The third annual SMHAFF Writing Awards took place on Monday 17 October at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. Held in partnership with Bipolar Scotland, the ceremony was hosted by poet and performer Jenny Lindsay. This year, Jenny was on the competition’s panel of judges, which also included playwright and novelist Alan Bissett, Andrew Eaton-Lewis, the Arts Lead for the Mental Health Foundation, and Alison Cairns and Gordon Johnston from Bipolar Scotland. Together, they selected ten shortlisted pieces and four prize-winners from over 130 entries on the theme of time.
Gordon Johnston from Bipolar Scotland has been involved with judging the competition since it began and remarked that this year had been the most difficult yet. He found lots of the pieces of writing very moving and, in particular, highlighted the beautiful use of language in many of the pieces.
Hearing the shortlisted writers read from their work was definitely the highlight of the evening and an absolute privilege. As Gordon commented: ‘You cannot assume that people are good at reading just because they can write, but the standard of reading was excellent.’
Following the readings, singer-songwriter Neil Pennycook, best known for his band Meursault, performed a short set of songs which went down very well with everyone in attendance. And then it was time to present the awards.
You can read all of the shortlisted entries in the beautiful e-book below, designed by Josie Vallely:
Highly Commended: Dear Doctor, Angela McCrimmon
In Angela McCrimmon’s absence, Alison Cairns read Dear Doctor, a beautiful mixture of prose and poetry that expressed the experience of bipolar disorder with clarity and warmth:
'26/05/2015...Dear Dr, I just want to give up. You don't understand. You look at me blankly while tears are pouring from my eyes. My words are locked up inside and I can't get them out. Oh well...maybe next time.'
As a poet who writes for performance, Jenny Lindsay explained that she especially enjoyed the pieces with a clear voice and felt that Dear Doctor was a great example of this.
Second Runner Up: Happy Meal, Erin Crombie
Erin Crombie has been writing since the age of eighteen and her short story Happy Meal used language in a very fresh way:
‘I looked down at the body attached to my head. The legs, the insect legs, were sprawled and tangled. The pressure of the tile on my knee, my hip, the base of my spine. All bones and bone white tile. If I tried to lie down flat pain would still find its way to all the pressure points. These are the points of my body that meet the world. If only contact with the world didn’t hurt so much.’
Erin described herself as ‘surprised and a bit horrified’ to win a prize, and described the experience of reading from her story on the night as ‘vomit-inducing!’
First Runner Up: Dear Uncle, Celia D Donovan
Celia Donovan was the first to read her work on the night, a very moving letter to her late uncle. A deeply personal piece, Celia dealt with her uncle’s – and her own – experiences of mental ill health:
‘Would you think badly of me to know that even though I saw the devastation your suicide caused that I have tried to commit suicide before? Or would you be the only person in the family who truly understands?’
Although Celia has written since she was a child, she only entered the competition following the encouragement of a friend. She initially wrote four pieces and she considered Dear Uncle a much more rushed – albeit much more personal – fifth piece.
When Celia found out that it had been shortlisted she was completely thrown, having not discussed the letter or its content with her family. Happily, they were very encouraging and supportive of what she had done and she was delighted to have her mum with her at the ceremony.
Winner: Taking Care of Jane, Angela Wright
Alison Cairns of Bipolar Scotland said that the judges had all been in agreement about Angela Wright’s short story Taking Care of Jane – it was a clear and worthy winner. Accepting her award, she told the audience that she’d never won anything before in her life and praised the other shortlisted writers.
Speaking after the ceremony, Angela said that she was absolutely astonished at her win. After hearing everyone else’s work, she said she felt that she had as much chance as anybody but would really not have been sad if she had left empty-handed, given the high standard of all of the writing.
Wright’s story depicts the struggle that a couple – indeed a family – experienced when one member suffered with an extreme spell of mental illness. It is a beautifully evocative story with rich description of place and feelings:
‘The train unsettles her. The noise of the wretched thing; the last flashes of daylight as the tunnel looms. Jane sits alone on the train. She is by a window, as close as possible to a corner of the carriage. She braces herself. Approaching the darkness, she wraps her body up small, notices the drumming of her heart.’
At the close of the ceremony, Jenny Lindsay spoke briefly about the difficulty of writing about mental health and commended all of the shortlisted writers: Celia Donovan, Susan Robinson, Brian Reid, Angela Wright, Kate Chapman, Lauren Jones, Shirley Muir, Angela McCrimmon, Helen MacKinven, and Erin Crombie.
by Rachel Alexander
‘I am the son of a mother with a mask’
Interviewed after being awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival, A Family Affair director Tom Fassaert identifies this declaration from his father to be the very ‘essence’ of his documentary. The ‘masked’ woman in question is former model and femme fatale, 95-year-old Marianne Hertz, who has emigrated to South Africa from Holland, leaving behind her a legacy of estrangement and dysfunction. Invited by his grandmother to join her in her whitewashed bungalow, Tom embarks on a quest to discover more about this enigmatic figure whose sudden reappearance stirs up family secrets and old resentments.
The ‘mask’ metaphor, along with carefully posed family photos and videos, and lingering shots of Marianne applying makeup in her dressing gown and rollers, flags up a tension between appearances and ‘truth’, and of the faces we present to the world and those we hide even from ourselves. Tom tells his grandmother ‘I'm making this film because so many things were always kept secret… I want to find out what's going on,’ to which she replies, with a dismissive wave of her hand, ‘That's your problem! Not mine!’, alerting us from the outset that this quest for answers is unlikely to be straightforward.
What emerges is an intensely personal documentary that resembles a patchworked family album salvaged from memories and images from across the generations, but which also plays an active role in the ongoing creation of the family’s story, with Marianne journeying back to Holland for a family reunion. Tom’s interviews track how his father, Rob, and uncle, Rene, were placed in a home in early childhood, even if we never quite reach an answer as to why, as well as documenting the aftermath of sorrow, divorce and mental illness. And, although conversations add narrative to the black and white photos of a distant past – of Marianne’s own unhappy childhood in Germany – we gradually begin to realise that these tangled genealogies are not so easily unravelled.
What first strikes you on meeting Tom and his father is the ease and openness of their rapport, the intimacy displayed on screen just as apparent in person and in sharp contrast to the silences and ellipses that punctuate much of the family history. When asked how the film and promotional tour have impacted their relationship, they both recognise that their many conversations, both in and around the film, have allowed for this natural intimacy to deepen, with Rob likening it to a return to the closeness shared when the family was still intact and living under one roof.
While the interviews on screen appear spontaneous and open, Tom is careful to point out that the process was more challenging than it appeared, emphasising several times the ‘struggle’ experienced in his five years filming: ‘certain subjects, or certain emotions, you're not conscious of yourself, they're in there, but you live with them, they're part of you… and it takes an outsider, or, well, I'm like a half-outsider, to point it out. And that's what made it enriching for me, but also very difficult, especially concerning my father… because I felt I needed to touch on things or to keep on digging until I found what I was looking for.’
This persistence creates what Tom sees as the ‘ethical dilemma’ of creating such an intimate work, in contrast with his previous non-autobiographical film, An Angel in Doel (2011), in which ‘everything was clear’. The challenge, as Tom puts it, lies not only in terms of ‘loyalty’ to those represented, never taking sides, but also in constantly examining his own position about what gives him the ‘right’ to keep on asking questions, even in the face of emotional vulnerability: ‘in the end you have to trust your own sensitivity, that in the end the goal is to make a film in which all these people are represented in their most honest and truthful way.’
When asked whether having a camera made it easier to have such intense conversations with his family, Tom goes even further, admitting these exchanges would have been impossible without one: ‘I think I wasn't brave enough, well, not to ask certain questions but to go on asking… the camera was an instrument that let me do something I would have felt too awkward doing without it’. He adds that he is still filming his uncle, aware that he hasn’t yet told Rene’s ‘full story’ - the camera allowing him to build a connection with someone who previously felt like a ‘stranger’.
Tom’s ability to make people feel truly ‘seen’ is most striking in his relationship with his grandmother. Questioned about Marianne, both Tom and Rob identify the ‘tragedy’ of how, although she hated the way her father only loved her for how she looked, she ended up a model, spending her life trying to maintain the very beauty that she resented. There was ‘no alternative’, as Rob describes it, comparing her to a celebrity who both loathes fame and relies on it for a sense of self. What initially appears in the film as narcissism is therefore reframed as self-reliance, the survival strategy of a woman living in an era when her options were limited.
In a particularly emotional interview in the cruise ship cabin, en route to Holland, Marianne turns to Tom, referring to him as the only person who really sees something in her, who doesn’t judge her, before breaking down into tears and hiding her face from the camera. Asked about this scene, Tom notes that ‘it felt like THE moment of truth’ and although it is difficult to watch, there is a feeling that we are privileged in witnessing something unmediated and so resolutely human.
It is in this context that the revelation of Marianne’s desire for Tom becomes easier to understand. While aware that certain audiences might regard it as ‘perverse’, Tom comments that the feeling of taboo is much greater when talking about it, whereas when people actually see the film, it emerges as part of Marianne’s character and way of relating with men, shaped by her father, and, as Rob points out, by the fact that she never really saw herself as a mother or grandmother.
Crucially, when asked whether he had considered leaving this out of the film, Tom emphasises how he didn’t feel any judgment towards Marianne: ‘at a certain moment I had two choices… either leave her, in a way abandon her, or accept it… accept her feelings. And I chose to accept.’
Rather than ‘truth’, then, we move towards an understanding based on acceptance and a shared sense of sorrow, during a sequence of Super 8 footage of autumn leaves and tangled roots, with a quotation from Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, also about dysfunctional family relationships. Rene’s thoughts about how the ‘ideal moment’ of connection between mother and child is so fleeting overlap with similar feelings expressed by the others. According to Tom, ‘it's the emotional climax of the film – we're very close together, all our stories seem to be parallel even though in real life we feel we are hugely apart from each other.’
Referring to this festival’s focus on mental health, Rob, a former psychologist, talks of self-exposure as a necessary part of the therapeutic encounter and how his own troubled past was precisely what led to him training. He also observes how his son’s film and approach are ‘psychological in every way’, particularly in his equal focus on each person – ‘that was amazing for me, he's really interested in people’ and in asking the ‘right kind of questions’ that allow people to open up.
The value of honesty to mental wellbeing is also emphasised by Tom, particularly in a context where social media leads us to display ourselves ‘in a perfect way’ that none of us can really live up to: ‘I think we long for something real, for something that touches on emotional things that we all feel, that allow us not to have to pretend.’ Alongside the personal value of the film, it is through the positive reaction of audiences to this emotional honesty that Tom says he has come to appreciate the film’s importance, ‘that this is something really universal, it's not only about us…’, noting how many people have approached him with their own family stories.
There is no longed-for ‘happy ending’, then, but rather ambiguity and complexity. Marianne is both vulnerable and cunning, disarmingly honest and ‘a born manipulator’, falling out with Tom right at the very end: ‘It happened and it needed to be there, just to show you that things aren’t that easily solved… we don't live in a Hollywood movie.’
‘The truth is subjective... You'll never find what you're looking for. Impossible. Even if you try,’ Marianne declares in the film. And while she may be right, A Family Affair suggests admitting this does not invalidate the search for understanding: ‘not judging, not creating this oversimplified idea about right and wrong, black and white… that was my main ambition,’ as Tom puts it. We are all caught in this ongoing construction of ourselves and others; to quote Bergman: ‘We make each other alive; it doesn’t make a difference if it hurts.’ And while there is an undeniable tenderness at the heart of this documentary, this sense of how we exist in relation, and how these relations are inevitably messy, full of possibility and disappointment alike, is perhaps the closest we can get to something true.
by Clare Blackburne
A Family Affair won Best Documentary Feature and the Grand Jury Prize in the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival's International Film Competition. It is now available to watch on Netflix in the UK.
Talking Heads reporter Colin MacGregor previews Geez a Break Productions' If I Forget to Remember, which has already received a five star review at its premiere at East Kilbride Arts Centre and has further dates at Bellshill Cultural Centre and Rutherglen Town Hall.
‘It’s a small world’ is an often used cliché in this day of modern media platforms but one I found myself muttering just the other night. I had been in an online discussion with a gentleman named Ross McAree, who I discovered co-runs Lanarkshire-based Geez a Break Productions.
Where does ‘it’s a small world’ fit in? Well, I had made plans to go along this Saturday to the Bellshill Cultural Centre to review a play for SMHAFF called If I Forget to Remember and guess what the production company behind it is – that’s right, Geez a Break Productions – and Ross is a producer and actor for the play. Small world, eh?
Well it doesn’t end there. Through talking further, I discovered that his co-founder and co-producer is none other than Liam Lambie, someone I am acquainted with through his past work and have very much grown to admire.
Liam and Ross are no strangers to SMHAFF, having produced the highly acclaimed play Lanes and Doorways for last year’s festival, which told the story of a group of homeless people living on the streets of Glasgow.
This year’s contribution If I Forget to Remember highlights the plight of a family as they deal with the heart breaking preparations for their mother who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's at the age of 52.
The play has already performed at East Kilbride Arts Centre and the news that filtered back to me was that it was a glowing success. It has already received a five star review in the local press and audience members have informed me that it received was a standing ovation.
By all accounts, If I Forget to Remember is a rare combination of humility, dignity, and humour, as the audience are lead on an emotional and heartfelt journey. I must also add that I have been told that hankies are a necessity.
Liam is a writer, director and producer who I will continue to follow in the future. His past works have been wonderful pieces that enthral an audience and If I Forget to Remember promises to be yet another notch that secures his impressive reputation.
by Colin MacGregor
Maggie Patterson : Jacquline Gilbride (Take the High Road)
William Patterson : Victor Kennedy
Katie Patterson : Sarah Beth Brown
Scott Patterson : Ross McAree (also Co-Producer)
Daniel Patterson : Liam Lambie (also Writer, Director and Co-Producer)
Jackie Owens : Amy Montgomery
To close its first week of events, the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival took over Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts with a selection of films submitted to its International Film Competition. The programme of short films, Women, Interrupted, showcased five touching gems portraying different women’s struggles with mental health disorders.
Firstly, the audience was introduced to Alice, protagonist of Camille Fleury’s Hide and Seek, before Beth, Marta, Laura and Virginia’s stories made their appearance on the screen. All together, these fictional and real women’s stories painted a delicate yet powerful picture, showing many different facets of what living with a mental health condition feels like as a mother, daughter or wife.
The predominant feeling that came across in these films was a sense of alienation. Alice’s struggle to deal with bipolar disorder was aggravated by the suffocating sense of living in a psychiatric ward. Beth’s (In Sickness) incapability to communicate with her fiancé set a growing distance between the two of them. Marta (Secret Death) silently and uselessly looked for sympathy and support as she dealt with the trauma of her son’s attempted suicide. Laura (Most of Us Don't Live There) questioned how the love and caring she received as a child could still leave her with an undying sense of emptiness. In Ramtin Nikzad’s One Foot in Reality, which won Best Short Drama in the International Film Competition, Virginia discussed her “trip to space” and the difficulties of living around her loved ones when part of her was always somewhere else.
The extent and intensity of the sum of negative emotions felt by these women was amplified by a few directorial choices, such as the almost complete lack of soundtracks. In Michele Leonardi’s Secret Death, Marta’s interlocutors’ faces were never shown. In Thomas Edwards’ In Sickness, Beth’s condition was further emphasised as scenes of her attempted suicide and its consequences were contrasted against moments from happier times.
Featuring only two actors and setting the whole film in the couple’s house, Edwards also managed to raise the issue of people’s expectations when it comes to women sharing their feelings. Men are commonly believed to have a less emotional facade compared to women, who are constantly reminded of their fragility, helplessness and volatility. Thus, they are expected to seek help and support. But gender often has no particular meaning when it comes to talking about difficult emotions. Jim’s attempts to protect Beth and his inability to accept her silence further aggravated their precarious relationship and her sense of guilt.
The truly phenomenal aspect of the films selected for Women, Interrupted, besides their surprising meticulosity in portraying women’s lives, was their ability to include an underlying positive message. Life’s odd beauty was depicted just as accurately as its bewildering cruelty, inviting the audience to engage in conversation about what are still stigmatised issues.
The screening was followed by a Q&A session with the lovely Virginia Linn, protagonist of One Foot in Reality. Virginia opened up about her experiences living and dealing with schizophrenia to an engaged and touched audience. More than one person felt the need to thank her afterwards, and rightfully so, setting a perfectly open and familiar tone to SMHAFF’s weekend of film at the CCA.
by Ludovica Credendino
Hide and Seek (Camille Fleury | France | 2015 | 24m)
In Sickness (Thomas Edwards | UK | 2016 | 14m)
Morte Segreta (Secret Death) (Michele Leonardi | Italy | 2015 | 13m)
Most of Us Don't Live There (Laura Marie Wayne | Canada/Cuba | 2015 | 25m)
One Foot in Reality (Ramtin Nikzad | USA | 2016 | 11m)
The SMHAFF film programme runs in Glasgow and Edinburgh until Wednesday 2 November. For full listings, click here. There are also films screening until Monday 31 October in regions across Scotland.
Tall by nature but little by name, comedian Gary Little is not afraid of broaching any subject if it makes a positive difference to just one person. Ahead of his upcoming tour, he spoke to Talking Heads reporter Anne Austin about his thoughts on comedy and mental health. Described by Kevin Bridges as ‘some of the best stand up’ he is ever seen, Gary's new show A Little Bit of Personal is sure to have the crowds laughing, talking and thinking.
Several well known comedians have spoken out about their own mental health experiences. Do you think there’s a connection between comedy and mental health?
There’s a couple of ways to look at this. Stand up brings stress and highs and lows. [First], there’s the stress, then if it goes well the highs, if not then it is the lows and disappointment. The job itself can bring stress and lows. Then again, 1 in 4 people suffer from depression, so there’s probably as many joiners going through it. But when you’re in the limelight, there exists this sad clown stereotype that doesn’t apply to the joiner. I don’t think this stereotype holds any relevancy – so many people suffer regardless of what they do.
How do your experiences of depression and being in prison come through in your comedy?
I talk about depression and being inside – it suits my style and I’m telling the funny stuff, obviously. That’s the good thing about the shit stuff that happens to you. It can be turned into a positive to tell people there’s still hope out there.
Do you believe comedy can play a part in helping people who are experiencing mental health issues?
Definitely, I have had people come up to me after shows and said how much they have appreciated it and said how often they think they’re the only one to have been in a particular situation. When they hear about me and we’re all laughing, it shows that there is hope and a future. I believe more time should be spent talking about mental health and taking the stigma away. I don’t know when the time will come that people can be open about it. The stigma is still there big time.
Are you concerned when doing stand-up about depression that you may cross boundaries and offend some people?
I’ve had people tell me that they have been offended by my shows. When I’ve asked them what offended them, they replied that they didn’t know. I tell stories about depression, my mum dying and being in prison. When people hear certain words they often jump to the offensive conclusion without considering the whole context. I tell my life stories. I am laughing at my experiences and no one else. It is a Scottish thing, perhaps a working class Glaswegian trait that by nature we self-deprecate. Someone will find something funny whereas someone else will find it offensive. What are the boundaries? It is subjective.
Do you believe celebrities talking about their own mental health issues helps?
Anyone talking is good and the big names get it on television. However, I don’t know how much the guy or girl sitting in their house watching Stephen Fry talking about his experience will help. Getting people talking generally is important and with so many folk experiencing depression, you’d think there would be more acceptability. It seems hard for human nature not to judge and hold onto what their own perceptions are.
by Anne Austin
Thu 20 Oct, 8pm
East Kilbride Arts Centre, 51 Old Coach Road, East Kilbride G74 4DU
£10 | 01355 261 000 | SLLCBOXOFFICE.CO.UK
Sat 29 Oct, 8pm
Behind the Wall, 14 Melville Street, Falkirk FK1 1HZ
£10 | 01324 633 338
Mon 31 Oct, 8pm
The Stand, 333 Woodlands Road, Glasgow, G3 6NG
£10 | 0141 212 3389 | THESTAND.CO.UK