Talking Heads reporter Louise Farquhar writes about Documentary Shorts, which screened as part of the SMHAF 2019 film programme on Saturday 4th May.

Reflecting the wide spectrum of mental health, along with the wonderful diversity of SMHAF 2019, this carefully curated event brought together five very unique short documentaries. Taking the audience through an evolving narrative, each film followed people marginalised by society as a result of mental illness and trauma, sensitively highlighting the harrowing effects of futility and isolation. But there was also hope. Every one of these moving and powerful films shared a strong positive message; whether that was one of acceptance, recovery or a call to action. Although challenging to watch, this series of documentary shorts was ultimately very uplifting, infusing feelings of love, courage and understanding through a harsh world. With film, it is not only the action that speaks to the audience but also the spaces in between, the silences and the thoughts. These films all encapsulate this principle beautifully and give a strong voice to those who can’t always be heard.

Asylum, directed by Jaap van Heusden and Jefta Varwick, starts in a confused state, with the world upside down, flicking between sharp and blurred images as subtitles state, ‘life has no meaning’. We are in the head of protagonist, David Brown. This ultra-subjective film submerses us in the life of a young psychotic man, who has lived in a number of psychiatric institutions and is on the move again. The constantly alienating camera work, shifting focus from shots of sterile interiors to unrecognisable blurred images and then bucolic forest scenes, is oppressive but also powerful as it parallels the disordered state of David’s mind when he hears voices. He describes the ‘entity’ in his head once offering him a choice to kill his brother or jump from a window. He chose to jump. With occasional comical moments, which add realism and relief to his condition, he talks candidly about attempts he made to end his life. Whilst at times he longs for death by suicide or euthanasia, he also frankly admits being just as scared of dying as of being alive. This film masterfully crawls from his mind into ours, infiltrating our own thoughts with invisible voices until the psychoses seem our own. In one particular moving moment, David hugs a tree as he walks through the forest. Although obviously contrived for the film, this is something he often finds peace doing and we feel his sense of calm.

Enjoying a world premiere at SMHAF 2019, the second documentary, Comics by Monica Zinn, countered the disturbing disorientation of the first feature with an instantly bright and cheerful character, bringing sunny yellow tones and sounds of laugher immediately to the screen. Rose Turner is a young artist, whose experience of anxiety and depression started after the suicide of a friend. Amidst leafy sunshine scenes, happy music and smiling faces the film depicts her deeply personal struggle to overcome the bleakness and disconnection triggered by this trauma. As she describes warm memories of her childhood on the family farm, with loving parents and big family, the sudden starkness of how an unexpected event can fracture mental health is clear. Rose talks openly about being unable to maintain her studies during this time and the feelings of fatigue and isolation she succumbed to. These descriptions are set against carefully crafted idyllic scenes of nature, narrated beautifully using the metaphor of a lukewarm day. Yet this is a story of recovery. Rose called on four lights of healing; namely kindness, stories, hiking and art. From these she turned from the darkness of depression and anxiety. This powerful film, peppered throughout with warmth and laughter, is a positive story of prioritising health, learning coping strategies and becoming empowered. Giving a clear message of hope to young people, this film should be shown in every school, university and college in the world.

The third feature, Raquel, is directed by Tania Cattebeke and set in Paraguay’s capital city, Asuncion. Raquel Varga, a 54-year old schizophrenic, has been living on the streets for two decades after mental illness affected her ability to continue as a student of architecture. Cattebeke knew of Raquel through her sister, who works in social services, and started the feature with a clear intention to document the harsh realities of Raquel’s life. The hand-held camera technique and peppering of stills amongst the imagery create a real and instant bond with the old lady, even eliciting shock when she is erratically aggressive. Interestingly, the perspective changes at this point as Cattebeke sees herself as ‘violent’ in attempting to define and force Raquel’s story to fit a model we all expect in these circumstances. Now Raquel assumes control of the narrative and suddenly the film becomes totally fascinating. In contrast to the start, Raquel demonstrates a sense of acceptance and understanding of her life, as well as genuine pleasure in what she does, from dancing to drawing intricate chalk pictures on the pavement. In place of a tortured narrative, we see Raquel as strong and self-assured: a human being who knows how to live and to laugh.

Through the Cracks, by Nathan Fagan and Luke Daly, captures the degradation and loneliness experienced by families living in emergency accommodation in Ireland. Although filmed using actors, the narrative is taken directly from first-hand accounts of mothers and their children. Initially children talk optimistically about their futures, maybe wanting to be a teacher when they grow up, as we are shown them playing in parks or with Lego. The paradox, however, is swift and unsettling as mothers share their guilt and shame of being homeless, along with real fears for their children’s deteriorating mental health. Filmed in natural light, drawing on relatable scenes, we are shown the relentless search the families must undertake to find shelter. In these ‘hotels’, children are unable to socialise with others their own age, spending time in cramped rooms, bored and exposed to a scary and inappropriate adult world. The film, like the mothers, sees a very different future for the children. Pointed unashamedly at Government policies, this documentary is a call to action. It clearly demands an end to this miserable situation.  The heavy heads of the audience, which hung in futile despair throughout the film, lift at this point amidst a feeling of confidence that, as a society, we can demand a better life for these people.

Then came the final film in the programme, Model Childhood. Winner of the Grand Jury prize at SMHAF 2019, Tim Mercier’s astounding documentary joins him as a filmmaker embarking on a journey to find answers to his experience of childhood sexual trauma. Immediately opening with loud and attention-demanding sounds, there is also a poetic quality to the start of the film as it settles by the river on a summer day, watching nature and people thrive in the sunshine. A sudden cut to the very ordinary and unkempt surroundings of Mercier’s flat, where he films himself using basic equipment, is a sharp contrast and harshly realistic. He is clearly isolated, unable to talk to family about his experience and living in a world where a very definite stigma exists around sexual assault. As someone who always enjoyed making models, he starts by creating an Austin Cambridge, which seems like a fun clay model of an old car at first, until we discover it to be the scene of the horrific crime. The narrative stays with him as he reconstructs the day of his assault using more animated clay models, intermixed with strikingly direct footage of him as he returns to the forest where the assault took place. Against a backdrop of insects frenzied around a streetlight, he describes the frantic mode started by this traumatic experience, which is so much more than a single incident, affecting every day of his life since then. His words, “Look what it does to a man,” are arresting, suspending the viewer in Mercier’s haunted world for that moment. A beautiful ending then softens the sheer depiction of malevolence, violence and disgust aroused by the film. Mercier stands amidst the beech trees, which he describes as mainly growing tall and strong except for some which have kinks, as though they have something to grow around. We can all take something from this. Model Childhood is a courageous film and Tim Mercier is a generous artist to share it. This film will benefit anyone who watches it.

Louise Farquhar is a writer, covering the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival for the first time. She lives in Glasgow with her family and too many books. 

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