lingering social anxiety. I worked a little more on the festival, but I would have preferred to do more. I kept up with my summer school homework and cleaned and organized a bit, but not as much as I wanted to. I taught myself how to sew – badly. I need to perfect it, but I think I have the basics down. I worked a bit on art and especially learning how to print on products with a new color printer I bought, but realized I needed some more supplies to do it right. 

I think the best parts of my little staycation were when I was actually pulled a bit out of my comfort zone. My 40th birthday was in 2020, so that landmark was spent at home, alone, with cats. However, my best friend Jim sent me a pizza that day, and this year he took me out in person. It was pretty low-key; he asked what I wanted to do, and I decided on something I hadn’t done in a long time that I’d dearly missed, going to an estate sale. We found one in Logan Square that was pretty modest and tame, but that’s where I picked up the color printer, plus a few other little treasures, because I always manage to find some. While we were there we had brunch at Bang Bang! Biscuits & Pie which I had also dearly missed because the location near me closed, and their made-from-scratch biscuits and pie were just as tasty as I remembered, and it was gorgeous weather to eat on their patio. Finally, we walked down the beach to view the “World of Tomorrow” community murals in Rogers Park, which were really colorful and fun. It was a lovely day.

Put a bird on it – estate sale treasures

Then over the weekend I got an unexpected call from a friend, and I could tell she really needed my help. I’ve gotten enough support from people over the years that I feel it’s truly my time to give back whenever I can when someone is feeling down. We ended up going to an art gallery and though I was definitely anxious and hesitant, the people at the gallery were so friendly and fun, the art was so interesting, and there was overall such a positive vibe that I let down my guard, laughed, and even danced a bit. The next day I even responded to a brunch invite from some dear friends I hadn’t seen in too long. It was hard to say no since it was another beautiful day weather-wise, it was right down the street, and I missed them. Nothing bad happened that time either – they treated me just as if no time had passed at all, and it kind of felt like it hadn’t.

In the world of tomorrow, cats will inherit the earth.

Of course, bad things do sometimes happen—that’s the inevitable risk we take for interacting with the world and not living in a cabin in Norway. People are fallible, they all have their idiosyncrasies, and as hard as we try, we’re sometimes going to make mistakes and get hurt. As I said recently on a podcast, “Life is hard and often painful. But what else is there?”

Bipolar Depression & The Fabric of the Universe (Ideas of Reference)

Autumn 2015, around the time of my manic episode, life obviously began changing for me personally. The weird thing is, I felt like it also started changing in the world at large. America actually elected Trump as its president, which no matter where you stand politically was historically unprecedented. And then things got stranger and stranger, with almost daily scandals and the emergence of Q-Anon. And then things got stranger and scarier still with a global pandemic, self-isolation, and the fear of nuclear war.

Yes, the world definitely started to get noticeably worse in 2016, just a couple of months after I crashed into black bipolar depression. And it’s not just me. I remember people widely sharing that meme about David Bowie’s death on January 10th, 2016, something along the lines of “I’m not saying that David Bowie was holding the fabric of the universe together, but just look around you.” That meme was circulating right around the time I was experiencing my own, personal internal unraveling.

Was it possible that my sanity was actually, literally holding the universe together? I doubt that so much rides on the balance of my brain chemistry. To think so would be a delusion of grandeur—highly inflating my own importance or influence on the world.

I’ve been curious for awhile whether that whole “perceived exterior reflection of inner mental state” had a more specific term or title. I feel like other people must have felt that way, too. Like what if your parent or spouse died right before the stock market crash, and then you had to live through the Great Depression? That catastrophe would probably *seem* linked to you, even if you knew it rationally wasn’t. Back when your loved one died, not only were less sad every day, but the world was actually, literally a better place—for everyone, not just for you personally. I guess you could just call it bad timing, a personal tragedy becoming forever linked with a dark time in history in general.

Anyway, thanks to a psychiatrist friend of mine, I found that this is indeed a specific type of delusion, and it’s called an “idea of reference.” Ideas and delusions of reference are described in Wikipedia as the phenomenon of an individual experiencing innocuous events or mere coincidences and believing they have strong personal significance.” It is “the notion that everything one perceives in the world relates to one’s own destiny,” usually in a negative and hostile manner. The world does seem noticeably worse than it was in 2015, but it doesn’t bear any magical relationship to my mental health diagnosis—it just is what it is.

I should note that I experience more of an “idea of reference” rather than a delusion, because though I feel the reference strongly at times, I am able to challenge its reality. When I think of the “before times”–the times before bipolar disorder manifested itself in my life–I wonder whether I was naturally happier with less effort because I was more emotionally balanced generally, or because the world itself was actually better–happier, more carefree, not as scared or isolated. I think it’s a coincidental combination of both, and anything else is an idea of reference.