Published on November 3rd, 2016 | from CAMH
Lifting the shroud of isolation through film
By Geoff Pevere, Program Director, Rendezvous with Madness |
If there is a single experience that cuts across the almost infinite spectrum of mental illness, it’s the sensation of isolation.
The feeling that you are alone.
Whether one lives with addiction, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, psychosis, borderline personality disorder or just about any form of mental affliction whatsoever, the unifying thread is the conviction that no one understands or can imagine what it’s like to be you.
Among the more powerful tools movies have when it comes to reflecting the experience of mental illness is the vivid depiction of precisely this state of solitary suffering. The irony being, of course, that by doing so, movies can also convey to the solitary sufferer that he or she is in fact not alone: by capturing and reflecting this conviction of isolation they communicate its opposite. They say ‘I get it.’
As far back as 1930, in the expressionist classic M, the great German director Fritz Lang had these words spoken by Peter Lorre, playing a compulsive child murderer who is captured and must justify his actions to a vigilante mob whom he knows will kill him for his unspeakable crimes: “I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!.. Who knows what it’s like inside me?”
There are two things conveyed by these words that qualify M, nearly ninety years later, as enduringly challenging and controversial. First there is the sympathy commanded of us for this man’s internal suffering. He may commit among the most unconscionable of crimes, but he struggles with something over which feels he has no power. It torments him eternally. He is abject and desperate. And he is also something else, something anyone with any acquaintance of mental illness will understand: he is not evil, he is sick.
In this year’s Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival – the 24th edition of the world’s original event dedicated to the cinema of mental health, addiction, and recovery – the spectre of isolation hangs like a kind of shroud over many of the people you will encounter over the week of the event. The people you meet may be otherwise drastically disparate in terms of experience, cultural background, gender, behaviour and diagnostic labels, but they all struggle with the feeling that no one knows what goes on inside them.
Whether its a recovering alcoholic on the brink of relapse (Krisha), a crack-addicted street artist (Ken Foster), a lesbian truck driver (I, Olga Hepranova), a chronically dissociated office worker who adopts a wolf (Wild), or the many individuals you will meet who are caught up in the grinding machinery of institutional commitment (Sick, 4 Kings, Liberation: The User’s Guide, Le divan du monde), they share a conviction that no one can – or even wants to – fully understand what they go through.
In our opening night movie, the brave and moving made-in-Toronto The Other Half, Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen play a couple who may well be in love, but whose ability to be intimate with each other is constantly challenged by the disorders from which they live with. In their relative worlds, there are no other inhabitants.
But this brings us back to the power that movies can have, a power only made more potent when films are seen among other people, and when those people – as they always are at the Rendezvous festival – are given a chance to publicly discuss what they’ve seen with other people who’ve seen the same things. It is the reassurance of something shared. Last year, we programmed a remarkable Australian film about obsessive-compulsive disorder called 8, and two people stood up to share that they’d never seen the condition, so often made fun of and so rarely appreciated for its intense capacity to make life a living hell, so vividly and accurately depicted. That it was the first time they felt someone out there actually understood.
The film on screen may be one common experience among all who have seen it, but the more important and potentially even therapeutic one is the shared experience of a disorder itself. Simply by seeing it depicted and then openly discussed among other people, the disorder loses its power to isolate. The isolation is revealed for what it is: a misperception generated by the disorder. We are not alone after all.
What we do at the Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival is create a context in which the shared experience of watching a film functions as a forum in which people can also share their own experience of whatever particular disorder or condition the movie addresses or depicts. It doesn’t matter if it’s a feature drama, a documentary, an animated or an experimental short. What matters is the collective phenomenon of watching it in a group and then talking about it. What we like to think – and we have observed considerable first hand evidence that we’re on to something – is that we’re lifting that shroud of isolation a little each time we hold a screening that someone sees their own experience reflected in, and that lifting that shroud lets a little light in. But there’s more to it just confronting the insidious internal operations of mental disorders that convince those who have it that they are alone.
What we are also confronting are those enduring external factors that keep people locked inside themselves. And these can be every bit as powerful and damaging as the disorders themselves. This is the enduring phenomenon of social stigma that prevents people from speaking out about their experience for fear of judgement, ostracism, mockery or institutional mistreatment. Anything that makes speaking up difficult or impossible, and which only makes the sensation of solitary confinement within oneself that much more powerful.
In kingdoms ruled by silence, nothing is more powerful than spoken words. What movies can do is make people speak up, and at Rendezvous With Madness we love nothing more than the sound of people talking about what they’ve just seen. We only ask one thing: try to wait until the movie has ended before starting the conversation. It seems only reasonable, doesn’t it?
Geoff Pevere is the program director of the Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival. This year’s event runs from Nov. 4-12. The full festival program can be found at www.rendezvouswithmadness.ca.