Fitting into the theme of trauma in first responders this year is the realistic and relatable short 10-33 (police code for “help me quickly”). The writing and directing team Alyssa Bruno and Teryn Lawson craft a quiet, subtle film here about a EMT experiencing the aftermath of a work-related trauma without explicitly describing the triggering event or going into any graphic visual detail (not unlike After: A Love Story in a way, now that I think about it).
I recently watched another powerful documentary (The Quell Foundation’s Sound the Alarm) about first responders that expounded upon how people who are drawn to the career are often the type who want to help others to the extent that they put others ahead of themselves and end up neglecting their own mental health. The EMT at issue in this film here exemplifies this quality. She has to continue pushing through, even when her hands are shaking, even when she can’t sleep, because there are lives to save and there’s a job to do. Any effect it has on her doesn’t ultimately matter when there are other lives at stake.
Films like this, Sound the Alarm, Bridge to the Other Side, and others demonstrate that there is a real need, probably even moreso in today’s world, to address the mental health of first responders. Our first responders encounter intensely traumatic incidents and need a space to be able to talk about the traumas they’ve endured and to acknowledge that their own resultant trauma is not a weakness but a normative reaction. Of all people we want the people who are meant to exude calm, to take our lives into their hands at times, to be able to think and feel rationally and peaceably, and it begins with their own self-care and mental health.
You can still catch 10-33 playing in Shorts Block No. 4 until 11/6:
There’s no doubting we’ve lived through some challenging times lately where everyone has probably needed help of some kind to get by. But what happens when the helpers get exhausted, or when the caretakers need care themselves? I have seen a few films address this question recently, one of them being Numb.
This short film opens with the monologue of Dr. Lola Enochs as she reclines in a chair next to a side table with a stiff drink in hand in her huge and completely empty in-ground pool. “Who invented the waterbed? And what was I thinking when I purchased one in med school? The cold winters, the sloppy sex.” I couldn’t help but laugh a little bit even while it was clear this character was drowning herself in booze and her own disorganized thoughts. As you may have guessed, the empty pool becomes a metaphor in the film, and the poolside scene in the end is in striking contrast to this one.
In addition to the outside world being as depressing as it is, Lola is a grieving widow. Numbing with pills and alcohol is one way of coping when life seems too painful and overwhelming, though it usually ends up tipping us over into more pain once we become aware of some of the things we do while we’re numb.
Lola gives off the appearance of being very made-up and professional despite her condition. She’s the kind of chronically depressed person you’d never guess was depressed, and it seems like she didn’t even know how depressed she was, either. She’s the kind of person the words “high-functioning alcoholic” were invented for. A few times her overall exhaustion breaks through the surface, my favorite and the funniest to me when she orders pizza, Chinese, AND sushi for dinner for her kids rather than using up the energy to argue about it. She also can’t summon the energy to argue with a patient about a prescription, which ends up backfiring on her and bringing her some self-awareness of this exhaustion.
Co-writer and lead actress Luella Hill hits just the right note for Lola, slumping blearily sometimes, but still smiling weakly and still able to engage with some of her favorite patients. Numb is an interesting portrait of the more nuanced addiction and grief that you don’t always see: an upper-middle-class helping professional with good hygiene who isn’t obviously stumbling or slurring all over, but who is just very tired and very numb.
Numb plays in Shorts Block No. 5 until November 6th:
You still have almost a week (until the evening of 11/6 at 7:00 Central time) to enjoy the virtual festival—that’s about as long as some virtual festivals are online in total! I cannot believe how quickly this time has flown by. I’m still going to try to do capsule reviews of every film (am trying to learn brevity is a writing skill) and be sure to check out some great ones on the Director’s Club site which has been following closely as well for some ideas of what to watch: https://www.directorsclubpodcast.com/reviews/mentalfilmness2022. Of course, I recommend watching as many as possible while they’re still freely available!
Matthew Ferraro’s The Runner is a masterful and unflinching look at depression and suicide. The subject of the film gives a harrowing account of finding his mother’s body after an overdose when he was a small child. Unsurprisingly, when he grew up he later had to grapple with his own depression and attempt at suicide. With the help of friends, therapy, and all kinds of exercise, including running, the determined narrator was able to set himself on the path to healing. That distinction seems important to him: he repeats a couple of times “healing, not healed.” Maybe that’s part of the significance of running as well—not running from the past necessarily, but always making strides in the direction of who you want to be.
This is another one of those shorts that, as you can see, manages to pack a lot of ideas and information into a mere six minutes. One of the most impressive qualities of the short however is the audio-visual style and just how the story is told. The California Arts Council dubbed Ferraro’s unique form of art “orchestral journalism.” This is the first time he has used orchestral journalism to create a visual documentary and the blend of pre-recorded and symphonic sound along with photographs and ghostly images is a quite stunning sensory experience.
The Runner plays in Shorts Block No. 5 of the virtual festival until November 6th:
It isn’t a horror movie, but if you’re in the mood for something a little whimsical and fantastical tonight—and something that does involve dressing up—Shara Ashley Zeiger’s I Mustache You would be a delightful pick. I probably couldn’t describe it much better than its own press release: “I Mustache You” is a whimsical magical realistic comedy, inspired by Buster Keaton, Looney Tunes, and NYC, about Abby, a woman with social anxiety, OCD, and agoraphobic tendencies who receives an invitation to love, self-acceptance, and the outside world.
You may have gathered from the Buster Keaton reference that the film is silent, except for its propulsive and delightful score. Shara Ashley Zeiger’s rhythmic and exaggerated movements and facial expressions, set to the sometimes lilting and sometimes, yes, cartoonish music, pull us into the colorful world of the modern silent film—where pushing through the turnstiles of the NYC subway becomes the new Chaplinesque routine. What is a daily occurrence for many New Yorkers becomes either an exotic delight or a fearful obstacle to Abby, who rarely leaves the house, and seeing her reactions and adaptations is part of the fun.
The whole impetus for Abby’s brave journey outside her apartment is the mysterious invitation mentioned above. She is simply too curious to find out who wants to meet her despite her hiding away in her apartment like a fearful mouse. The journey is most of the story, but I found the ending to be sweetly satisfying, too.
We all must be familiar with the concept of masking by now. The filmmaker Lili Viràg Szuhay-Murciano takes it to its next logical (and unfortunately, realistic) step of masking your identity in order to make friends.
Masking is another inventive short that demonstrates just what you can do with a digital camera, some very simple setup, and a little ingenuity. It’s clever, colorful, and playful, and its satire of a step-by-step tutorial lends it almost limitless possibilities, though it doesn’t exhaust them. It’s kind of silly while also “masking” the sadder notion that it’s harder in reality to embrace your identity and make friends than any instructional manual could provide for.
I don’t think that writer-director Beth Ashby would mind if you called Where Monsters Lurk a horror movie—it’s even played in a couple of horror festivals. A friend of mine was recently talking about how Mental Filmness faces a lot of competition from horror movies in October, and I made some joke about how people don’t realize the real horror is inside their mind. If there was anything to prove me right, it would be this short film.
This film does an excellent job showing that how we perceive the world can be completely distorted by our depression. The main character Kelly is trapped inside her own mind and inside her own apartment by her depression. No matter what she does–read her mail, try to write, even try to listen to music to calm her nerves–her distortions twist what she sees and hears against her. She can’t even respond to a friend coming to check in on her, she’s so lost in her own world.
Where Monsters Lurk could be described as a sort of psychological and/or atmospheric horror movie where objects in Kelly’s apartment turn against her as her own mind does. Harmony Zhang does an admirable acting job as more or less a solo character alternating between hope and distress. Through set and sound design the filmmakers give a menacing presence to the horror of living with a condition that is often invisible to others.
Naved Ahmed’s The Confidant gives us the statistic that 1 in 20 people in India are affected by depression, and that women are 50 percent more susceptible. That is why it’s important that movies like this short from India exist.
In a more gimmicky film, you might say there’s a “twist ending” here. However, even knowing or guessing what it is, there’s a vulnerable loneliness that the lead actress in this film portrays when she’s constantly talking to her phone while going about her daily routine – something that is becoming increasingly common everywhere. In just a few minutes we can piece together a lot of details about her life. There seem to be some troubled waters in her marriage and self-esteem. In a couple of the most confessional times, she struggles to give voice to a problem even deeper than her loneliness—her depression.
Here is an example of a simple short that could be made relatively cheaply and easily, but still carries a high concept and a huge impact. A lot of weight rests on the lead actress Girija Oak to hit the right note of emotional unburdening that is still carried by the flow of chatty gossip, and she does that very well. The takeaway seems to be those with depression are in need of a listening ear as much as someone to talk to.
Emily Crawford’s “Breathe” provides a short, sweet, and simple counterpart to some of the heavier films in the festival, including the other animated shorts. This 3-D animation has a more playful, Pixar-like style, which is appropriate since it features children.
Children, of course, are not immune to shyness and social anxiety. I can definitely think back in my mind to scenarios just like the one in this short, where I was alone on the playground and would become anxious seeing other kids playing together, thinking I was excluded or suddenly becoming too shy to approach them. Suddenly there is a dark swarm of anxiety buzzing and swirling around the little girl in this film, but then she remembers to breathe.
Its bright and innocent style as well as a delightful score might make this short a good teaching tool for children or serve as either a reminder or a lesson to adults that small children struggle with anxiety, too. I know it reminded me of that.
“Toxic masculinity”–it’s a phrase you hear tossed around a lot these days. In an age where gender is becoming more fluid and mental health a wider concern, more and more people are calling it out and coming to the realization that, as William Doan says in the film “this man up stuff is bull.”
But what exactly is it, and why? It’s complicated—which is probably why we had a lengthy conversation about it (including director Cynthia White) when the film itself is just short of four minutes long.
One thing I thought was interesting is that William Doan pointed out toxic masculinity is not just passed down in families, but a systemic part of American culture itself, which is coming to light in the way we treat people based on gender and those expectations. This film is about recognizing his own anxiety and depression that stemmed from his stepfather’s abusive, alcoholic masculinity. He grew up feeling he wasn’t strong enough and that he should repress his emotions, including his tears.
The art in this animated short is quite vivid and vibrant, different from most you see. It’s done in a collage style based on a series of pencil and watercolor drawings he made for a multidisciplinary arts project called the Anxiety Project, which he collaborated on with Cynthia White and others. The dialogue in the film is also drawn from this project and his theatrical background. He and Cynthia explained their artistic process, which I always find fascinating, in great detail in our interview.
I’ll never forget the first-ever Mental Filmness. It was a little two-day affair held in the multidisciplinary arts venue Comfort Station in the heart of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. It was even smaller and no-budget than it is now, and when I reached out to the selected filmmakers I told them of course they were invited to the festival in Chicago, but we couldn’t afford to pay any travel or accommodation fees. A few people still took me up on the offer, and one of those people was Philip Brubaker, who traveled from Florida to Chicago on his own dime.
As I was setting up, of course, I experienced technical difficulties. To my horror, I realized out of the handful of people who had wandered in while we were troubleshooting, one was Philip, who I recognized. His film was a documentary called Brushes With Life, about a program and gallery that featured artists with mental illness, and he was one of them. He didn’t tell me I should have arrived earlier or tested or had a backup, or ask how it was going to affect the timing of his film and Q & A, or any of those things. He just sat there calmly and made some joke about how I was experiencing typical first festival difficulties. I think it became clear to me that he wanted it to succeed just as much as I did, and that gave me renewed courage and perseverance.
Philip stayed the entire day, watching all of the films, and gave a very gracious and insightful Q & A after his own film. One of our jury members described “Brushes With Life” as “exactly what we’re looking for” in terms of an empathetic and realistic portrayal of mental illness, something we were still defining at the time. He seemed to appreciate the Realism Award we gave him, and that was before I even had a color printer. If it hasn’t become clear by now, I kind of think Philip is a wonderful human in addition to being a wonderful filmmaker and mental health advocate.
That’s why I started beaming when I saw Philip had entered another film this year. I think I smiled even more when I saw the title: How to Explain Your Mental Illness to Stanley Kubrick. Sure, I’m biased, and maybe I had watched too many serious movies about mental health, but something about it really pinged my love of absurdist humor when I started watching it. When Philip first conjured his hero Stanley Kubrick from the year 1980 to confront him about the problematic portrayals of mental illness in his films and Kubrick appeared there huddled like a wild raccoon under a flashlight beam, I actually laughed out loud. I did again when Philip started dancing with Kubrick and throwing popcorn into his mouth.
While humorous, however, the film also displays some raw vulnerability. Philip opens up and shares stories and photographs of some of his own painful memories of his struggles with bipolar disorder, including once when he cried so hard he gave himself a nosebleed. Philip has also become a successful video essayist and engages those skills to use film clips to critique Kubrick’s treatment of mental illness as well as show Kubrick what experiencing mental illness is really like.
All of these elements together make Philip’s film very difficult to describe or classify. It’s part video essay, part raw memoir, and part a re-evaluation of one of his heroes. What I didn’t realize was that the film was actually made during a rare psychotic episode and shaped into its final form by a more stable hand. As someone who shares Philip’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I guess I am allowed to say this, I could feel some of that fun manic creative energy at work in it.
Philip you are definitely one of the stars of the Mental Filmness festival who has helped shape it from the beginning, and we very much appreciate you.