For nine years, the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival has been consistently passionate in its ambitions to engage artists, connect with communities and celebrate the achievements of people with experience of mental health issues. In doing so, the events of the festival continue to challenge stigma and discrimination, educate audiences and encourage participation in the creation of further artistic endeavours that will empower people within both their localised communities and society at large.
SMHAFF, therefore, is not a general arts festival but one intrinsically linked to – as well as informed and influenced by – social justice issues, in this case those relating to the impact of mental ill-health and the promotion of mental wellbeing.
SMHAFF is far from alone. A quick Google search will reveal a growing number of social justice arts festivals across the world, each campaigning for greater awareness of their chosen causes. Yet, this in itself raises questions concerning the purpose of art. Should artists and, by extension, arts festivals so regularly and avowedly focus on, champion and campaign about social justice issues? Can art not simply be for art’s sake? Are there now too many social justice arts festivals, drowning out one another’s voices in the battle to be heard?
These, in some ways, are questions that SMHAFF has itself already asked. In May 2015, the Festival and the Mental Health Foundation staged a conference at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts. The Dust of Everyday Life initiated conversations about the relationship between the arts and social justice issues. The conference produced findings that will help shape future festivals, notably next year when SMHAFF celebrates its tenth anniversary.
The conversation remains ongoing, but this relationship between the arts and social justice can clearly be seen within the programme for this year’s Festival. Artists and community members from all backgrounds have again created a hugely varied programme of events that reflect their lives. Consequently, they share with each other the experiences, both positive and negative, that they have in common, while adopting the arts as a medium by which to present these experiences to people who may previously have had little understanding of, or sympathy for, the issues raised by them.
Social justice arts festivals, then, encompass a wide range of artistic genres employed to raise broader consciousness of the circumstances faced by individuals and sections of society. Moreover, they also aim to act as a catalyst for motivating all participants – whether artists or audiences – to not only build communities but to challenge and change social injustices at a wider level.
The intention of all art is, almost inarguably, to communicate. The artistic expressions represented at SMHAFF take communication a stage further. Whether working in groups or as individuals, artists, writers, musicians and community art groups not only present their own personal experiences of mental health, but positively encourage audiences to participate – to become aware, to understand, and to take a message out into the world where it can continue to educate others – and, potentially, effect change for good. Their work can help to eradicate misperceptions and intolerance within society as a whole.
All art, but perhaps particularly that which is stimulated by concerns for social justice, acts as both a window and a mirror. For the onlooker, art becomes a window into worlds to which they may not previously have had access; it can reveal to them the experiences and challenges endured – or, indeed, the opportunities enjoyed – by others within their community. And art also acts as a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected against the world, inspiring consideration of our place within it and often provoking the positive realisation that others share struggles similar to the ones we face. As a result, social justice art tells us a glorious truth – none of us are alone. And if like-minded people band together, drawn to each other by a mutual appreciation or creation of the art that depicts our lives, we can work towards change and the correction of social injustice wherever it is found.
Kathy Leichter, whose film Here One Day won best Long Documentary and the joint Jury Prize at SMHAFF’s 2014 International Film Awards, puts this sentiment succinctly. Speaking about her film, she said that it is: ‘so personal and up-close that it invites others to open up and to share their stories – of all kinds. It gives them permission. This is how we will change the world: through our stories.’
Kathy went on to say: ‘I believe it is so important to get these stories out into the open. I applaud SMHAFF for doing that. It’s commendable and courageous that the festival brings together such diverse voices and aesthetic approaches from all over the world, who are defining mental health … far beyond the labels and the diagnoses, focussing rather on the experiences of the characters in each story.’
And this is why SMHAFF, like many other social justice arts festivals, remains so vitally important. It provides a forum in which people are encouraged to open a window that allows the world to look in and witness their lives – to tell their stories. Furthermore, it enables us all to peer into the mirrors of others’ artwork and discover the extent to which their experiences match our own. And by stimulating such cultural communication between all participants, SMHAFF, like all social justice arts festivals, can hope – in words borrowed from Brandeis University’s Arts and Social Justice programme – to transcend ‘boundaries and nurture the ethical imagination.’
All highly laudable. However, again it begs the question: should artists and arts festivals always ally themselves to social justice issues? Well, no. There is time and space enough for general arts festivals too, and for art that exists simply for art’s sake.
However, when art and social justice issues do combine, when artists and activists come together, festivals like SMHAFF can help transform the lives of countless individuals, and, in doing so, strengthen and better the collective soul of society. And that, putting it mildly, represents an extraordinarily wonderful thing indeed.
Written by Mark Jones
Kathy Leichter's SMHAFF Jury Prize-winning film Here One Day is screening as part of Headspace's Launch Event in Glasgow. It takes place from 4-10pm on Sat 10 Oct at Platform, The Bridge, 1000 Waterhouse Road, Glasgow G34 9JW. To book this free event, call 0141 276 9696 (opt 1).
‘I wasn’t fighting with nobody but myself because I didn’t want to die,’ says Josúe, a man who was once paralysed and left for dead in the Mexican desert. Instead, he survived to become the honest voice of Dead When I Got Here, which receives its European premiere as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival.
Presented in partnership with Document International Human Rights Film Festival, the screening takes place at Flourish House, a Clubhouse that welcomes people with mental ill-health and provides a safe environment where members can socialise and work together. It generously opens its doors to this event and could not be more appropriately befitted to show this film.
Dead When I Got Here documents a Mexican asylum run by the patients themselves, focusing on Josúe as he cares for the other patients and recovers from drug addiction. He is deeply involved with the asylum, making sure patients get along well together, talking with them about recovery, and, in essence, helping to run the asylum. The film closely explores his experience of recovery, from the man who once ended up almost dead in the desert to someone with so much empathy that it’s hard not to feel moved by his story.
The film also takes a look at Ciudad Juárez, where the asylum’s patients are from, a city that is mostly abandoned, with shelled out buildings. Juárez is one of the world’s bloodiest cities, where ‘everybody’s killing each other’, and it is here that insanity prevails. Josúe visits the place where he used to get high, sleep, and hide from the police. Now it is rubble littered with needles. He visits an old friend, asking about the other neighbors, but everyone is dead, has been in jail or is ‘around’. ‘If I could return to the past as I am now,’ Josúe says to the friend, ‘imagine’. The contrast of a city with no people to an asylum with 114 residents who are like a family – shaving each other, helping each other dress, hugging each other – is stark.
During filming of Dead When I Got Here, Josúe asks the filmmakers to help him search for his daughters in California who he has not seen in 22 years. Through advertisements online, they were able to find one of them. Josúe anticipates meeting his daughter, knowing that he left her behind during his days of drug addiction. Leading up to the reunion, he says that he will ‘take it like a man’. When Josúe meets her, they look at pictures of her childhood and catch up on lost time. Finally, he asks her for forgiveness.
Dead When I Got Here is a humane documentary that looks at mental illness from the perspective of a man who regains his dignity through empathy for others, forgiveness of his past and ultimately the strength to move forward.
Written by Eleanor Streicker
Dead When I Got Here receives its European Premiere at 7pm on Thursday 15th October at Flourish House in Glasgow. Following the screening, there will be a Q&A discussion with director Mark Aitken.
Clare McBrien, friend of the Festival and former team member, discusses her sometimes complicated relationship with her mind. Illustration by Danni Gowdie.
Almost a year ago, while working for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, I promised myself I would commit to paper my confused relationship with my mind. I had witnessed so many explore their mental wellbeing (or lack thereof) and felt compelled to do the same. Unsure of why I have finally done this or who I think will read it, my hope is that you will stay with me to the end. What follows is an inadequate homage to friends and family, old and new, who have unwittingly, yet consistently, peeked through the fog and made me smile.
I was 21 when the first doctor looked sheepishly over his glasses and uttered the words ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’. I rejected his stupidity immediately. What he didn’t understand was that I was going through a complicated break up with the love of my life (I can be a little melodramatic) and had just got back from a year teaching in Peru which had shattered a worldview and faith I had come to rely on. The fact that I couldn’t sleep yet couldn’t get out of bed was clearly a symptom of circumstance. I demanded sleeping pills and marched out of there determined; women in my family are strong, they are independent and they recover quietly. I would do the same.
It was when the ache returned without warning or reason a little while later that I began to reconsider. When a second, then a third doctor suggested the same thing, I told no one - not my new boyfriend, my family or my friends. I didn’t and to be perfectly honest still don’t want people to know. The version of myself I like is smart, confident and fun; she’s the girl people look to for support, the girl that doesn’t shy away from a challenge, the girl who quit her job to go on adventures to foreign lands. I don’t want my friends to treat me differently, or potential employers to think I’m incapable. I don’t want my family to think I am weak or for future relationships to be thwarted before they have begun.
Worse than the fear of damaged relationships was admitting to myself that the confusion and sudden tightening of the chest weren’t circumstantial. When there is no longer anyone or anything to blame and you are forced instead to admit that there is something askew in the way you process the world, it can get a little dark. And much like when you notice an annoying trait in a good friend, that new discovery quickly becomes impossible to ignore. I became consumed by listening to my misguided ego struggle to silence the incessant jabber of a lost child, and in doing so, I got lost.
After a while I came to realise that for me all of it comes down to one thing. I take up space - and I’m wasting it. I oscillate between frantically searching for a way to earn my 5ft 3 inches and exploring ways of making myself as small and inconsequential as possible. At its most gentle, this fixation manifests itself as a desire to eat healthily; at its worst, as a desperate need to apologise for my presence in public spaces. I become acutely aware of the oxygen I misuse, the space I occupy and the time and energy people are forced to spend on me. Decisions become impossible, the future a terrifying nothingness and the past a tedious catalogue of errors.
Please understand, I am fully aware that to feel this way is in no way ‘logical’ and those of you who know me would be forgiven for thinking me ungrateful. I stand on the shoulders of a hard-working, supportive family and my twenties have been fantastic. I have studied languages I love, worked for terrific organisations and travelled to places most people only dream of seeing. I have experienced love, adventure and joy. My neurosis is not that I don’t have enough, but rather that I have been given so much and I have no idea what to do with it.
Except for when I sing, or when I bust out a guitar riff on my clarinet or when I finally find a combination of words to fill the blank page.
The paralysis subsides when you spend ages working out the perfect three-part harmony with me, or when you teach me to dance, or when you asked me to be in your band, or when you send me songs you think I’ll like, or when you cry with me at a gig, or when you sing Les Mis with me, or when you give me honest feedback on a song or article I wrote. In those moments, I don’t feel sorry - I feel proud to be contributing something positive to people I admire.
I’ve spent most of my life convinced that I wasn’t ‘creative’, that it was reserved for those who received a secret sign in their teenage years. Now I have come to need it, because when I am involved in the process of creating a combination of noises, movements or words, my mind is still. I go back to the beginning and renegotiate my place. I give shape and form to emotions I don’t know how to express any other way. I have fun with my friends.
Maybe another wave of anxiety will hit next month, maybe it will be next year. I hold a secret hope it will not return at all. For now I’m enjoying the fresh air, humbled by the realisation that fantastic humans have repeatedly chosen to share space with me, even when I would have given anything to get away from myself. Thank you for showing me that I too am allowed to be ‘creative’ and encouraging me to give it a go. I wish I could find a combination of words intricate enough to convey all the subtle ways you saved me.
If there’s any truth to the old theatrical saw ‘bad dress rehearsal, good show’, Rapture Theatre’s final run-through must have terrible. This was an extremely assured, powerful and moving opening night, the first in a marathon 24-date tour throughout Scotland.
Written in 1991, Arthur Miller’s play depicts Leroy Hamilton’s visit to his wife in hospital. Patricia has suffered from depression for decades, caused, perhaps, by her disappointment in her failure to achieve the American Dream. Conversely, Leroy, the ‘Last Yankee’ (a descendent of US Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton), long ago surrendered his ambitions for wealth and now leads the life of a humble carpenter. Although they can’t know it at the outset, this visit will draw the pair towards decisions concerning their future, influenced by John and Karen Frick, a rich couple but every bit as unhappy.
Opening with a haunting rendition of ‘Que Sera, Sera’, the performance got off to an atmospheric start, the stage lit sparsely to reveal a set used as both hospital ward and waiting room. Indeed, Lisa Sangster’s design and David Cunningham’s lighting complemented each another highly effectively throughout the play.
The cast too were excellent. David Tarkenter’s Leroy initially appears happy with his own approach to life, but inwardly struggles to cope with his wife’s illness. Tarkenter’s performance is natural, understated and sympathetic, while Pauline Turner’s Patricia is similarly affecting. Here is a woman whose life has been hijacked by hospitalisation, yet in many ways she remains as strong and empowered as her husband. These characters, however, retain long-standing issues with each other. The interplay between them as they attempt to repair their relationship provides much dramatic tension as the audience wills them towards a resolution that will allow them to move on.
Stewart Porter (Frick) and Jane McCarry’s (Karen) performances are slightly more comedic, yet no less poignant in portraying another couple united by love but divided by their failure to fully communicate. McCarry’s tap-dance routine, coupled with Porter’s reaction, is heartrending.
No character is perfect; rather, all are doing their best amidst trying circumstances. Neither wife is happy. Neither husband truly understands why, both straining to fully accept that depressive mental health issues are not the fault of the sufferer. Each marriage contains resentments and regrets, secretly harboured for years. Yet, ultimately, there is a deep affection between both sets of spouses that refuses to die. The cast successfully illustrate this, feeding off the nuances that develop in the relationship between the Hamiltons and the Fricks as the play progresses. Ostensibly very different, the two families have much in common.
Rightly described as ‘humorous and, ultimately, uplifting’, the play has laughter and emotional buoyancy at the end. However, typically from Miller, the humour is complex, shot through with thoughtfully calculated intent, infused with meaning, shaded by sadness, and is all the richer and more rewarding for it.
Natalie Clark also deserves credit as The Patient, spending the entire performance locked within the silent stasis of her bed. The depiction of being bedridden works well as a metaphor for the experience of depression itself. Director Michael Emans suggested afterwards that The Patient also highlights the movement that occurs for Patricia and Karen during the play. One makes progress, the other regresses. The Patient, though, continues unchanged, her direction undecided.
There are, then, for the female characters, three possibilities: recovery, regression or stasis. Miller clearly wants a happy ending for all, but is realistic enough to realise this isn’t immediately achievable. Recovery from mental health issues takes time, patience and perseverance on the part of all affected. This places responsibility on the two men who love Patricia and Karen even when they can’t understand them. Leroy and John are, like many carers, required to rise to the challenge of caring, while also dealing with their individual concerns. Here it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that Leroy and John’s turmoil reflects the inner conflicts Miller faced himself in handling the mental health issues of his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, and his later response to the birth of a son with Down Syndrome.
The evening concluded – as will all performances in the tour – with a talk hosted by Michael Emans and representatives from See Me, the Scottish organisation dedicated to tackling mental health stigma and discrimination. Volunteer Leanne McKillop gave a profoundly inspiring account of her history of eating disorders, speaking of the stigma she endured, sometimes from within even the under-trained health facilities that were supposed to help her. Leanne’s testimony was honest, informative and ultimately hopeful in that she is living proof that mental health issues can be overcome or, at least, made manageable.
The Last Yankee is the second production in Rapture’s Miller Season, following a successful tour of All My Sons in September. I missed that but, on the strength of this production, wild horses wouldn’t stop me attending a third.
Written by Mark Jones
The Last Yankee is touring throughout Scotland until Sat 7 Nov, next showing at Summerhall in Edinburgh on Fri 2 and Sat 3 Oct. Visit this page for full listings and to book tickets for all performances.
Arts lead Andrew Eaton-Lewis speaks to Debbie Robbins of A Blank Canvas about In Her Shadows. The piece is touring Scotland as part of the Festival from 22 Sep - 23 Oct.
A striking new piece of aerial and physical theatre, with a memorable musical score, In Her Shadows would do any arts festival proud. It is, however, a particularly good fit for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, since its subject is aerial performer Debbie Robbins’ battle with depression.
That hadn’t been the plan. For a while, Robbins explains, the show had no story at all, and was purely an exercise in combining her performance style with that of fellow aerial performer Rachael Macintyre, with whom she had just started collaborating. “Rachael comes from a puppetry background so that got us talking about working with shadow and projections, the idea that we would work with shadow and light,” Robbins explains. “Then we went into development at North Edinburgh Arts Centre and it was during that time that I had this scary surreal moment of…. I understand why everything is on this set. What have I done?”
As it turned out, Robbins had been channeling years of psychological trauma into her work, but subconsciously. She had started training as an aerial performer following a period of depression triggered by a long and painful family conflict – it was, she would later realise, a form of therapy. “My counsellor was an art therapist so she was getting me to work with drawing and pictures but I felt it wasn’t my outlet; aerial training was a form of expression for me. When I was learning tricks I was naturally putting my story into them without realising it.” She remembers telling her counselor that she felt she needed something bigger to work with than a pencil and paper – a big, blank canvas to express herself on. A Blank Canvas became the name of her company. Years later, the set of In Her Shadows is, quite literally, an enormous blank white canvas on which images – animation, film, text, the contents of its character’s head – are projected. It is, in a sense, Robbins’ mind on a stage.
When she realised how much of herself had ended up in the show, she says, “I was mortified. Why have I done this to myself? I don’t want to tell this story.” Once she’d reconciled herself to this, though, she knew what she had to do.
“It’s been a real journey,” says Macintyre. “When I was growing up depression wasn’t something I knew much about so it’s been really interesting trying to transform Debbie’s story into this show. And we’ve had a lot of people coming up to talk to us about depression. It’s obviously triggered something.”
To help them give shape to the story, Robbins and Macintyre approached theatre director Cora Bissett, creator of Glasgow Girls and Roadkill, who had experience of combining different art forms with strong storytelling, through shows like Grit, her tribute to Martyn Bennett, and Whatever Gets You Through The Night. “Mental illness is a very amorphous kind of condition and I think that’s why we find it so hard to talk about and to live with,” says Bissett. “Depression is very different for everyone and I felt the physicality of In Her Shadows kind of allowed for that kind of ambiguity, it’s not a play with lots of words that debate what is happening. Sometimes there’s no reason for depression, so it opens it wider. People I know have said to me, ‘I’m just feeling black today, there isn’t a reason, you haven’t done anything, that’s just where the chemicals in my brain have gone today.’ I hope that there’s enough space in the show to allow everyone to bring their own experiences to it.”
The show does include one powerful piece of text, however – a poem by Jenny Lindsay called Today, in which the Scottish performance poet (and co-creator of popular cabaret night Rally & Broad) describes her own experience of depression. Lindsay first performed the poem at The Dust of Everyday Life, a conference organised by the Mental Health Foundation earlier this year at the CCA in Glasgow. Bissett was also speaking at the conference (alongside the Mental Health Foundation’s Amal Azzudin, one of the Glasgow Girls whose campaign against dawn raids had inspired her musical of the same name). Lindsay’s poem, she says, “moved me to tears”.
“We were working purely with physicality in this story, we had no words in it at all,” she says. “I think for a large part of the piece that’s a great choice and hopefully people will connect with those visceral things – the ascension, the feeling of release, the feeling of being trapped and spun. But then I saw Jenny performing that fantastic poem and I was just in that headspace of thinking we need something that gives us a hook, that clarifies, or lets the audience think ‘I know what this is all about.’ And I just thought, that poem is what we need, she has just summed up in eight minutes the entire journey. So I brought it back to the girls and they loved it.”
If depression is different for everyone, it’s an inspired idea to show two women processing their very personal experiences of it, in their own way, simultaneously, as Robbins and Macintyre perform a silent physical routine choreographed to Lindsay’s evocative and poignant poem at the climax of the show. Robbins describes how, when teaching pilates, she has found that her clients won't always admit how much pain they are in “because they want to be fine”. Their bodies, though, tell a different story. “The body’s always genuine, it never lies and it’s pure. So that’s my language.” This, perhaps, is why it took so long for In Her Shadows’ subject to reveal itself – Robbins’ body understood what the show was about before her mind did. Jenny Lindsay’s poem, in articulating what depression can feel like so vividly and with such self-awareness, seems to echo that moment of mental clarity.
That said, the poem - inspired by medical questionnaires that ask patients to describe how depressed they feel on a scale of one to ten – is also about how reductive it can be to try to put experience of mental illness into words. It is full of hesitation, contradiction and doubt, and Robbins and Macintyre’s movements reflect this, as they jut back and forth, all the highs and lows of the rest of the show condensed into eight minutes, a physical manifestation of traumatic mood swings. Afterwards I found myself thinking: maybe physical movement can describe depression better than words ever could? Go see In Her Shadows and decide for yourself.
In Her Shadows tours Scotland until 23 October as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. Andrew Eaton-Lewis will host post-show discussions with Debbie Robbins, Rachael Macintyre and other members of the creative team at the Traverse on 8 October, Platform, Easterhouse on 20 October and Dundee Rep on 23 October.