Closing Weekend Virtual Fest – “Stay With Me” Live Screening In Chicago November 12

Just a reminder….the Mental Filmness 2022 virtual festival closes tomorrow evening, November 6th, at 7:00 p.m. Until then you still have time to catch some amazing films about mental health for free that you might not be able to see anywhere else! Make sure to get your final views and votes in, and check out some of the illuminating interviews.

I’m going to post a longer thing about stats later, but every year our virtual festival viewership goes up….by a lot, actually. It’s very encouraging that it’ s getting a wider reach and some repeat viewers. I’m glad that viewers other than myself seem to enjoy it, because I probably get the most out of it. I’d like to brainstorm ideas to improve it in the future, like maybe make it more interactive with a couple of live streams/chats, since I have the feeling it’s here to stay. I’d like people to be able to have more of a discussion about the virtual films.

However, there is one last (for now) Mental Filmness screening planned, which I need to hustle to advertise more. This is our special “secret” screening, secret partially because it’s been in the works for awhile and it was finalized a little more short-notice than I had hoped. Still, I have high hopes that we can draw a bit of a local audience and it will pique some interest. Just as they did last year, the Chicago Public Library’s Diversability Advocacy Committee generously offered to host and sponsor a screening at the library. This time, though, the event will be *in person*—in the meeting room of the Edgewater branch library. The Diversability Advocacy Committee does excellent work year-round in drawing awareness to and celebrating the achievements of individuals with disabilities, including “invisible” disabilities like mental illness.

The bonus screening will be Marty Lang’s “Stay With Me,” which I find to be a very relatable dramatic feature film about a young woman who struggles with an unspecified mental illness and her boyfriend and friend who must cope with her loss to suicide. I discovered that in November International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is observed so the film seems particularly appropriate for that. Though a sobering topic, there is warmth and humor in this film and some realistic writing and acting that make it a compelling watch. Best of all, writer and director Marty Lang will be live and in person to talk about his film and answer questions about it!

So if you are in the Chicago area, I truly hope you can make it out to this special one-of-a-kind event. It should be a lovely finale to our return to live programming this year.

Highlight – Happy Anyway

I would always hate it when a therapist would say to me, “You can choose the way you feel about that.” I’d think, no you can’t! After some time and a little more work, I have to begrudgingly admit you can try to choose how to feel, and sometimes it does work a little bit, even with something as overpowering as feelings.

I had to try really hard at this during our shelter in place order here in Chicago, when I did the inevitable deep cleaning of my two-bedroom apartment. I live alone now and things are pretty quiet with my feline roommates but before that I lived with a series of roommates and partners. This place has a ten-year history for me and it’s been filled with laughter, wine, kisses, break-ups, art, parties, secrets—so many memories. Emptying drawers and closets I found things like drawings and cards dating all the way back to 2012. It was an intensely emotional architectural dig, and overwhelming at times. Finally I resolved to try my hardest when I came across a memory to think that I was lucky to have experienced that memory or that connection in my life, even if it was no longer there. I tried to focus on how many risks I had taken, adventures I’d had, meaningful relationships in my life, instead of the loss and the sorrow of missing them. This didn’t always work, but it helped.

I mention this autobiographical account because I feel that’s exactly what the lead actress in the short film Happy Anyway does. She’s a young illustrator who has experienced a loss, one more profound than any of mine, and it jerks her awake at night, disrupts her daily routine, and blocks her creativity. It’s a quiet, subtle film, both in the depiction of the young woman’s depression, which is reflected in ways like eating a granola bar for breakfast after spilling her cereal, and also through her half-smile in the end. She starts to work through her creative block and her depression by drawing happy memories of the partner she lost. She’s trying to choose how to feel about her loss, or maybe even just to allow herself to feel it, which entails feeling some of those happy memories and appreciating them. And it seems to kind of be working.

Highlight – Drunk On Too Much Life

Hello! It is the LAST weekend of the virtual festival (ends November 6th at 7:00 p.m.), so make sure to get in your final viewing before closing time! I still have a few films I hadn’t written capsule reviews on yet, so I’m going to try to finish those up PLUS talk about a special bonus screening we have on Saturday, November 12th, PLUS early next week I will reveal some stats & awards. Whew!

“It sounds very cliche to say that, you know, there’s a link between insanity and creativity. But I saw it. I saw that there was kind of an opening, there’s a lack of inhibitions, and there’s this kind of lateral thinking where you’re seeing these beautiful connections everywhere. That is fertile ground for anything creative.” The documentary Drunk On Too Much Life explores the beauty and the vision of madness. It follows Corrina, a young woman whose life was disrupted by intrusive thoughts and a psychotic episode, and her recovery, relapse, and recovery. Poetry, music, and art were a huge part of Corrina’s way out of the psych ward and back into connecting with life and others. She thought art was going to save the world, and she was going to be the one to bring that about. Her colorful and expressive drawings and paintings, songs, and writings are featured heavily in the film and help tell her story as much as any narrative.

Corrina and her family are on a quest to define her condition outside the diagnostic of a mental illness and to find treatment outside of a rotating cast of psychiatrists and medication. As well as art, other alternative techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises, peer and family support, and therapy all come into play. I don’t think Corrina’s diagnosis is ever specified. She experiences intense highs and lows, and at one point her mother asks a peer mentor if he believes in diagnoses like “bipolar dis—” and he actually cuts her off and says it’s not a label, but a pattern of symptoms and behaviors. This mentor has actually stopped taking medication, but he says he does “a thousand different things” to help instead.

This movie provides a unique outlook on mental illness. It touches a few times on the idea that Joseph Campbell expressed, “the psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with the delight”–that is, the fine line between delusions and profound and even psychic insights. In a shamanistic culture, a peer tells Corrina, she might be treated as a prophet or a seer, instead of locked up. The film doesn’t shy away from showing, however, that uncontrolled, Corrina’s illness can lead to drowning in her own dark thoughts to the point of catatonic states where she cannot function. I appreciated that while Drunk On Too Much Life offered no easy answers, it explored many different ways to understand mental illness. Corrina’s mother, who made the documentary, described it as “our search for a different story and language with which to understand hearing voices and seeing visions.”

April Kelley Interview Posted – What’s It Like To Have Bipolar Disorder?

I interviewed April Kelley, the writer and lead actress of Just In Case, just this last weekend so wanted to draw attention to the fact that it posted, so you can still check it out and check out her film in Shorts Block No. 1 if you’d like. I hate to play favorites but like all human beings I am biased and this one did particularly resonate with me as I remember having similar conversations with my father over coffee explaining what bipolar disorder felt like.

So what DOES bipolar disorder feel like? Of course, it’s different for everyone who experiences it. April Kelley rapid-cycles; I go through long, severe episodes, typically depressive. But when I hear someone else with the diagnosis just nail something that was so precisely to a “T” what I’ve felt at times, like not being able to wake up in the morning without thinking “fuck me, I gotta do this all over again,” I feel an immense sense of catharsis. April described what she felt while searching for kindred spirits and reading Teri Cheney’s Manic as a “hug and a slap in the face.” I love that. (By the way, I realized I HAD read this memoir as well after looking through my Kindle history around the time I was binge-reading my own “bipolar stories”). That’s what my ultimate lofty goal would be for a festival like this, to share stories to help others feel less alone.

April talks about how it’s rare to see representation in films specific to bipolar disorder. That’s generally true, yet for some reason I noticed a big spike in entries about bipolar disorder to the festival this year. In particular, Borrowed Light, Troubled Minds, Re-Live, and How to Explain Your Mental Illness to Stanley Kubrick are all very specifically about bipolar disorder, made by either people who live with bipolar disorder or who have intimately experienced it. All of those films, while differing from my own experience, once again spoke to some particular facet of my own experience.

I definitely noticed the trend and wondered myself what was driving it. Was it the frustration that there really aren’t many movies out there very specifically about bipolar? At least a couple of the filmmakers said that. Is it that there haven’t been enough outlets before, and now there’s more mental health awareness in general? I like to think that’s a big part of it—the whole “rising tide that lifts all ships” phenomenon. Depression and suicide are still more common in the population in general and in films, and only a comparatively small portion of the population experiences bipolar disorder, but if mental health is becoming a more common and open topic in films in general it makes sense that population would want representation, too.

What’s wonderful about the movies in the festival this year is they capture the diversity within the diagnosis. The depression, the unexpected humor, the excessive racing thoughts, the delusions, the suicidal ideation that can all be pieces of the puzzle. Like people experience bipolar disorder differently, these movies portray it differently, yet they all felt authentic to me in some way.

I think the Latvian Abele brothers told me in our interview they wanted to make a movie different than the “silver linings of the cloud” one, and I of course immediately knew they were talking about Silver Linings Playbook, a popular American touchstone film for the topic of bipolar disorder. I guess that shows you just how limited our media representation really is. And I freaking loved Silver Linings Playbook. It was a sanitized Hollywood rom-com movie about bipolar disorder, and it was meant to be, but it got just *close enough* to hitting on some emotional truth for me that I got sucked into it anyway. That’s how hungry for representation I was, apparently. But boy, the films in the festival this year really blow that out of the water in terms of being “real.” I will readily admit this festival is selfish in some ways—it really helps me seeing that representation. I really hope it helps the filmmakers and some viewers though, too.

The April Kelley interview, and all the others, are here. There’s so many of these now, I think I’m going to have to create an archive somewhere—I think they’re really interesting conversations even outside the context of the films.

Highlight – Troubled Minds

The Latvian film Troubled Minds is probably one of the more challenging films we’ve featured, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Its loose, naturalistic style sometimes feels a bit overwhelming, like when you’re confronted with the noise of a bar fight longer than you think you should be in a movie, or when you’re faced with a shaky close-up of a suffering face. It feels a little too close for comfort, a little too real.

Based on my own personal experience, I could tell that sibling co-directors and co-writers Raitis and Lauris Abele were intimately familiar with bipolar disorder. This movie features what I think is the most accurate on-screen depiction I’ve ever seen of a character’s gradual descent (or should I say ascent?) into mania. As the Abele brothers say in their interview, most script doctors would have looked at the character Martin’s thoughts and words as the movie progressed and said they didn’t make any sense—his mind is suddenly latching onto the military waste buried in the deep sea, now that’s important, and now it’s the shifting of the geomagnetic poles that’s important, but wait now he’s back again or it’s both…..Mania can really be like that, though. Suddenly everything seems very important and every thing seems connected to every other thing in secret, important ways you never noticed before.

That’s one thing the Abele brothers get right, too: sometimes mania can be kind of funny. The movie is also a colorful, often comedic satire of the contemporary art world, and the co-creators said that part of that intention was to further blur the line between what’s really normal and what’s not in a setting where it’s much harder to tell. Some people endlessly roll a black boulder up a mountain like in the myth of Sisyphus, they say, while some are destined to roll a black cube.

You’ve still got time to check out the completely unique film Troubled Minds in the virtual festival for free:

Also check out our interview with the Abele brothers, where they talk about experiences with their friends who are contemporary artists and their friends who have bipolar disorder, and how those experiences helped shape the film.

Highlight – The Mind’s Image

The elderly are a population you don’t see addressed as much in terms of mental health, and when you do it’s usually in relation to dementia. But what about their moods, emotions, and abilities? Or their capacity to express themselves in a meaningful way?

The Mind’s Image is a short documentary made as part of a larger research project on the effects of art therapy on older adults. The film was designed to show the observational results that data alone cannot fully demonstrate. Watching some of the participants change in demeanor completely, open up, become more talkative, and enthusiastically describe the landscapes they are painting in great detail, is just the kind of picture of a thousand words that lies at the nexus of the science and art of the film.

What’s interesting is many of the participants in the study, who are residents of a nursing home, are visually impaired or blind but can still see, describe, and work with color. Researcher Katrin Singler makes a moving comment in her interview about how it is encouraging to see what people near the end of their life can still feel, think, and do.

You can still watch The Mind’s Image for free until November 6th in Shorts Block No. 3 here:

You can watch our interview with researcher Katrin Singler and filmmaker Daniel Asadi Faezi in the interviews section of the site. Note: Katrin’s sound was a little fuzzy at times, so you may want to turn on the closed captions in the video.

Highlight: 10-33

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:

Highlight – Numb

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:

Highlight – The Runner

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: 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:

Highlight – I Mustache You

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.