Talking Heads

Talking Heads reporter Emma Lawson reviewed Dan and Margot, ahead of screenings on Mon 10 Oct in Edinburgh and Sat 15 Oct in Glasgow. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A with director Chloe Sosa-Sims.

The opening scene of Dan and Margot is set in a swimming pool on a sunny day. Margot walks away from the camera, while hostile whispering – at odds with the scene – fills the speakers. Then the scene shifts, and Margot explains what she heard: a voice, sometimes multiple voices, mocking and harassing her. She knew the main voice as a man named Dan, and it was only after being diagnosed with and treated for schizophrenia that she understood that his presence was a hallucination.

Dan and Margot deals with Margot’s everyday life seven years after her diagnosis: her relationship to her illness, her relationships with other people, her ambitions and her frustrations. It is an intimate portrait of a person living with schizophrenia, and very focussed on Margot herself, rather than generalising about her diagnosis.

Part of this focus is due to Margot’s bold character: she is funny, adventurous and – while sometimes guarded – often painfully honest about the impact schizophrenia has had on her life. The film follows her as she takes part in the common pastimes of a twenty-something – gigs, road trips, drinking sessions – but it also doesn’t shy away from letting her talk repeatedly about the sense that her life has been diverted. In one of the most poignant moments, she explains that she feels she has lost her sense of self: mentally because of her illness, and physically as a result of the effects of medication on her body.

One reason for the film’s intimate nature may be the friendship between Margot and co-director Chloe Sosa-Sims; during one discussion, Sosa-Sims explains to the camera why she wanted to make a film about Margot’s life, and why she wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it. The balance between portraying events honestly and respecting Margot’s privacy is managed well, with Sosa-Sims acknowledging the difficulty of making a film while being close to the subject, especially when some of Margot’s symptoms reappear.

The film’s effects help express aspects of Margot’s story: during one sequence, an anecdote she tells is illustrated by drawings. Vivid and beautiful, they emphasise the strangeness of what she experienced, helping the viewer to engage with her story. The effect of whispering recurs, enabling the viewer to experience Margot’s audio hallucinations. This is particularly effective at the start of the film, when it isn’t clear what the viewer is supposed to believe, and overall the film excels at conveying the fear and confusion Margot feels.

The film doesn’t attempt to define schizophrenia, engaging only briefly with ideas about Mad Pride and the pros and cons of medication. While the film’s focus on Margot is one of its greatest strengths, it may have been helpful if the film had spent more time exploring these issues. One of the most interesting sections occurs when co-director Jake Chirico introduces Margot to another woman who has schizophrenia, an artist called Sarafin. Margot and Sarafin’s discussion, where they relate their experiences and look at the different ways their illness presents, is fascinating and seems a genuinely positive moment for Margot.

Avoiding coming to any simplistic conclusions, the tone of the film varies when showing how Margot deals with her illness, mirroring how her attitude fluctuates throughout. At times she is very optimistic, but during bleaker moments she acknowledges that she will never be able to completely move past her illness. The film acutely emphasises how simple things – job searching, dating – are made harder for her because of schizophrenia and the associated stigma. However, acknowledging her struggles doesn’t make Dan and Margot pessimistic; Margot’s energy and determination to live the life she wants ensures that the film ends on an uplifting note.

A compassionate and realistic portrayal of the difficulties of living with schizophrenia, Dan and Margot is an intriguing film and an important one. Although there is an increasing awareness of some of the most common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, other conditions including schizophrenia remain highly stigmatised, with people who have these conditions often facing ignorance and discrimination. By presenting viewers with a real and non-sensationalised account of schizophrenia, Dan and Margot is valuable in combatting prejudice. Margot may be unique, but – as she rightly says at one point – her illness isn’t that uncommon.

by Emma Lawson

 

Screenings: 

James Gillespie's High School, Edinburgh

Monday 10 October, 7-8.45pm

Free

CCA, Glasgow

Saturday 15 October, 4-6pm

£5 | £3

“You know who you are when you're sixteen and every year after that you become less of yourself.”

This was a theory I had when I was fifteen and in the young person’s psychiatric unit in Edinburgh – it was an indisputable truth. The anger I felt at life and the state of the world, at the adults who put me in hospital. I would never turn into one of them. This theory made sense of everything.

I didn’t have such a negative mind-set before I got ill for the first time. I was a dopey kid. I tried to see the best in life, but I was also really lonely. I didn’t have many friends, if any. Life was something that just happened to me, which is fine when you’re in primary; you’re just waiting for Santa, then the summer holidays; cut to miserable grey high school, where every decision you make will have a permanent effect on this daunting spectre that is your future; I felt like I was falling. With the help of the very traumatic experience of being bullied, I had my first breakdown.

It started quite pleasantly. All my thoughts where speeded up and I was having great ideas, ten a minute; I started to be able to see music (well I thought I did), neon ribbons appeared in the air when I heard the radio or someone whistling. I didn’t sleep or feel I needed to and felt even more awake. This is what doctors call a hypomanic episode. Soon I began to feel like the world was ending and a strong suspicion that my parents were going to have me crucified. After screaming at someone at school I was sent home and soon found myself in the back of a car, nurses at each side, being taken to the Young Person's Unit in Morningside.

Waking up that morning in the hospital, I didn’t know whether I was dead or abducted by aliens, the idea of being sectioned in a psychiatric hospital seemed the worst of all. Mental illness was a stigma long before I knew what a stigma was, the only time the subject was mentioned was when a TV character was hilariously locked in a straightjacket or labelled with the common insult – psycho. But the YPU wasn’t all that bad; it was calm and cosy and I got on with all the staff. It probably helped with my social skills as well; in the three months I was there, I made some friends.

That was 8 years ago and it took me a long time to get over it. The worst part about my recovery process was going back to school, and today I wish I’d went straight to college instead. I was heavily drugged up and in all the pictures I have of myself at that time, I have big bags under my eyes. I was anxious all the time too; I vomited at least once a day for years. I dreaded anyone asking where I’d been to when I disappeared from school and was constantly making up lies to explain my absence.

This charade went on till I was 17 and at T in the Park. I was chatting to this girl long into the night when I let slip that I’d been in hospital in Morningside. “What for?” she asked. I froze. “Were you in the YPU? My cousin has schizophrenia and was in hospital there. You should never be ashamed of having a mental illness.”

I felt a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, how I imagine it must feel for a gay person to come out of the closet. Years of shame evaporated. And of course there never should have been any shame. I think about the bitter torn up kid I was when I was 15, and I feel for any young teenager about to take the same journey. I’m the same person as I was back then but I know more about life and have a head full of happy memories. I’ve had breakdowns since then, but every time they are a little less severe as I learn how to cope with them.

When I first made my statement about how you know yourself when you’re sixteen and every year you become less of yourself, I was talking to a French janitor who worked in the hospital, who was also an amateur filmmaker and my friend back then. He replied “Every year you’re alive you discover more of who you are”.

I agree with him now and try to live by that sentiment.

by Peter Johnstone

To launch this year's Talking Heads project, reporter Lorna Stewart has written a poem on the festival theme of Time. Look out for more articles and creative responses to festival events starting next week and continuing throughout October. 

 

The Hands of Time

 

Time is catching up with me

But I can't catch time

She stands waiting for me

But I can't see her

 

She stands alone

Separate

Apart from me

Waiting

 

Then I look at you

And time seems to flow with you

Time and you work together

Almost walking together

Time and you are friends

 

Yet for me time is passing

 

I want to hold hands with time

But time has left me

I don't know where she has gone

 

I must find her

Or what I'm doing has no place

My pace must match her

So I can catch her

 

She's going too fast

She's going too slow

She's always here

But she's disappeared

 

I'll catch her though

But at my own pace

And I'll settle in my space

With her

Settle in my place

With her

Holding hands with time

 

by Lorna Stewart

Libby McArthur, best known for her role as Gina in River City, is a household name in Scotland. But there is a lot more to her than most people know about. Talking Heads reporter Colin MacGregor spoke to her about her take on mental health issues in television, the unique pressure that performers face and how closely she relates to her River City character.

There is so much more to Libby McArthur than her role in River City. She is an advocate for all things social and a spokesperson for many charities and causes, fighting fight the good fight from breast cancer to mental health. She utilises her fame to the best of her ability, which is something that I greatly admire.

In fact it was Libby’s good nature that first connected us, when I was performing at a charity event where she was the main speaker. She recognised the effort I had put into my singing and invited me to the main table to partake in some complimentary dialogue. We kept in touch and I recently contacted her to take part in this Q&A for SMHAFF.

Do you think actors should open up more to their mental health issues to help fight the stigma attached to the subject, or, do you feel most actors prefer to keep it private for fear of not landing an important role?

In an ideal world, anyone coping with a life situation that engenders fear would share more, and yes it would help people feel less stigmatised. It’s also true folk in the limelight do [face the question]: ‘Do you think actors should open up more to their mental health issues to help fight chance to make a real difference here?’ However, it must be an authentic choice for them as it ought to be for anyone.

You’re a very opinionated lady who always puts her argument across in an intelligent manner. What is your take on todays fight against the stigma of mental health?

There’s more that binds us here than separates us. I’ve often said mental health isn’t an either or thing, like two heads of a coin. It’s a linear thing with most of us having jumped back and forth along this line all our lives. There’s been times when through, loss, anxiety or any manner of old fears having been triggered, I’ve felt overwhelmed and other times when I’ve been very centered and self-resilient.

Soaps, like River City, have a great opportunity to educate via their storylines. Do you think soaps carry a responsibility to educate through their storylines about modern day issues like mental health?

Yes, I do, most do and there is a big responsibility here to make sure that the producers have done their homework and carry through these stories to their proper conclusions.

Some think that it’s nonsense, some believe it so. Do you think there is a connection to creativeness and mental health issues?

Absolutely! Any decent artist knows about vulnerability, as in they know it’s there, in that state, that the most creative stuff happens, but also that there’s a price to pay for being out there on that edge. You have to be very self-compassionate for living with that dynamic and most of us just aren’t –instead most of us are full of self-recrimination. Therefore, it can be very challenging when it comes to peace of mind.

Do you think that performers’ mental health comes under greater pressure than people in day to day jobs, where they reach such highs through performance but also have to deal with the return to normality and the fall from the pedestal?

I wouldn’t describe the storytelling work that interests me in this way [but] I do think there is a difference between acting and performing. In the entertainment business, our egos, i.e. the needy part of our personalities, ache to feel showered by others’ approval and we believe we can blossom from that kind of attention. But, ultimately, if we fail to put down roots that hold us to our common ground with others – and if we fail to realise that the storytellers’ work is about…connections…that make us feel less lonely, more known and bonded with like-minded souls – then we suffer.

If you like, it’s the difference between a script and a play. You can put one in a drawer but not the other. The difference is a company. If a good director can cast well and…a true ‘company’ is created, then you can turn your script into a play.

These next questions we’ll keep light hearted. TV or theatre? What’s your preference?

Theatre is my first love but in front of an audience or a camera there’s still the same ‘gig’ inside your head.

Growing up, did you want to become an actress or were your sights set on other vocations?

I’m so grateful for the fact that I’ve only ever known myself as a storyteller. A job that can take many forms.

How close to the character Gina in River City are you?

Not very. I think Gina is both braver and more naive than myself. She’s a simpler soul, always happy to be falling in love again whereas I daren’t. I’m also glad I haven’t been through what she has!

Finally, do you think there will ever be a proper film industry here in Scotland?

I do. I think it and other new platforms for all in our creative industries is a must for Scotland and that they will be made and properly sustained. I do believe however this work will not properly be undertaken until Scotland gains its independence.

by Colin MacGregor

 

Colin has also produced this vlog about his own experiences with mental health and why he has got involved with the Talking Heads project:

Talking Heads reporter Heather Lune visits Staring at the Ceiling, Looking at the Stars, a collaborative exhibition of new sound recordings and printed artworks produced by inpatients and staff at Bellsdyke Hospital and Artlink Central artist Sharon Quigley. 

I remember going with my mom to visit my grandfather in a psychiatric ward of a hospital when I was about twelve. All I knew was that he’d been hospitalised for depression and a short time after that he was out again. We bought a notebook and some pens on the way and my mom gave them to me to hand to him. We took him outside to a picnic table and sat and talked about simple things. I think a few months or a year later he briefly thanked me for bringing the notebook and said it really helped to write down his thoughts. And that was all.

I think how many of these experiences with mental ill-health aren’t ever spoken about. How I dealt with my own depression and mental health issues privately, politely as well. The unbridgeable gap even between family members, trying to find a way to talk about these things we experience. At my grandfather’s funeral, I remember listening to the stories of his life, from a chaotic childhood to a chaotic and sometimes troubling adulthood, and each story resonated with me and felt so familiar, I suddenly recognised my frenetic self in him. But we had never talked about any of it.

I was drawn in immediately by the idea behind Staring at the Ceiling, Looking at the Stars, an exhibition on display in the atrium of the Forth Valley Royal Hospital. The works were produced in a participatory arts project hosted by ArtLink Central, where current inpatients of the hospital explored the recently released records from the years 1906 to 1914 from the Stirling District Asylum Archive. The artist Sharon Quigley worked with the inpatients and staff to help them create prints and sound recordings, exploring these remnants of people who lived in the same institution 100 years ago.

The lives of people living in mental hospitals seem tucked away and often aren’t seen or shared by people, apart from the professionals who care for them and family members who choose to visit. When the patients are no longer alive, their own passions and struggles are put to one side and the world moves on. But, in a beautiful, poetic way, this exhibition values the creative insights and experimentations of those at Bellsdyke Hospital for their own sake. The project allowed them to investigate the spiritual heritage of the people who had lives in this place a century before them, and who experienced thoughts and feelings that they could relate to. The current inpatients are not just valuing their own creative ideas but reanimating those of these former patients, connecting their present lives to those in the past, making sure that their own struggles aren’t sealed away within a hospital as they bring life and new dimensions to those who passed on a long time ago.

As you walk through the hospital’s main doors and the large atrium, past the reception and shops, visiting families and staff getting coffee, there is a pair of headphones on one wall. The recordings are at first a recitation in different voices of all the professions the patients had had before being admitted, as identified in the records. Behind the voices are the rhythms of the occupation, atmospheric chimings and clangs, sounds of work, steam – then a voice that announces startlingly: ‘Stirling District Lunatic Asylum’.

Hearing these sounds together created an amazing connection with the current patients to the patients of the past, and those patients’ own connections to the work and culture of the community, as well as their time in history. The rhythms and sounds from farms and with machinery demonstrated how connected to the land these patients were throughout their lives. Gradually, the voices shifted to reading a landscape survey from the archive, produced for the land the hospital was built on, and alongside the descriptions of trees on the estate were field recordings of the woods around the hospital. The building is bound to the land the hospital is on, to nature, and the recording highlights the interaction that the people in this hospital have with it.

The exhibition smacks of a discovery of a shared heritage or collective culture, in the moments of familiarity with the voices reading these old notes and the people contained in the records coming alive in surprising vitality every now and then. One voice read a very negative description of a crab apple tree from the survey, and on reading out ‘poo-oor scumpy tree’ breaks into laughter at the ridiculous moment of pathos in this scientific survey recorded in a few lines in some very old notes.

On the pillars in the atrium hang prints of abstract drawings made in response to exploring the land the hospital sits on and the trees around it. A series of prints on the walls experimentally collects different remnants from the archive, one print amasses the varied professions like constellations, while another collages fragments of letters from different patients discovered in the records.

It’s incredibly imaginative to be able connect the land and the natural world to industry, and these near-forgotten mental health archives with life outside the hospitial and the community these patients came from – and then link all of this to the current patients at Bellsdyke. In the end, these artists have created powerful works expressing why we belong to them and them to us. As the exhibition sits on these walls, connecting each passing person with everything that has gone on in the past, each work invites them to see a portion of a world they would never otherwise have had the chance to glimpse.

 

Written by Heather Lune

 

Staring at the Ceiling, Looking at the Stars is on display at the Forth Valley Royal Hospital until Fri 1 Jan 2016, when it will be moved to the University of Stirling until May.