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.
Kagan Goh’s short film The Day My Cat Saved My Life premiered in the Mental Filmness 2021 virtual festival. The film—which he wrote, directed, and starred in–demonstrated a strong sense of poetic narrative in depicting a specific scene from a young man’s life. That young man was spiraling into a psychotic episode when his cat helped ground him and pull him out of it. I soon learned that it was a scene that was drawn from Kagan’s own life, and even later I learned that the scene was also part of Surviving Samsara, an autobiographical book made up of just those sorts of scenes or vignettes.
Kagan Goh is a character you don’t easily forget. His enthusiasm for the festival and for the arts and mental health advocacy in general are infectious. His character shines through in the documentary Ratana Aiyawongse made about him, Re-Live, that is playing in this year’s festival.
Having spoken to Kagan and read his book, I was already familiar with some of the thoughts and beliefs he expressed in the film—one of my favorites being the metaphor that you have to make your mental health the very first car in the train of your life, the one that is pulling everything else along.
I know this entry is mostly about Kagan, but credit must be given to Ratana here as well. Ratana’s portrait of Kagan captures his personality quite well considering its modest ten-minute runtime. He traces a clear narrative arc from Kagan’s challenges with bipolar disorder to his recovery process to his eventually becoming stable, married, and actually giving back to his community and helping others who struggle with their mental health.
Kagan’s story gives others hope that recovery and stability from a fairly serious mental health diagnosis are possible. I would highly recommend Surviving Samsara and Re-Live as inspirational accounts of living with and successfully managing a chronic condition such as bipolar disorder—for which, he rightfully states, there is no cure. Kagan is also, as I have learned, an incredibly kind, giving, and warm-hearted person once he gets to know you, and especially if you share his passion for mental health and the arts (and sometimes a combination of the two).
I love it when people say “I’m working on this other film now, and I’m going to submit it to Mental Filmness,” or “I told so-and-so to submit it to Mental Filmness.” I really love the idea of carrying on stories and legacies, and continuing to promote filmmakers who are passionate about mental health and continuing to follow their journey. It makes me feel like it is more than a little film festival, it’s a community.
It’s really difficult not to feel a little lift in spirits when you see Kagan’s big, radiant grin. You would never have guessed how hard-earned it really was.
I’d like to turn my attention to something near and dear to my heart–the return filmmakers, alumni, gold-star Mental Filmness members, whatever you’d like to call them. We had three returning personalities to the fest this year—from years one, two, and three–even though the festival is only four years old. I think that speaks very highly of us.
Norwegian psychiatrist and filmmaker Melanie Ekholdt charmed the hearts and minds of viewers in our very first virtual festival in, you guessed it, 2020. Her documentary In Love With Craziness, following a young rapper named Michael and his addiction and recovery after being prescribed ADHD medication, swept virtual audience votes and landed her a Stigma Breaker award. And now she returns for something completely different…
A Dollhouse 2020: Dance of Sins is part of a much larger ambitious art project re-imagining Henrik Ibsen’s feminist play A Doll’s House (published in the 1880s) set in our present tense and beyond. The project allows Melanie to step into the character of Nora from the play to explore the complex feelings she has about her own divorce. A Dollhouse 2020 is an experimental short film featuring expressive, almost cathartic dancing after a bourgeoise dinner with female friends. Symbolic images of birth capture the multi-faceted nature of romantic separation.
When I caught up with Melanie again, who is always perceptive, I was struck by a couple of things she said. One was when she said that even though we’ve come a long way since Nora’s days, divorce can still feel like a sin. She also remarked upon how painful divorce can be, even though it’s quite common now. Having been divorced myself, this sentiment especially resonated with me. I struggled with my mental health mightily after my own divorce, and I sometimes entertained the very same question: how do other people manage to survive this? How can something be so painful and debilitating and yet so common at the same time?
Melanie is a joy to speak to and I truly appreciate her continued enthusiasm for such a grassroots fest and for mental health advocacy in general. I sincerely hope that she continues to keep in touch and considers submitting any future projects because they’ve all been quite interesting and insightful.
Bridge to the Other Side seems like a standard COVID drama at first, but the part that really hooked me in is also the one that hooked the main character Maxine. A flyer seeking help for a mobile crisis response unit becomes the catalyst for Max’s recovery after the loss of her first responder husband. The flyer intrigued me as well, having only recently learned about mobile crisis response programs myself from research I had done for a paper about race, mental illness, and mass incarceration. The units, which pair first responders with social workers to respond to calls for mental health crises, aim to defuse and de-escalate mental health episodes and secure safety before the episodes become violent or result in arrests. There’s a natural tension there between the police instinct to curb immediate instability or potential violence and the social worker’s instinct to calm the situation and converse long enough to uncover root causes, and in the beginning, Max and her partner Jake run into that a bit.
The mental health calls in the film create little windows into their community. I told writer and director KT Curran she must have done a lot of research (she did) because some stories I read in my own research described encounters exactly like the one with a teenage boy in the throes of a schizophrenic episode brandishing a knife–who really just needed his medication. That is precisely the kind of situation that could have ended in jail or violence without a mobile crisis response which instead routed him to psychiatric care. Then there’s the situation of the affluent family suffering a crisis which is heartbreaking in its own way because a mother doesn’t want to acknowledge her daughter’s cutting and suicidal ideation because it’s embarrassing to her.
COVID touches on a lot of aspects in the film, from COVID losses to the grief and trauma those losses entail to increased collective mental health issues overall. The film shows that first responders wrestle with their own demons, from addiction to a family history of mental illness to their own PTSD. It’s kind of amazing how many different facets of mental health Bridge to the Other Side touches upon without feeling cluttered or bloated. In our interview KT Curran said looking at so many societal issues—from climate change to homelessness to political polarity—she realized that underpinning and coloring all of them was our mental health.
KT’s succinct description of the film, though, is the best: “A woman joins a mobile crisis response team hoping to save her life, if the job doesn’t kill her first.” In the end, it is kind of a police drama genre film, and Max is the main character. It’s a damn good one, though.
As someone who’s had my own struggles with breaches of trust in relationships, suicidal ideation, and psychiatric wards due to my own struggles with bipolar disorder, the short film Borrowed Light was a little painful for me to watch. Even harder, at times, was my interview with writer/producer/actress Jenapher Zheng. What she said about writing the film based on her own experience with bipolar disorder was so familiar and relatable. I know the fact that it hit home for me, though, meant it was genuine.
Another important thing to note about this film is its diversity–the filmmakers are proud of having an entirely female, Asian-American, LGBTQ, and non-binary team. Jenapher explained how mental illness is seen through a first-generation Chinese-American’s lens at times, such as how the character of the mother in the film is fixated on food. Yet another asset is the music, which has an uplifting indie-folk vibe. Jenapher explains it was actually composed by a friend for the film.
“Borrowed Light” is the name of a song about the friendship between the two main characters in the film. This friendship strains and struggles as they grow apart from each other physically, as one moves away for college, as well as mentally, as they both struggle with their mental illness and confiding in each other. Jenapher Zheng describes it as how “shame begets silence.” It’s ambiguous in the film whether this friendship will heal, but you get the feeling that both of them will begin healing their mental health.