Talking Heads reporter Nina Abeysuriya writes about Dramatic Shorts, which screened as part of the SMHAF 2019 film programme.

Tom Lock Griffiths is no stranger to exploring and exposing the complexities of difficult and painful subjects; with his second film Mistral he does just that. Centred around the elements, Griffiths takes us on the wind to London and the south coast of France.

Following Griffiths childhood story and the story of Eva. With both a captivating narrative and beautiful cinematography we are given a fully immersive sensory experience from the opening scene. He uses various audios to enhance the experience. At times I almost felt the wind on my face.

Griffiths captivating voice adds a deep rhythmic dimension that carries throughout and layers over a series of moving images. This film is rich in metaphor and atmosphere and feels like a poem at times.

The film explores the fear of madness that sits in us. It uses the elements with images of water, earth and fire to explore the links between us and our fragile existence and our interplay between the outer forces of our lives.

Throughout the film Griffiths uses strong images to link us to his journey of loss and pain. From suicide and to the spirits of those who were held in the old asylums and buried under the London streets he grew up on.

The wind in the south of France is called the Mistral and has been known to be linked to both the destruction of landscape but also to cause psychosis. We are shown the beauty of light and dark with strong imagery which builds the tensions and the possibility of surrender to the wind and the madness it may bring. 

I Love You by Victoria Thompson is set over the course of one night in the lives of Charlotte and Liam. This is a raw and realistic window into their intimate relationship. This is especially well depicted due to its improvisation, which brings an unsettling closeness to the subject. We are shown a tenderness that is present whilst we are privy to their everyday lives. Charlotte is experiencing mental illness. 

Thompson shows us there is an intimacy and responsibility in romantic relationships, that it can be our greatest strength and a mirror to our greatest suffering. Mental illness does not just impact the individual and we are shown how this impacts Liam.

Sometimes unsettling to witness, we can relate to the actions of both characters. We are shown a build and escalation of Charlotte’s distress, which leads to some extreme consequences and impacts her ability to ask for the tenderness and understanding she needs to receive. 

The film achieves a real sense of normality and reality as we share the space of the couple’s relationship just as the illness shares their home. Inevitably, like any unwanted guest, this brings a sense of invasion and disruption.  

Directed by the Nuesch sisters from Switzerland, Forget Me Not is based around their experience of growing up with their mother who experienced bipolar disorder.  

This is a brave exploration of their own journey with a serious and enduring mental illness. The intention of the film was the tell us the story through the eyes of the young sisters and the effects of their mother’s illness on their lives. A great attempt had been made to be factually accurate with set and costume, which strongly showed us the 1970s timeframe. 

The story follows the children and mother with some tenderness and sensitivity but sadly it lacked the emotional impact that I expected. Having lived through the experience of growing up in a household with a parent with bipolar disorder I felt Forget Me Not falls someway short in sharing the experience from the children’s point of view, leaving me more frustrated than able to relate with an overly simplistic depiction of the possible damage and difficulties both in and out of the home for a child in this position. Having said that, all experiences of the same condition cannot be generalised and the sisters’ experience is unique. It’s commendable to bring your own story of living with mental illness into a space to be discussed and explored. 

Portuguese director Sebastiao Selgado brings us a 15-minute short Segunda-Feira, which explores the growing impact depression has on families. Portugal, Selgado notes, has the highest rate of depression in Europe. His work has an important message, highlighting the common experience that is hidden in plain sight of Portuguese families. 

This is shot all in an affluent family’s home, introducing us to Helena, a woman who appears to have a successful life from the outside but is locked into the routine of her suffering. This is broken by an enforced visit from her grandchild.   

The frustration of Helena’s family is shown with her granddaughter’s escalated need for her attention, but Helena is unable to break through the deepening divide between them. 

Helena when asked by her son if she is unwell, simply replies, she is tired as is unable to show the truth of how she feels, which gives us some hint to the situation in accessing help and support in Portugal and why films such as these are of great importance.

Segunda-Feira was filmed in slow sequences which really goes well to explain the expanses of time depression can steal from us. For example, Helena’s heavy footsteps as they tread her designer stairs. I found it challenging to watch at times and scenes seemed to linger longer then I felt comfortable with, but this beautifully parallels the characteristics of depression and how they impact the physical body, losing energy, time and connection.

Finally, and personally the stand out film from the Dramatic Shorts, is Gaston Stabiszeweki’s Take a Breath

Brilliantly scripted, filmed and produced, Take a Breath is the longest from the selection, but uses the extra time extremely well. Shari Asha Crosson’s performance of Sara, our protagonist, is outstanding, bringing passion, empathy and depth to the role.

Sara has looked after her mother who has experienced a long-term mental illness and shows us the aftermath of an event which leaves collateral damage to both Sara and her estranged brother Jan, played by Stabiszeweki himself. 

Both siblings have processed, live and responded to their mother’s illness and attempted to gain understanding about themselves and their mother’s illness. However, this does not have a final destination and will continue to challenge them both.

Stabiszeweki’s film depicts dream-wake sequences, as we see the inner struggles of Sara set in a forest of her consciousness as she tries to deal with her anger, despair, relief and confusion. Switching from one to the other on an emotional journey. Jan has dropped out of society and lives in a tent, exploring his understanding of madness and creativity through theatre. But both siblings are forced back together to move through the next stage of their fragile relationship. 

Though a dramatically challenging subject, Stabiszeweki manages to bring humour and light in places. The scene I could most relate to was set around Sara and Jan having dinner to discuss their mother. Sara’s resentment of her brother is played brilliantly, bearing the scars of the responsibilities she wears openly and awkwardly, while a third party fills the airspace with small talk. This is an all too familiar scene for me – and countless families – that have been bent by the legacy left through mental illness. Sara has given time to the care of her mother but has affected her esteem, her own relationships, her own mental health and undoubtedly will continue to do so. Just as Jan has been unable to connect and relate to his sister and their mother through the illness, and is navigating his own sense of sanity.

Stabiszeweki’s has achieved an entertaining and compelling short film, which most importantly shows the audience a glimpse into the complex subject of how mental illness can impact an entire family’s structure, not just the person experiencing it. It is difficult to begin to identify how many ways Sara and Jan will be affected by this tragedy in their lives. This is the unfinished story for both Sara and Jan, and their mother. Stabiszeweki’s hope was that the film can make people in similar situations feel a little less alone and for 23 minutes, it did for me, and for that I thank him. 

by Nina Abeysuriya

Nina is an Edinburgh based writer, mother, barista, baker, candle stick maker! She has aspirations of singing to a bigger audience than her dog and is a keen jumpsuit enthusiast. She is delighted to be starting this new adventure of working with the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.
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