Of all the creative arts, it might be fair to say that dance is the most universally practised; there are few of us who won’t, at some point or another, to one degree or another, move our bodies to music. And like most creative arts, dance has a twofold function: it can exist as a public performance, a carefully honed product of physical skill and aesthetic innovation, or it can exist as a private act of expression, a spontaneous bodily response to impulses that are about sensation rather than style. Ivan Gergolet’s film Dancing With Maria is about a studio that enables the latter form of dance to flourish, but, as cinema, it is the former, a captivating piece of art skilfully crafted from many private and public moments of movement.
A few days ago, in his review of In Her Shadows, Tom Grayson wrote about the narrative power of physical theatre, the ability of the body to convey meanings and tell stories with nothing but movements, gestures, postures. The bodies that move in Maria Fux’s studio are almost the inverse of this; they are dance without narrative, bodies that do not seek to convey anything but their own existence. There are many small stories woven through the documentary – family histories, personal journeys and shy teenage romance – but Gergolet does not attempt to construct any neat plot trajectories with beginnings and ends, and most of the film is spent dwelling on the act of dance itself.
There’s something compelling about watching dance that is not intended as performance at all, in a space where movement is for movement’s sake, not for the gaze of an audience. In an illuminating post-film conversation at the Glad Café, teachers from Independ-dance and Scottish Ballet discussed their practises and the different forms dance instruction can take. What perhaps makes dance so therapeutic for many, they suggested, is the sensation of being fully present in one’s body, the anxieties of past and future suspended in the spontaneity of a moment that exists only for itself. It is a sensation that can be lost in much professionally choreographed dance, where performers must always be consciously aware of their surroundings, timings and lighting, as well as each other’s bodies and the space they inhabit. Choreographed dance is a craft, creativity made into art by intensive labour; the dance that happens in Maria’s studio is not labour but play, unstructured and spontaneous.
That might sound like the sort of thing that works better as therapy than as art, but within the context of the film’s beautiful cinematography, it’s unfailingly captivating to watch. The sheer mass of bodies in the studio has a hypnotic effect; most of the time they seem oblivious to each other and the camera; their focus is turned inwards, but their aesthetic power is stronger than the sum of its parts. In shots of feet weaving between each other, hands twirling, reaching and bathed in eerie blue light, there is a sense of intimate anonymity, a sense reflected in Maria’s relation to her students: ‘I don’t ask them where are they from, what are they doing or not doing. Meeting them when they are moving, I realise who they are. I don’t have a relationship with them outside these encounters. When the class is over, I disappear.’ It’s a connection based not on identities but on the immediacy of bodily encounters, which can be more intimate and telling than any life story.
Throughout the film, interspersed with the flowing, organic shots of moving bodies are panoramas of Buenos Aires, with its lanes of traffic moving steadily in straight lines. There is a deliberate contrast between the vast cityscape in which human flesh is invisible, locked behind metal or stone, and the small intimate rooms where bodies exist side by side. In the final beautiful scene, the two finally intermingle: we get an aerial shot of a many-laned road where cars trundle by, until, gradually, there are no more cars and dancers begin to spill along the edges of the road, dancing along the painted white lines like tightropes, until, finally, a flood of bodies bursts into the lanes, dancing in a place they aren’t supposed to, refusing to remain confined to the city’s officially demarcated zones.
As one audience member put it, what Maria does is give people permission to dance, an inclusive, unconditional permission that leaves ideas about ability and skill and aesthetic conformity at the door. One of the dancers, a woman who walks on crutches, speaks of her childhood envy of a dancer friend: ‘They never let me dance because classical dance was impossible for me, and any other dance as well, because my movements are not acknowledged by dance.’ Later, there is a moving scene in which she dances in the centre of a circle of her classmates. Maria’s studio is a place that acknowledges the potential of all bodies to move in beautiful and powerful ways. And indeed, Maria herself bears witness to this principle: still dancing at 93, she is fascinated by the limits of the body, not as barriers but as challenges to find new ways of moving.
Written by Shona McCombes
In light of the comedy performances and workshops taking place in this this year’s Festival, listen to to the first episode in the Expressions series of podcasts, with host Nicole Bell and comedian guests Michael Grieve and Hannah Rodgers.
This episode examines the relationship between comedy and mental health for those performing and the wider implications of using comedy as a platform for discussing mental health. To take part in a comedy workshop in Paisley on Tue 20 Oct, look here.
You can also listen to the podcast on Nicole's Youtube channel:
The theme for this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival is passion, and no two people could have more of it than storytelling duo Beth Hamilton-Cardus and Andrew Coull. Together, they comprise Fife-based community theatre company Suit and Pace. This year, they performed their comedic storytelling session Cheering Up The King, aimed at children aged 3-8 years old, in the Postings Arts Hub, Kirkcaldy.
Cheering Up The King is a multi-modal and interactive show, cleverly designed to thrive and evolve with audience participation. However, the central premise follows (as you might imagine) the story of a crestfallen King, who, despite his Jester’s best efforts, cannot seem to be cheered up. The audience are then asked for suggestions on how to cheer up the King and encouraged to share what makes them happy, in the hope this might succeed in lifting his spirits. Using this method, the light-hearted and pun-filled performance encourages youngsters to consider what improves their mental wellbeing and how to enhance the mood of those around them.
Unfortunately, The Postings in Kirkcaldy does not see much footfall these days, with most crossing its doors only to use it as a thoroughfare to the bus station. As a result, Cheering Up The King did not receive the attention or audience it undeniably deserved. However, the small audience size had no impact on the boundless enthusiasm of the performers and fostered an intimate, engaging experience for the children and their parents. The performers’ impressive ability to inspire participation, even in incredibly young and easily distracted children, resulted in one impassioned attendee choosing to sing two songs in front of the group – and the King couldn’t help but smile.
The performance incorporated a range of mediums, including colourful and tactile props; physical engagement through activities such as juggling; anecdotes with a positive mental wellbeing message; and a final craft task. All of these were designed to reflect on what made the attendees happy and all served to underline the take home message: know what makes you happy, know what you might have to do to cheer yourself or others up, and know that improved mental wellbeing can be achieved through discussion.
Throughout the performance, though, one particular issue struck me. While it is fantastic that arts projects are able to facilitate discussions regarding mental wellbeing amongst younger generations, they shouldn’t be the sole platform. Throughout my entire time at primary and secondary school, I vividly recall detailed drugs, alcohol and sexual health education, but not once was mental wellbeing even being touched upon – let alone candidly discussed. I am far from alone in this experience – many children and adolescents receive absolutely no formal mental health awareness education at all.
At least nowadays, some theatre companies can be brought into schools to approach these issues. Suit and Pace themselves have run workshops for senior high school pupils in order to promote frank discussion regarding mental health. While this is an excellent and worthwhile initiative, it is simply not enough. In order to ensure children and adolescents feel comfortable discussing mental health, education regarding mental wellbeing should follow the same model as drugs, alcohol and sexual health – starting early and increasing with age. This would promote forthright discussion, reduce stigma, and ensure young people know the appropriate steps to take should they themselves experience problems or find themselves supporting a friend or family member. Given that a quarter of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year, it’s inconceivable that it does not yet have a place in school curriculums.
Written by Nicole Bell
Image by Faisal Aziz
Speaking after last week’s opening night of The Last Yankee, See Me Scotland volunteer Leanne McKillop made the perceptive observation that if one in four people have mental health issues, this leaves another three who can help support them. Throughout SMHAFF 2015, several events will address, champion and celebrate the extraordinary work of the many carers who dedicate their lives to assisting loved ones through periods of mental ill-health, working alongside professional bodies to encourage mental wellbeing and recovery.
On Monday 19th October, Volunteer Glasgow, the Mental Health Foundation and SMHAFF present Re-Connect at Glasgow’s Art School. Through film, discussion and information, the day will explore the roles and experiences of carers, examining the impact upon those who help others with mental health issues, and revealing how communities can support the health and wellbeing of carers.
The day begins with a film screening of Mental: A Family Experience, a short documentary about one family’s experience of mental ill-health and the bonds that brought them together. A panel discussion will follow, focussing on the caring role and allowing participants a chance to share and network with others.
Volunteer Glasgow will host a stall delivering information on the benefits of volunteering, showcasing the range of opportunities available to all members of the community. The day will represent a timely and deserved celebration of the fantastic work of carers.
The following Thursday, Edinburgh Carers Council present their annual concert at Electric Circus, this year headlined by the ‘lyrically compelling and sonically stunning’, Scottish Album of the Year Award-winning Kathryn Joseph. She will be supported by the uniquely beautiful, ‘gruff-but-sweet’ songs of Yusuf Azak, and the ‘skewed-folk despotism’ of The Son(s). Edinburgh Carers Council provides advocacy, information and learning opportunities for carers of people with mental health issues and this fundraiser will raise further awareness and funds for carers.
Also in Edinburgh, a two-day exhibition will be held at the Carers Council, from Monday 26th to Tuesday 27th October. The work displayed stems from the creative workshop held during Carers’ Week earlier this year and has been produced by participants from a wide range of caring backgrounds, including mental health.
The exhibition (which will then move, on Thursday 29th October to Carers of West Lothian in Livingston) represents an exciting collaboration between Edinburgh Carers Council, Carers of West Lothian and Edinburgh Carers Support Project.
All told, these events promise to both reflect and promote the massive contribution carers make to the lives of those facing mental health issues, providing a platform from which we can celebrate their work and dedicate valuable space and time in which all attendees can be stimulated and inspired, relax and have fun.
Written by Mark Jones
Re-Connect, Mon 19 Oct, 1-4pm, The Art School, Glasgow; Edinburgh Carer's Council Present: Music Matters with Kathryn Joseph + Yusuf Azak + The Son(s), Thu 22 Oct, 7–10pm, Electric Circus, Edinburgh; Creative Carers, Mon 26 Oct-Tue 27 Oct, 1–7pm, Edinburgh Carers Council; Thu 29 Oct, 1-7pm, Carers of West Lothian, Livingston.
Since the early 1990s, a mysterious suicide epidemic has been spreading in rural communities throughout the Venezuelan Andes. Almost everyone in the region knows someone who has taken their own life, but no one is any closer to understanding why this is happening or what could be done to bring it do an end. Striking young and old, male and female alike, each death is its own unique tragedy, raising countless questions that nobody can ever fully answer.
Eliezer Arias, the filmmaker and anthropologist behind the poignant and desperately beautiful The Silence of the Flies, knows these communities as well as anyone. Having first visited the area around twenty years ago, he has studied their lifestyle in detail and witnessed first-hand the dramatic changes that have taken place in that period. ‘I was part of the landscape,’ he jokes, years before starting to make this film. ‘I was working there as an anthropologist for a long time. I was the researcher who came to ask questions.’
Since opting to tackle this subject, however, he has encountered few easy answers. Describing the phenomenon as ‘complex’ and ‘multifactorial’, he says there are ‘too many [things] that can explain why people commit suicide. You can of course look for some tendencies that could explain it in these rural areas,’ but there are always going to be numerous exceptions. The problem is not strictly a local one either, with suicide rates in rural communities across Latin America, as well as in countries like Japan, Switzerland and the UK, outstripping national averages, but the region’s unique culture may account for its scale.
Arias believes that the driving force behind the issues in this Venezuelan town is the rapid pace of change occurring within it and the introduction of ‘new values that come from globalisation’. ‘My hypothesis is that these communities [have changed] a lot in recent years,’ he says. ‘They still live with old traditions, a lot of machismo,’ but the ancient ‘institutions’ that sustained and justified that culture are crumbling. Farming used to be the region’s lifeblood, but with the economy in ‘a mess’, it is very difficult for people to be successful: ‘When you talk to the farmers, the poor farmers, they feel like they are failing.’ It is perhaps no coincidence that the most common way for men to take their lives is by drinking agricultural pesticides.
Young people are hit hardest by the changes, caught ‘in a trap’ between the old and the new. ‘It’s more difficult to be young in a rural community than in a big city,’ says Arias. ‘In a big city, you can be someone else. For example, if you have a tattoo, if you paint your hair blue or green, that’s normal. But in rural areas, you are stigmatised.’ Homosexuality is particularly difficult to deal with and coming out is rare: ‘You have to be willing to be oppressed by the community.’ But nobody seems safe from all forms of social alienation. In the interviews we hear with their friends and relatives, there is an overriding sense that the victims felt they did not belong and were ultimately not allowed to. People are unable to express themselves, to reveal their true personalities, particularly when they go radically against the prevailing culture.
Their inability to speak out is reflected in the way that Arias presents the testimonies that comprise the film’s soundtrack. Recorded entirely without cameras, they are given as voiceovers alongside shots of the speakers in different settings, looking silently and expressionlessly into the camera. This technique was a ‘risk’ and an ‘experiment’, but encourages multiple interpretations in this context. In part, it was simply a way for Arias to protect his subjects and avoid ‘exposing them to the camera’ in their most emotional moments, but it also enabled him to explore innovative ways to bring the dead into the film. In depicting the relatives in this way, he explains: ‘I wanted to show that there is an emptiness, an absence.’ They are both there and not there, and in many cases always will be.
The dead also occupy a physical space in the landscape, through belongings carefully placed in trees, streams and mountainsides. There is something uncanny about their presence here, in contrast with the spectacular and idyllic environment. Arias was interested in showing ‘something very terrible’ against this setting, which he describes as ‘bucolic’ and ‘very romantic’, adding that it is still a popular honeymoon destination for couples from the cities. But he finds ways to draw the tragedy into the story, his imagery suggesting connections between the natural environment and the pain and isolation the locals suffer. ‘The landscape is part of the movie,’ he says, ‘one of the characters.’
The film focuses on two mothers, Marcelina and Mercedes, who both lost their daughters in the same year at the same age. Their search for answers eventually takes them to the top of a mountain, which is ‘very arid, very grey’, almost a blank slate for them to start again on. Generally, there is an ‘attitude of stoicism’ about the suicides in the community, which Arias describes as ‘something like a defence. They are saying: I suffered this loss but I have to keep going with my life.’ Within the community, ‘they have a different way to understand suicide. Sometimes, they even say that the expression, suicide, is not something they understand at all. They see it as 'something that happened’ to them as opposed to something they did, which can be interpreted as deeply empathetic, as well as a kind of denial.
The film’s title, The Silence of the Flies, was inspired by this disticintive attitude, as well as one of the region’s most striking but less attractive features. ‘In this community, there are a lot of flies,’ says Arias. ‘It’s amazing. Twenty years ago, the first time I was there, I was impressed by the flies. But none of the people reacted to them…The flies are part of the community, part of the landscape. And suicide is the same.’
The people in the town have to a great extent ‘normalised the phenomenon’. But Arias cannot say whether that is a good or a bad thing: ‘It’s [simply] a different way for relatives to give meaning to the suicides.’ There is little stigma surrounding the issue, largely because it is so common, but that seems to be doing little to help alleviate the situation. ‘Suicide is a universal phenomenon,’ he says, ‘but has different meanings for different people.’ His film is a moving and valuable exploration of a community’s search for answers, and an examination of a culture that is finding it increasingly difficult to stay alive.
Written by Rob Dickie