The 2014 SMHAFF International Film Awards honoured the twelve winning filmmakers in a ceremony at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse. Selected from 150 submissions from countries as far flung as Canada, Iran, Thailand and Malaysia, as well as Europe and the UK, the winning entries show diversity and courage in tackling a wide range of issues related to mental health.

The award for Best Long Documentary went to Kathy Leichter for Here One Day, which tells the story of her mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder and suicide. Speaking before the ceremony, Leichter explained how, after her mother’s death, she moved back into the apartment she had grown up in, to live with her dad, grieve and sort through her mother’s things. However, it was nine years later that she decided to make a film about her mother’s life:

“This story really came out of my need to tell it. It’s a very simple thing actually. I felt like I didn’t want to die…and not have told this story. I knew that I might be too scared to tell it but…I could just see myself being on my deathbed and feeling like, ‘Oh no, I never told that story.’ There might be things in your life that you think, ‘I want to do this before I die’…and this was my thing. I had to do this.”

Leichter is now taking Here One Day to communities, schools and education settings across North America, as well as submitting it to film festivals. “It’s really an opportunity to create conversations about mental health and suicide,” she said. “These issues are so taboo in our society…We keep these things so quiet and, yet, the more we learn, [the more] we share these experiences, some of the stigma melts away…My mum had these incredible gifts and I want to talk about her…It’s through talking and conversation that we’re going to change attitudes about mental health and suicide.”

The highly commended film in the Long Documentary category was Belgian director Didier Minne’s Les Enfants de Sisyphe (The Children of Sisyphus). Set in a Belgian day nursery for children suffering with autism or psychosis, it’s a naturalistic documentary that focuses on the experiences and personalities of the children and their carers. According to SMHAFF marketing manager Alex Queneau, the film “gives an unprecedented insight into life inside the institution”, but what stood out in the clip shown on the night was the warmth it renders to its subjects. Minne was unable to attend the ceremony but wrote a statement expressing his gratitude for receiving the award and recognition for the work the festival is doing. 

The winner in the Mid-Length Documentary category was Today is Monday, a film that grew out of a research paper on hospital care for people with dementia. Speaking before the ceremony, director Owen Davies described it as, “20 minutes of pure observation in a hospital”, and it’s the rawness of the footage that gives the documentary its power. Shot over eight days on a hospital ward, it can be difficult to watch and certainly was not an easy film to make. “It was quite a daunting task to begin with,” said Davies. “But actually at the end of it, it felt like a privilege…from a filmmaker’s point of view and with the stories we bear witness to.”

Pippa Foster, who commissioned Today is Monday to complement the University of Nottingham research, explained how the film came about. “We were looking into best care for people with dementia in hospital and we trialled a model on a ward. And we wanted to show how it felt…It was quite risky for us as academics [to make a film] but Owen turned it into an incredible documentary.” She added that the hospital staff fully supported them in taking a “warts and all” approach to the film. “They said to us, ‘You can come and do this as long as you don’t make a nice, schmaltzy, clean-cut film. We want the truth in this.’ That was the condition.” 

The highly commended entry, Sitar Rose’s Tell Tale Signs, is another film remarkable for its honesty and courage in depicting a difficult subject. It explores childhood sexual abuse and the challenges faced by victims when disclosing it to partners and professionals. In the documentary, the participants give first-hand accounts of their experiences, inspiring others to try and move on from what has happened. In her speech, Rose credited the award to the participants in the film, many of whom joined her on stage to accept it. “Talking about the past [makes it] present again,” she said. It was “very courageous” to take part in the documentary and to take the stage on the night. 

Fittingly, the awards for Mid-Length Documentary were presented by Judith Robertson, Programme Director of See Me, the national anti-stigma and discrimination campaign. She gave a passionate speech about the damage that stigmatising mental health conditions can cause and the work See Me is doing to try and bring it to an end. She spoke about the power that film has to “challenge stigma” by enabling us to “look and see and understand” such a wide range of experiences.

The award for Best Short Documentary went to another international entry, from Hungarian director Tarek Raffoul. Piros Fehér Zöld (Red White Green) is a beautifully shot film, focusing on the relationship between an elderly mother, Anna, and her son, Laczi, who has Down’s syndrome. Raffoul reveals their simple life, full of love and laughter, but later we learn that Anna has grave concerns about her son’s future, in case she gets ill or passes away. They make a heart-warming on-screen duo, and, in his statement, Raffoul revealed that he was drawn to them immediately: “It was one of those moments when you see someone passing by on the street and you think they’ll be the subject of my next film.”

Ilona Kacieja’s Red Dust, highly commended in the category, explores an incendiary local issue that combines personal, political and ecological interest. The Ravenscraig steelworks in Motherwell, once a vital part of the local economy, closed in 1992 but there are still question marks over pollution and contamination in the area. In the words of resident Anne Hendry, the red dust used to “spew into the air” and there is a lot of potentially dangerous “rubbish still lying there in the ground.” Locals have noticed dramatically increased cancer rates in recent years but the authorities appear to have little interest in digging deeper.

Clearly a subject worth investigating further, Kacjeja has started developing it into her first feature-length film, working with Interdoc, a programme run by the Scottish Documentary Institute. Since premiering at Document in Glasgow last year, it has been nominated for several awards and won Best Short Documentary at Carmarthen Bay Film Festival. “I just returned yesterday from Marbella Film Festival and…it had two screenings at the Astra Film Festival in Sibua in Romania,” said Kacieja. As well as building on her success, she is hoping to do more to tackle the problems in the Ravenscraig area: “There are a lot of issues which should be resolved and, hopefully, I will be able to help [the community] with my film.”

The Drama category saw two films rewarded for their creativity in tackling mental health issues. The winning entry, Iranian director Behrouz Bagheri’s The Hard Dream, is about a robot who sees himself as a human but is unable to act like one. It draws links between physical and mental health conditions, using CGI effects to create a unique central character. Highly commended Lizard Girl, directed by Lynsey Miller, is about a 10-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome who struggles to build relationships with other children. Miller uses quirky cinematic techniques to give us an insight into the way her protagonist sees the world and the challenges she faces. It has a positive outlook and a playful feel, which was matched by a video message from young actress Molly Harmon to accept the award.

Joint winner in the Arts and Mental Health category, Out Door is also filmed in a way that creates a unique perspective on the world. Directors Stephen Johnston and Edward Summerton use an innovative split-screen technique, forcing the audience to engage with the documentary from more than one angle. Its charismatic subject David Ford is described by Summertson as “shafted by society, living in rural Scotland, off the radar.” After being forcibly sectioned, Ford’s experience as a mental health patient convinced him that the system is not capable of dealing with individual cases; at times, he says, it was like being treated by a robot. Ford has now taken up painting therapeutically, using it as a way to explore his own personality, talent and creativity. 

The other winning entry, Images of Bedlam, stemmed from journalist and first-time director Gareth Rubin’s desire to “make a positive film about mental health, about people getting better”. His film is set in the original “Bedlam Hospital”, the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, which is the world’s oldest psychiatric institution. “I started thinking about the various productive therapeutic regimes that there are…and, because I wanted to produce a film, I knew it had to be quite visual, so I settled on therapeutic approaches to art.” Art had a real impact on the participants, who accompanied Rubin at the ceremony: “It seemed to enable all three of them to compartmentalise their problems, to explore their problems and reduce their problems.”

Joan Malloy, whose visual documentary was highly commended in the Multimedia category, was also making a film for the first time. Unravelling Eve is based on a recording from a workshop for women who once suffered from post-partum psychosis. Their often dark conversations are overlaid with imaginative imagery, including spinning photographs and animated childlike drawings. “My decision at the beginning,” said Malloy, “was to make as beautiful film as you can make about what is a really ugly illness…It’s about making something that’s easy on the eye, so you’re actually having to focus on their stories.” 

The film has been shown in Swansea at a conference for perinatal mental health but Malloy has plans to screen it in further non-academic settings. “I’m going to put it into some short festivals…because it’s actually about breaking it down, bringing it to different audiences, so it’s not just [being shown to people with an interest in] mental health.” Malloy was accompanied by her two children as she accepted the award and used the platform to thank “all the women who gave their honesty and trust and opened themselves to me”.

The winner in the Multimedia category was Sea Front, the latest film from stop-motion animator Claire Lamond, who also won this award in 2012 for All That Glisters. Developed in collaboration with Fife Cultural Trust to mark the First World War centenary, Sea Front focuses on the people who were left behind while the men went to war. Lamond worked with singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, as she did in All That Glisters: “I wanted folk music to be the core of it,” she said, “because the film’s very much about the psychological impact of war. I wanted to symbolise the fact that it was the community that held themselves together psychologically…and used folk music as a symbol of that.”

Lamond’s distinctive style is “textural and craft-based” and she makes all her models by hand, together with her mother. The human feeling she imparts into their textile faces is astonishing, the result of “an awful lot of eyeball moving and looking and blinking, trying to animate the emotion rather than the action.” Sea Front took around five and a half months from beginning to end, “working crazy hours”, and making around “six minutes of animation a day”. The result is another beautiful film, which deals with an issue that’s still very much relevant today. Lamond used her acceptance speech to condemn the government for funding wars and weapons while cutting support for people who suffer from the resultant mental health problems.

The final award to be presented was the Jury Prize, which this year was shared between two films, Here One Day and Today Is Monday. When accepting her previous award, New York-based Liechter had said, “I knew that I had to come and be here,” because this kind of festival means so much to her. “I see it all as social action,” she said, “telling these stories and presenting them.” Leichter was emotional when accepting the Jury Prize and dedicated it to her mother, who was mental health activist herself. Leichter added that she would have loved to share with the moment with her mother, who would have been tremendously proud of the work she is doing with the film.

Today Is Monday is also having an impact beyond its success as a documentary. Speaking before the ceremony, Foster said, “From a research perspective, there’s a translational gap of 17 years from getting evidence into practice…But a film like this is incredibly accessible. It’s emotive, it relates, it involves real people, so everyone who’s watched it has had a huge reaction. It’s been shown to hundreds of people around the world and been used as training for nurses, psychiatrists, doctors and for lay people.” Accepting the Jury Prize, Davies added, “It’s a privilege to hear that the film is now being used to raise awareness and as an advocacy tool.” 

Written by Rob Dickie