8-year-old Mujtaba squints into the camera, head slightly tilted, smiling shyly as his uncle takes the photo. The mobile phone camera then shakily pans out and we’re in a bleak expanse of sand and rock at the side of an overcrowded jeep of refugees, halfway through a journey from Afghanistan to Germany. Mujtaba appears on screen several times #MyEscape: stumbling across a desert landscape in a group of men twice his size; close-ups of his dark eyes full of premature knowledge; or curled up small in the empty fuel tank of a lorry making its way across a border. And then, later, hair styled, bright clothes, watching the footage on his phone in Germany, sketching out memories in pencil of things too traumatic for words.
‘We live in the age of the refugee, the age of the exile’, writes Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean-American novelist and activist. According to the UNHCR, in 2015 over 65.3 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution, 21.3 million of them refugees. The trouble with numbers, however, is that after the initial impact, the mind adjusts its sense of scale, as if to shield itself from what these figures actually mean. According to the Missing Migrants Project, 3,521 people have died or are missing in the Mediterranean so far this year, and, yet, after the media outcry around the Lampedusa boat disaster in 2013, in which 359 migrants lost their lives, regular updates about these mass drownings have ceased.
Against a backdrop of dehumanising political and tabloid rhetoric, #MyEscape draws attention instead to the intensely personal stories that make up this global crisis. As the hashtag indicates, this is a documentary for and by the Twitter generation, using footage filmed by refugees on their own mobile phones as they made their hazardous journeys to Germany – from Syria, Eritrea, Iran and Afghanistan – interspersed with hand-drawn maps of their routes.
Janine Dauterich, the film’s editor, emphasises that the protagonists of #MyEscape are young people ‘just like us’, chosen by the production team largely from social media posts and YouTube videos. Official terms may well be contested and confused – refugee, asylum-seeker, migrant, stateless person – but Janine points out that the German word is the same for all: ‘flüchtling, the one who flees’. There is a sense, watching this documentary, that vocabulary matters much less than the immediacy of individual experiences. These are children, students, reporters, doctors, musicians, who, through no fault of their own, have been uprooted and forced to leave everything behind, venturing into an uncertain future.
While Europe deploys high-tech surveillance and satellites to patrol its external borders, on the ground social media and technology are tools for refugees: a way for them to research journeys, working out which directions to take, which borders are still open, tapping into GPS to locate themselves in a new landscape. But the navigation is also psychological, bringing with them images of family from home and documenting the journey, watching it back later to make sense of how far they’ve come. And then they broadcast it, through social media and #MyEscape, inviting a global audience to bear witness.
We move with them across sun-scorched dunes of the Sahara, wide expanses of the Aegean, the jagged skyline of the Taurus mountain range, the litter-strewn fields of the Balkan Route, but rather than free movement, the journey often feels like another form of imprisonment, with closed trucks, locked rooms, the constant watchfulness of armed traffickers, long hours spent waiting for trains, dinghies, trucks and jeeps.
Uncertainty is a key theme of the documentary, relating to the many dangers encountered on the journey, but also to the life left behind and the future lying ahead. As Janine reveals, many of the protagonists remain in a state of limbo even now, waiting for documentation, allowances or family members, still stranded in camps a year after arriving in Europe, not yet ‘arrived’ in the full meaning of the word.
As reported by science journal Nature in October 2016, the extent of the mental health crisis facing refugees is shocking: the pre-migration trauma of war, violence, rape, forced labour, persecution, grief and torture, and then the psychosocial stressors not only of the journey, but also of arrival and survival in a foreign culture. Crucially, the countries receiving refugees are dealing with mental health crises of their own, the issue still largely taboo and services overstretched, and, although the WHO and the UN have produced a guide specifically aimed to address these challenges, it is clear that mental wellbeing, while so clearly central to people’s ability to adapt and function, is far from being a political priority.
Despite the initial promise of concepts such as Willkommenskultur, the international response now represents an overall failure of empathy. Although events occasionally shock us out of our apathy, such as the death of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi back in 2015, the trends currently gaining strength in Europe are worryingly those of right-wing populist movements: the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the Front National in France; and the Freedom Party - the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) in Austria.
Disillusionment with the EU, uncertainty around asylum policies and the protracted nature of armed conflicts the world over all bode ill for refugees. Borders are being closed, walls built and camps cleared. And in the UK, while the Home Office makes public pledges about taking in more people and aiding resettlement, the reality is that appealing decisions by the immigration and asylum courts is due to become 500% more expensive, with the ‘return directive’ of deportation gaining more traction in this post-Brexit climate, as ‘security’ is increasingly promoted over questions of human rights and freedoms.
Still, despite the changing mood in Europe and the perceived failure of Willkommenskultur, #MyEscape nevertheless retains a sense of hope, ending with vignettes of the protagonists launched into their new lives. We see football teams, apprenticeships, language classes and Mujtaba playing in the snow. A particularly poignant moment is when 21-year-old Omar recalls arriving by train to Austria, where a loudspeaker announcement welcomes them in Arabic: ‘This was the most beautiful moment of the journey. It was the first time that we’d heard the word “welcome”’. And while the rise of the right casts a dark shadow over European politics, there are many who are doing good work. In Scotland, which has taken in over a third of all the Syrian refugees in the UK, numerous grassroots organisations are working tirelessly to support the new arrivals: Freedom from Torture, Refuweegees and The Welcoming, to name a few.
Part of the issue, Janine suggests, is that the people she really wishes would watch the documentary – those who condemn the refugees or see them as simply coming to take jobs or claim money – are precisely those who won’t. The sharing of stories and images – the ‘ripple effect’ as Tamara Van Strijthem from Take One Action put it in the post-screening Q&A – needs our participation if it is to enact real change. As with Amnesty’s recent Look Beyond Borders, in which people maintain four minutes of uninterrupted eye contact with refugees as a way of reconnecting with empathy, each of us has to be willing to open ourselves up to the experiences shown in #MyEscape, to engage with the stories they tell, and then go out and take action.
by Clare Blackburne
#MyEscape won the Human Rights Award in the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival's International Film Competition and the screening was co-presented with Take One Action. For full film listings, check out our film flyer.
A varied selection of musicians gathered to wow a sell-out audienceat Saint Luke’s in Glasgow on World Mental Health Day. Talking Heads reporter Anne Austin wrote her experience of the concert and why it was such a vital event.
The inaugural The Power of Music concert, organised by Maureen and Iain Kelly and their team, was inspired by the couple’s personal experience of mental health and suicide. The fundraising evening, which aims to become an annual event, is multipurpose. As well as raising awareness about music therapy charities, bridging gaps in traditional treatments and reducing stigma are also at the heart of the plan.
Somewhat unusually and deeply touching, the husband and wife team were not only fundraising for their own charity, Music on Prescription, but all proceeds from the night were equally split with two other music therapy providers, Nordoff Robbins Scotland and Playlist for Life.
Maureen said: “We are launching Music on Prescription which will be a free global first aid service. Simply, the power of music will be utilised to bridge waiting times between seeing a medical professional and receiving treatment. This is a critical time. You can feel the power in here tonight and this is just the beginning. It is exciting to think what next year will bring.”
The line-up, which included Clanadonia, Simple Minded, Toy Tin Soldier, Declan Hegarty, The Modests, Russell Stewart and Jill Jackson, as well as host for the night Jim Gellatly, all gave their own heartfelt messages and support for this outstanding occasion.
Radio DJ Jim said: “It is fantastic to be able to use music in such a positive way. Music is so much more than just a Saturday night. These three charities here tonight are all fantastic and show the true power of music.”
The tribal drums and pipes band Clanadonia, known for their integral role in blockbuster movies, T in the Park and global sporting events, fuelled passion into the audience with their passionate display, which included their famous ‘Hamster Heid’. Attempts by the boys to finish their set were diluted as the crowd shouted for more and got exactly that.
Drummer and founder of the band Tu-Bardh said: “Mental health can impact anyone at any time. When we were asked to play tonight, there was no question. Anyone who has experienced difficulties and witnessed what this illness can do to a person will fully understand the need to support such causes, create awareness and reduce stigma.”
Headliner, Jill Jackson, spoke of the interpretation of music: “A love song to one person can be a song about bravery to another, as Maureen and myself discovered in a recent chat.” It is no surprise that this Scottish singer-songwriter is popular with audiences across the UK and America, with her spine tingling vocals and engaging acoustics. Jill has taken on the no doubt fruitful task of teaching Maureen the guitar. Watch this space!
One member of the audience said: “We have had pop, classical, tribal, heavy metal and many other styles of music here tonight to combine for this event. If the feeling in this room tonight could be transported to wider society the world would be a better place instantly. The feeling of awareness, support, hope and the complete lack of stigma here right now is overwhelming and has put this smile on my face.”
by Anne Austin
We have more music at the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival with Edinburgh Carers Council's annual Music Matters event, headlined by Admiral Fallow with support from The Cathode Ray and Jo Mango, taking place on Thursday 27 October. Click here to book tickets and for more information.
Picture the scene: a series of feet tapping, hips swaying, arms held aloft to an upbeat disco track. Not what you might expect in a hospice for the chronically and terminally ill. But this collective joy of gathering together and finding respite and relief in music is the rhythmic beating heart of Amy Hardie’s Seven Songs for a Long Life, a profoundly life-affirming documentary about death.
What we get to witness is the revolutionary power, not only of community – the Strathcarron Hospice in Denny offers pain management and end of life care to a wide array of patients – but also of music itself. A space of illness and loss is suddenly transformed, bodies wracked by pain or dulled by medication become playful again, and what emerges taps into something at once both deeply human and soaringly transcendent.
While Western culture seems to have fashioned a rough guide to grief, with mass-produced ‘Sympathy’ cards for the bereaved and an agreed-upon etiquette for funerals, there is still a strong sense of taboo around the process of dying itself. Our reluctance to confront mortality head-on ensures we keep the topic resolutely off-stage, out of sight and out of mind. Hardie, through her documentary, challenges this sidelining of one of life’s most central questions, venturing into the private space of the dying, focusing in on what most of us work so hard to ignore.
At first she’s unwelcome, with patients initially unwilling to talk on camera. But then along comes Tosh, charismatic and sharp-suited with a gruff sense of humour and a dapper line in hats, and a chance conversation about his memories of winning a singing contest in his youth. Crooning Rat Pack hits direct to camera, duetting with the 94-year-old Betty, Tosh seems to unblock something in the others, and soon enough the patients who shied away from the lens become the ones who seek it out, singing unaccompanied with startling openness. Rather than an intrusion, Hardie’s silent observations provide an empathetic audience, drawing each person into song or into the articulation of things previously unspoken.
The association of music and death is enduring – Scottish laments, funeral dirges, ululations or New Orleans jazz parades – and yet here, it is the dying, rather than mourners, who are expressing themselves through song. While illness and pain slowly strip away the individual’s independence and autonomy, patients can still choose and perform their own soundtrack, not in some version of televised competitions, but in an honest and open voicing of self that brings the patients out of isolation and into an improvised harmony.. As Mandy, one of the palliative care nurses puts it: ‘I think singing really lets you know a person…They’re singing more and more, for themselves and for each other.’
Crucially, Hardie captures the full range of experiences – rage, sorrow, humour, fear – avoiding siding with either the maudlin or the heroic. Emphasising the day-to-day negotiations each person makes with their pain, she tracks their attempts to keep some small-scale sense of normality ticking over in their daily routines – shopping, haircuts, skating with a child – so that we gradually get an intimate feel for the domestic and demystified settings of a terminal illness.
While death is inevitable, its timing – even after a terminal diagnosis – is radically uncertain: Julie is given just months to live following a diagnosis of stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma, yet is alive two years later; Dorene battles with the intense pain of bone marrow cancer, undergoes stem cell therapy and finds release through music, but remains acutely aware how likely it is to return; Iain watches his own body slowly start to disobey him as his Multiple Sclerosis gets progressively worse.
Hardie remains present with the reality before her: Nicola’s physical decline and pain levels are particularly gut-wrenching, the fragility of the human body uncompromisingly exposed on screen. The refusal to avert the gaze is once again felt not as an intrusion, but as a tender way of bearing witness, of honouring Nicola’s bravery as she keeps confronting her illness with the love and support of her family. As Mandy says, there is no magic formula, just the courage to stay with the experience: ‘You can’t fix it...You really just listen... and listen properly.’
Whilst acknowledging the mental toll of this uncertainty – with depression, isolation, disconnection and fear all openly expressed – there is also a sense of hope and resilience, unexpected joys as well as painful losses, the strength of love that endures the worst of times. As Hardie says later, questions and thoughts around death and terminal illnesses are pertinent for the whole spectrum of mental conditions. The qualities that the patients of Strathcarron have to discover in themselves, combined with the support they receive from staff, enable them to ‘grow their own strategy’.
Songs allow them to revisit the past, as when Alicia recalls her first dance with her late husband, or to prepare memories for the future, Nicola videoing a duet with her daughter. Through singing, patients learn to manage their fears, readying themselves and their loved ones for ‘their best death’, whatever that may be.
As Hardie points out after the screening, there appears to be an increasing mismatch in Western culture, between the rapid advance of medical technology in prolonging life and our own limited emotional intelligence concerning its end. Death, she says, has become a ‘medicalised event… it’s something that goes wrong behind the green curtain’. Rather than in previous times, where death was seen as a moment that gave life meaning, a scene to be planned and choreographed, it seems now that we push it out of our line of sight, unable or unwilling to contemplate it directly.
As to the manner of our dying, many of us choose to ignore what might happen until it’s too late. According to a report by Hospice UK, of the 500,000 of us who die each year, 82% want to die at home, whereas in fact over half will die in hospital. And, as Jim, the indefatigable fundraiser at Strathcarron points out, while the hospice is partly funded by the NHS, it requires £10,000 in additional funding every single day to survive.
Things do appear to be changing, however, as with the proliferation of Death Cafes, where people can gather to talk about death and dying over tea and cake, or the work of Dying Matters. Yet all this is something that demands a certain emotional bravery that is often hard to source in a culture where even the outward signs of ageing are taboo, never mind the actual processes and experiences of dying.
In some Buddhist traditions, meditators reflect on death and impermanence, not out of morbid curiosity, but as a means of addressing fear and attachment and of avoiding regret. At the end of the screening, Hardie invites the audience to do precisely this, asking people to pair off and ask each other four questions, honing in on personal values and how a terminal diagnosis might impact ways of living.
Acknowledging the extreme difficulty of facing up to the loss of loved ones, she urges us to think carefully about our own death, so that, by clearly setting out our wishes, we might gift this clarity to our family, relieving them of the difficulty of working it out for themselves. Facing up to death and dying is not simply a question of taking leave of those who remain, of saying goodbye or tying up loose ends, but also an important reminder of how we want to live.
by Clare Blackburne
Full film listings for the 10th Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival can be found here.
A tale of isolation, loneliness and grief, Where the Crow Flies tells the story of Carrie (Kiera Lucchesi), a women blackballed from her community after her husband is sent to prison for a crime which he claims he did not commit. Her life seems to be falling apart at the seams before she finds companionship with a new neighbour, Emily (Angela Darcy), who moves in next door.
Commissioned by Sense over Sectarianism, playwright Lisa Nicoll based Where the Crow Flies on a series of interviews conducted in Blackburn, West Lothian. Participants from Action Blackburn and Blackburn Family Centre were interviewed over a six week period in order to portray an accurate picture of community life. “I have a passion for working with the community,” said Nicoll, speaking at an open rehearsal ahead of the play’s premiere on Tuesday 18 October. “I loved working within the Blackburn community, because everyone was supportive… they created the inspiration for the story.”
Working alongside the women she interviewed, Nicoll wrote and redrafted Where the Crow Flies until its contributors agreed that the play accurately represented life in their close knit community. One of the contributors said: “When we were talking about storylines, we used people who we knew, and put them into the characters… Everything is real. Anybody who watches it will be able to relate to it in some way.”
Another community member described how she had only moved to Blackburn four months ago and wanted to help Nicoll portray the feelings of isolation, friendship, loneliness and new beginnings: “I had no family in Blackburn at all… my husband works offshore, so a lot of the time I am home alone with my wee boy.” She went on to describe how she had struck up a companionship with another of the parents at the family centre – despite only knowing her for a short length of time, she already considers her a best friend. Her story was one that Nicoll said she wanted to bring through in her writing, while director Beth Morton spoke about her straightforward approach to depicting the two central characters’ issues, pasts and blossoming friendship.
Where the Crow Flies is touring as part of the 10th Scottish Mental Health and Film Festival. It premieres on Tuesday 18 October at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, with further tour dates in Giffnock, Bathgate, Paisley and Glasgow's Tron Theatre. Full listings below.
It is the first production by new Glasgow-based company In Motion Theatre, which was founded by director and producer Jordan Blackwood, actor and writer Daniel Cameron, and writer and producer Lisa Nicoll.
by Matt Shields
Tue 18 & Wed 19 Oct
Scottish Storytelling Centre, 43-45 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1SR
£10 | £6
0300 300 1210
Fri 21 Oct
Eastwood Park Theatre, Rouken Glen Road, Giffnock G46 6UG
£13 | £11
0141 577 4970
Tue 25 Oct
24 North Bridge Street, Bathgate EH48 4PS
01506 630 085 | BATHGATEREGAL.CLOUDVENTURE.CO.UK
Wed 26 Oct
Paisley Arts Centre, 15 New Street, Paisley PA1 1EZ
£10 | £6
0300 300 1210 | RENFREWSHIRELEISURE.COM
Wed 2 & Thu 3 Nov
63 Trongate, Glasgow G1 5HB
£10 | £7.50
0141 552 4267 | TRON.CO.UK
Talking about mental health is difficult. Even writing about it is difficult. As one of the 25% of Scots who suffer from mental illness, it’s hard to admit that it’s still something which is very hard to talk about. Nobody was more surprised than me then, when I told my own story to a sold-out crowd at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on World Mental Health Day.
The difficulty in discussing mental health and mental illness is a problem that Lily Asch, founder of Real Talk, is seeking to do something about. Lily established Real Talk after her own experience of talking about her mental health at a TEDx talk in 2014. The process of crafting her narrative and telling her story publically was very cathartic for her personally but, crucially, it also opened the floor for others to talk about their experiences of mental health.
Since then, Lily has been passionate about creating spaces for people to speak about mental health. A grant from the University of Edinburgh made Real Talk a possibility and the event held at the start of SMHAFF was the third session. Lily has now been granted a visa on the basis of running Real Talk as a social enterprise: an organisation built to encourage connection, compassion and conversation.
In preparation for Monday’s Real Talk event we met for two storycrafting sessions held at the Scottish Storytelling Centre with professional storyteller Alette Willis. The first session was focussed on mind mapping, writing and storyboarding, which was a really structured and helpful way to work out what our stories were – even if it was incredibly intense to take an unflinching look at some of our painful experiences caused by episodes of mental ill-health.
The second session provided an opportunity to workshop our stories together, and this was a really helpful chance to get supportive feedback from Alette and from each other. One group member was telling an allegorical fairy tale, which characterised depression as a dragon sitting on his shoulder, while another was speaking in her ten-year-old voice to tell the story of a childhood weekend. In comparison, I felt that the story I was telling was trivial: simply about an incident which made me panic. However, my perspective changed as I prepared to tell my story. Telling a story about a time when I felt frightened made me realise that I am strong – not in spite of my anxiety, but because of it.
And so I found myself ready to talk to a crowded room about my mental ill-health. It would have been enough for me to simply manage to tell my story but the evening overall was a real success. Each speaker told their story and everyone listened, then, as Lily had predicted, a really wonderful thing happened: in speaking about our struggles, it made it possible for others in the room to do the same. What followed – a really special part of the experience – was an open and honest discussion prompted by questions and comments from all round the room.
I take my hat off to Lily and others like her who are enabling people to talk more openly about mental health. I am grateful to have taken part in this storytelling event – it’s been a really valuable experience for me personally and I’m delighted that it was useful to others too. Living with mental health issues is not easy and perhaps we can make it a bit easier by talking more openly about our experiences.
by Rachel Alexander
"Unexpectedly enlightening. I was in awe at how brave people were in sharing their stories, and I was surprised that everyone led everyday lives."
"Really good - the speakers were incredible and brave"
"I found it admirable that although the stories deal with serious conditions, they were filled with humour. Each story resonated in some way or another with me."
"Excellent evening. Such brave performers who brought so much power to the evening."
"This was an amazing experience, I feel more connected to know other people have struggles and are brave enough to share and make it okay not to be okay."