When prisons appear on screen, they're often noisy places, all chatter, shouting, jangling, slamming. The prison in the popular imagination is a setting that bristles with aggressive energy. But 9999, filmed in Belgium's Merksplas prison, is an exceptionally quiet film. There is no music, speech is sparse and there are long shots in which nothing at all can be heard. It is also a very still film. The camera dwells at length on the prison's bleak exterior and its heavy doors; on a glimpse of bare trees outside, framed by bars; on a blank white wall, patterned with criss-cross shadows; on the blades of a fan, creeping round so slowly it is almost painful to watch.
There is no unifying narrative voice or interviewer's presence, and the only explanatory text comes at the beginning and end of the film. Five inmates are given space to speak of their lives, not as clear stories but in stops and starts, scraps and fragments. The camera spends minutes at a time dwelling on them too, standing silently against a wall, sitting in a chair or smoking a cigarette, sometimes looking into the camera, sometimes avoiding the intensity of its gaze. They are men diagnosed with mental illnesses that, in Belgian law, mean they cannot be held responsible for their crimes. With a shortage of resources in psychiatric care, they are not treated for their conditions but separated from society and detained indefinitely.
We do not learn the nature of all of their crimes, but the two that are disclosed represent the extreme poles of what is evidently a wide spectrum of transgression, their actions incomparable in scale and severity. One man admits to murdering his father and his grandfather, motivated, he says, by the fear they were going to have him institutionalised: ‘That was in the days of shock treatment. Horrible things happened in there…To keep me out of there, I murdered two people. Because I wanted to keep my life, I lost my life.’ The other was interned on the recommendation of a psychiatrist after setting a bicycle on fire while intoxicated.
The atmosphere that hangs most tangibly over the place is one of aching tedium. It's a claustrophobic film to watch, and it's supposed to be; the structure and style feels designed to replicate, in a small and inadequate way, the sense of blankness and grinding repetition that governs life in Merksplas. We watch people pacing or sitting vacantly in tiny rooms. ‘PETA should come and look at this cage. This cage is too small for me,’ says one man. ‘I have a crawl space with a loo. Two steps and I've reached the door. Two steps and you're on the loo. Day in, day out. Year in, year out.’ The film's title alludes to the crushing weight of living such a life without the prospect of freedom. With no access to proper psychiatric treatment, the prisoners have no official release date: the forms, as one man tells the camera, record the date of release as 31/12/9999. ‘It marks my entire life, this internment. That's how they can cut you down.’ He has been there, he says, for eight years.
It isn't all relentlessly bleak: amongst the tedium and the despair are small moments of warmth and humanity. In the only piece of music in the film, the young man who was imprisoned for burning a bicycle plays the piano; it pierces through the silence as if to insist that, even here, in the place that one inmate describes as ‘the septic tank of Belgium’, little corners of beauty can still exist. In another scene, an inmate asks: ‘How can an ugly thing like a worm turn into a pretty butterfly?’ ‘That's nature. The beauty of nature.’ ‘Can we come out of here transformed?’ ‘Is it possible?’ ‘Anything is possible in healthcare. You have to discover the beauty in people.’
It's a tender image of hope. But possibility itself isn't enough: like anything in nature, transformation cannot occur without the conditions to nurture it. To leave Merksplas, the inmates must demonstrate their mental health has improved, but as one of them rightly observes: ‘It will never improve under these circumstances. Only get worse…My mental health has not improved in 20 years. You tell me: how can my mental health improve here, between four walls, a crawl space with a loo, without any psychological support?’
This is not just a Belgian problem: in a post-film discussion, a representative from Positive Prison? Positive Futures... explained that more than 70% of the UK prison population have a diagnosable mental illness, and they are not getting the help they need, while prison suicide rates are almost 15 times that of the general population. What it largely comes down to, of course, is money: proper psychiatric care is more expensive than imprisonment, and efficiency is winning out over empathy. It is not a simple problem to solve, but films like 9999, by giving us a glimpse into the conditions of lives without hope, can help give empathy a louder voice.
Written by Shona McCombes
The Big Jam at the Recovery Café in Paisley was my first experience of jamming with other musicians. My main fear before going was that my guitar skills wouldn't be anywhere near good enough. However, once we sat down and started playing, it suddenly dawned on me that how good you are really doesn't matter an awful lot.
Meeting with the Buddy Beat drumming club and a group of local guitarists was at first quite daunting. However, once the more enthusiastic members of Buddy Beat started jamming, all my doubts melted away. The drummers and guitarists there represented all abilities, from professional tutors to novices like myself.
And the most beautiful thing about the Big Jam that I came to appreciate was that once you have started, the music really can go on as long as you like. A circle of around thirty of us ended up playing for the best part of 90 minutes, and every one of us was sad when our time was up.
What I cannot stress enough, since this was part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, is the therapeutic nature of the jam session. After getting over my initial jitters, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It is a wonderfully social experience, which doesn't put any pressure on you to play but does make you want to!
The podcast below is just a brief taster of what came out of the session. We began with ‘Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed, followed by an African party song by the drummers, some Johnny Cash, and finally ended up jamming for real.
If you're thinking about going to something like this, but, like me, you're worried about not knowing enough, our final jam was only one chord. So if you can play one chord, you know enough.
Written by Andy Revill
Listen to the highlights from the session here:
Buddy Beat is also hosting an Open Drum Circle at the Charleston Centre in Paisley at 6pm on Wed 28 Oct. Come down to learn to play the djembe and have fun making music.
This year, the SMHAFF film programme is unusual. Half the features being screened are directed by women, which shouldn’t be surprising, but it is. Like most things, mental health is a feminist issue. But despite the fact that female-directed films are rarely so visible, it wouldn’t be accurate to suggest that there’s any shortage of mainstream narratives about women and mental illness.
Throughout history, women have been associated with emotional excess and mental instability: from the millenia-old medical myth of hysteria to the 50s image of the Prozac housewife, from literature’s myriad madwomen in the attic to contemporary language of crazy bitches, female feelings have been constructed as irrational and unhealthy, in need of control and repression.
Mental health, then, has always been at the heart of feminist politics: if stories about women’s irrationality have been used to delegitimise our voices, women through the years have increasingly raised those voices to tell their own stories about the complexities of emotional life. The interplay between socio-cultural pressures and mental wellbeing is there, from the earliest feminist fictions and non-fictions about domestic entrapment and depression; it’s there in body positivity movements that resist the pressures of feminine conformity and shame; it’s fundamental in working to recognise and recover from the traumas of gendered violence.
SMHAFF’s programme is rich with female voices. As well as films that centre individual women’s struggles with mental illness, like Good Girl and Ida’s Diary, there is a recurring theme of artists compelled by the complexities of female family relationships. In films like Rocks in my Pockets, The Closer We Get and Mental, as well as in the physical performance art of In Her Shadows, women’s and girls’ places as mothers, daughters and sisters becomes a central focus. And in the literary sphere, two events by the Writing Mums group, Push Me, Pull Me and The Secrets We Keep, provide a creative space to talk honestly about motherhood in all its complexity; the project is described by its curator Hannah Lavery as ‘a relief, an escape route or perhaps more accurately a bunker from the overwhelming critical, finger wagging narratives in the media and in our society about what a mother, a wife, a daughter, a woman should be.’
But while centring women’s voices is always a positive move, to deal fully with the gendering of mental health is more complicated than that. If women have been associated with madness and emotional fragility, men face an inverse imperative to maintain a silent, stoic masculinity that admits no weakness. And if there’s one thing we know about mental wellbeing, it’s that silence is stifling. Author Matt Haig, who is appearing at an event co-programmed by SMHAFF and the Dundee Literary Festival, was involved in a Twitter controversy last year when he proposed writing a book on ‘the perils of masculinity.’ There’s often an understandable kneejerk reaction when men start talking about gender - male voices, after all, tend to dominate most conversations, and some feel that feminism should be one small corner of women’s territory in a patriarchal world. But in this case, as often happens on Twitter, knees jerked faster than brains processed. If there’s one area of feminism where men’s voices absolutely should be heard, it’s in the project of dismantling masculinity.
Haig’s original point, that ‘there may be too many books about and by men, but not many looking at the perils of masculinity,’ is crucial. For most of history, ‘man’ has not been a gendered category but the default status of humanity, a story assumed to be universal (when was the last time you heard someone talking about a ‘man writer’ or a ‘male director’?), which is why stories by and about men have dominated culture. But for men to write consciously as men is a powerful recognition that all of our experiences are shaped by gendered expectations. That’s good for women, because it removes the assumption of male neutrality; and it’s good for men, because it’s the first step in being able to unpick how the pressures of ‘being a man’ can be a deeply damaging way of living.
The damage that masculinity does to men is demonstrated, says Haig in Reasons to Stay Alive, by the fact that ‘depression is more fatal if you are a man.’ Paradoxically, more women suffer from depression and attempt suicide than men do, but men choose more fatal methods and die in vastly greater numbers as a result. It’s hard to imagine that this phenomenon is not entangled with ideas about manhood, in a dark distortion of the masculine expectation to carry things through decisively, an inability to conceive of doing something that might be interpreted as a ‘cry for help.’ Manly men, society says, don’t cry for help: they stay quiet and they get things done. And to a suicidal mind, getting things done can mean something devastatingly destructive.
If masculinity and femininity shape the way we experience mental health, people who do not conform to conventional ideas of what a man or a woman should be are faced with even more intense pressures. LGBT people face a twofold oppression when it comes to mental health. On the one hand, their very existence has been pathologised - as Alison Wren from LGBT Health and Wellbeing told me, ‘homosexuality was classified by the World Health Organisation as a mental illness in itself right up until 1992, and transgender people still often have to engage with the pathologising formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria to access the support they need.’ On the other, living in a world so hostile to your identity puts an enormous amount of strain on mental wellbeing, leading to high rates of depression and suicide. As Alison puts it: ‘There is a fraught history between LGBT identities and the social history of mental health, and people need spaces to explore and express what this means for them.’
One such space will be found at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh on Saturday. Living With… is an event showcasing creative work by LGBT people managing long-term health conditions that affect their mental wellbeing. The high rates of suicide and depression among LGBT youth is widely known thanks to high-profile campaigns like It Gets Better, whose message of hope tends to be expressed through a particular kind of story, describing a trajectory from a lonely, repressed adolescence to a well-adjusted, ‘normal’ adult life within mainstream gay culture. But that story is only one of many, often more complex experiences. The Living With… project recognises that for many people of all genders and sexualities, managing mental wellbeing will be a lifelong journey with many twists and turns, in which ‘normality’ is not necessarily a desirable destination.
On Saturday 31st October at Platform, the Festival’s Gender Programming event will create a space to explore all of these issues in a day of performance and discussion. The event features screenings of two films about the pressures of femininity and masculinity respectively, as well as a work-in-progress play called Niqabi Ninja, exploring life as a women in contemporary Cairo. Teen performance group Lab Station, whose ideas inspired the event, will put on a show ‘heavily inspired by pop culture and balls and runways’ that explores, as organiser Eoin McKenzie told me, ‘ideas surrounding gender norms, gender presentation and performance’. And there will be events including make-up workshops, a dressing-up corner, zine-making, and a vogue workshop running throughout the day, providing an interactive space for people to explore their own relationships with gender.
Written by Shona McCombes
The Closer We Get director Karen Guthrie speaks to our reporter Clare Blackburne about dealing with an unexpected crisis, the importance of facing up to the past and the emotions involved in exploring her family's most intimate secrets.
'I didn’t know you could grow old overnight. And I never expected my mother to need mothering.’
Now, more than ever, it feels urgent that we do not allow the real experiences around end of life care to be sidelined. Disability, old age and grief so often happen ‘off stage’, in some shadowy space we would prefer not to look into, as though by keeping it out of sight we might somehow be able to deny it altogether.
Karen Guthrie’s documentary The Closer We Get is an intimate portrayal of the final years of her mother’s life in the aftermath of a debilitating stroke. With understated honesty, Guthrie shines light into the shadows, inviting us to explore not only her family's personal secrets and shifting dynamics, but also our own emotional reactions to the universal themes of ageing, relationship and loss. What emerges is ultimately a powerful testimony to the value of a life and to the ability of narrative and film to make sense out of upheaval.
Guthrie’s mother, Ann, sadly died while she was working on the edit. But, throughout the film, we see – in photos from her youth, in footage from before her stroke and after – a woman characterised by her bright humour and resilience in spite of everything. ‘People presumed that I wouldn’t want to deal with the editing any more’, Guthrie observes, ‘but it was quite the opposite. There was a wind in my sails. It felt as though I was spending time with the very best of my mother. And then there was this added motivation: to finish the film and to tell the story.’
Aided by her long-term collaborative partner, Nina Pope, and editor, Alice Powell, Guthrie worked to condense and craft 88 days of footage into 87 poignant minutes. The finished work navigates the complex web of her family’s history, in particular, the role of her father, Ian, but above all serves as an enduring memorial to her mother and to the force of her love. In CCA’s bustling Saramago Café, Guthrie describes the intensity of this editing process, framed as it was by grief, and how her collaborators’ blend of skill, sensitivity and frankness helped her to find the shape of her own story amidst the unruliness of lived experience.
In contrast with the usual way a film is pitched to funders, with a clear sense of narrative arc and ending, this was a story that unfolded in time with the footage: ‘Most documentaries are written, and footage is then cut to a script. With this, though, I was moving material around right to the end. It was important not only that it was an emotional film, but also that people could enjoy the drama.’ It is in this marriage between naturalistic observation and artistic skill that the full force of the documentary is felt.
‘Disinhibited’ is a word Guthrie that uses several times in the course of our conversation, hinting at a creative freedom that arises when there’s nothing left to lose, or the catharsis that can sometimes be felt ‘when the china is already broken on the floor’. Filmed ‘instinctively’, at whatever hour of the day or night felt right, this is Guthrie’s first self-narrated film and therefore a venture into unknown territory. When describing how she wrote the voiceover, avoiding self-censorship wherever possible, she emphasises how painful it was. In part, that was due to the importance of each decision that had to be made and needing to ‘put things into a line’. ‘It’s my version of the last few years,’ she says. ‘It’s not everyone’s version, but it’s still true because it’s how I felt at the time.’
Such raw authenticity, then, is carefully framed and crafted by a documentarist's skill. The process of bringing together footage, voiceover and soundtrack (a beautiful score by Scottish indie icon Malcolm Middleton, composed shortly after he became a father for the first time), revealed to Guthrie how the her story’s full impact arises from the interplay of all three, and how, while life unfolds moment by moment, meaning and comprehension is so often retrospective.
In fact, it is this process of sense-making that Guthrie likens to the some of the strategies that underpin mental health, a theme which resonates perfectly with the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. Guthrie says that, as a child growing up in Largs on the Firth of Clyde, she was a ‘girl with a camera, a girl with a sketchpad’, so that the decision to film this most private aspect of her life was not only natural, but also therapeutic: ‘It was as though my creative self was looking after my other selves…It’s what I’ve always done.’ The success of this endeavour, she stresses, could serve as a strong positive message to anyone who watches it: ‘to express what’s going on in your life, private or public’, is a means for coping with crisis and crafting an understanding out of the myriad events that make up our identities and experience.
Having The Closer We Get accepted by the International Film Festival in Chicago was clearly an important moment of affirmation, all the sweeter given the painful experience of having big-name funders reject the project at the outset. At the time, these knockbacks felt like ‘being punched in the stomach…as though they were saying, “your life isn’t interesting enough”’. The film’s success and the strong emotional reaction of audiences shows how far it is from being the ‘personal misery memoir’ that Guthrie had once feared it might be seen as. Instead, it represents a generous invitation to intimacy for anyone is lucky enough to see it: ‘It would have meant a lot to my mother, to know that her life is helping people. It’s an amazing legacy for a woman who saw herself as ordinary.’
Many people have told Guthrie that after watching The Closer We Get, they immediately wanted to see it again. Indeed, the first viewing is highly emotive, with sudden revelations and narrative shifts. On re-watching the film, I noticed how the nuances in the relationships came to the fore. Once secrets have been revealed, there is no way of unknowing them, and this new knowledge casts a different light on all that goes before. With hindsight, old family photographs and video footage take on new meanings and resonance, sending their delayed messages across the years. ‘The closer we get, the less we can hide’, Guthrie tells us in the film, and, once we’ve entered into this narrative, there is a shared vulnerability in exposure, facing up to all the unspoken hurts and awkward dynamics suddenly made visible on screen.
When it came to her father, it was important to Guthrie not to paint ‘a sweet portrait’ of him, but to show, particularly in his relationship with his youngest son, Campbell, how her own childhood experiences had been, growing up under his aura of strict values and high expectations. There’s also a sense that this laying out of secrets and private angers offers a certain relief and freedom to all involved. Indeed, Guthrie mentions how proud her father is of the film. He even fielded questions from the audience after its European premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival, facing up to his daughter’s perspective on things and navigating the sudden publicity of things that had hitherto been hidden.
But most striking of all, perhaps, is the serenity of Ann, ‘like a little Buddha’, her good humour and compassion in sharp contrast to the physical ravages of the stroke. Guthrie identifies this letting go as being ‘the holy grail of mental health’, ‘being in the moment rather than looking to the past.’ Through her acceptance, Ann ‘teaches us about adversity’ and ‘a good way of death’, creating an opportunity to say goodbye while the person is still with us. Despite the exhaustion and uncertainty of the final stages, Guthrie emphasises how much fun they had together, an emotion that rarely features in our narratives of illness and age: ‘I approached each day with her as if it could be her last’.
The ‘silver lining’ to the crisis, then, was that its suddenness forced people to make contact with the present tense of this new reality, this seismic shift that profoundly ‘recalibrated the entire family’. ‘Otherwise, Guthrie, says, ‘We would have stayed mute. It forced us to face up to buried things.’ In the emotional scenes when her niece Zoe speaks to directly camera, we’re left with a feeling that the family narrative will continue to expand: with the younger generation, ‘the status quo starts to dilute’.
Casting a lens onto the past, then, becomes a way of ushering in a new way forwards, where speech takes over from silence. In the film’s final moments, the camera lingers on one of Guthrie’s other young nieces sitting in her mother’s empty wheelchair, before cutting to the poignant dedication page – In memory of Ann Guthrie (1938-2013) – showing us, reminding us, how much a life exceeds the span of its years.
Written by Clare Blackburne
Karen Guthrie participated in a Q&A dicussion following the screening of The Closer We Get at CCA in Glasgow on Mon 19 Oct. Malcolm Middleton, who composed the film's score, rounded off the evening with a short live set.
Check out the rest of our Film Programme, including our ninth International Film Awards ceremony on Thu 29 Oct.
Young adulthood is a period in which we attempt to discover who we are. A time for making choices, it involves experimentation – not simply setting long-term goals but deciding on a sometimes hour-by-hour basis how we wish to lead our lives. It’s a period in which we may make choices different to our elders, sometimes for good, and sometimes less successfully. Taken to an extreme, it can be a period of rebellion.
Yet, it’s also a period of conformity. The young, it’s sometimes forgotten, regularly experience great pressure from their peers to conform, to think, dress and behave like one another. The freedom to choose can seem restricted when your friends all act one way – and expect you to follow suit. This is very often manifested when young people are introduced to alcohol and drugs, which if handled without adequate understanding can lead to addiction and long-term physical and mental health issues.
This Wednesday, Inverclyde’s Young Persons’ Alcohol Team (YPAT) and Moving Through held an event and workshops at Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre. The day provided information regarding local year-round initiatives to educate and prevent the misuse of alcohol, drugs and legal highs. It also showcased the achievements, testimony and artwork of participants from a number of courses and projects organised within Inverclyde Integrated Alcohol Services (IAS).
YPAT, whose remit extends to tackling alcohol issues amongst people up to the age of 26, began their day with Jenni Mason’s extraordinary film Choices. Produced by Choices for Life, I hope don’t belittle the film by describing it as a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ version of Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen. Both films follows a young male’s journey through the physical and psychological geographies of Greenock. Mason’s work, however, is interactive. Every time the protagonist, Ben, has to choose his next course of action, the audience decides by selecting one of three options, and the plot continues with a scene reflecting that choice.
Our audience chose for Ben to accept drugs from a friend. At each subsequent point, we witnessed Ben’s evening becoming progressively worse as youthful hedonism spiralled into a nightmarish world of hallucinations, culminating in a scene set just outside the Beacon. These powerful images returned to haunt us, when we later left the theatre via the very same pavements.
However, as Chris from the team explained, the point of the film was not to instruct the young to never get drunk or take drugs, but to illustrate the variety of choices open to everyone and to depict some of the potential consequences of our actions.
The YPAT team are an extremely friendly and knowledgeable bunch, and, following the film, Maureen explained to me how they offer preventative alcohol education.
Through use of GEAPP’s ‘Young Booze Busters’ programme, every child in Scotland leaves primary school having taken a course in alcohol awareness. The YPAT team are also responsible for promoting peer education. At Port High School, sixth year students now give awareness presentations to first years in PSA classes. Training is also offered by YPAT to school staff and other community groups.
As part of the Healthier Inverclyde Project, Drink Safe promotes responsible consumption. This service attends community events, offering information to employers for their staff, and the Tier 1 and Tier 2 Alcohol and Drug Awareness programme across Inverclyde ADP partners.
Choices was followed by an alcohol-related art workshop with a local street and graffiti artist. I, however, stopped to look at the Promoting Recovery Showcase and spoke to Irene and Gina from Integrated Drugs Services. This exhibition showcased work undertaken by the Family Response Service with families of those suffering drug dependency.
Photos and testimony of participants decorated the walls, accompanied by poetry inspired by their experiences, emotions and reactions to the addictive problems of loved ones. The group have also collaborated on a tapestry, showing the path to recovery, from despair to hope.
Fabulous, locally-inspired artwork was also on display, hosted by Moving Through, an abstinence-based project within the IAS that provides social, emotional and educational opportunities during recovery, for those who have completed one or more of the services’ programmes. Linking with other agencies and community facilities, Moving On offers opportunities to engage in a wide variety of social and artistic groups, as well as supplying life coaching and financial-management advice.
At other times of the day, workshops in holistic therapy, yoga, healthy eating and fitness were given; and members of Street League, a charity committed to changing the lives of young people through football, were also present.
The exhibitions and topics covered throughout the day gave a truly impressive account of the work done by the various strands of Inverclyde’s alcohol and drugs services, amply demonstrating the opportunities offered to everyone affected by the issues raised by misuse and addiction. With an impressive supply of leaflets, keyrings and other informative material, nobody could leave without feeling empowered by the range of choices open to us. All of us, of any age, have the right to choose how we lead our lives.
Written by Mark Jones