Since the early 1990s, a mysterious suicide epidemic has been spreading in rural communities throughout the Venezuelan Andes. Almost everyone in the region knows someone who has taken their own life, but no one is any closer to understanding why this is happening or what could be done to bring it do an end. Striking young and old, male and female alike, each death is its own unique tragedy, raising countless questions that nobody can ever fully answer.
Eliezer Arias, the filmmaker and anthropologist behind the poignant and desperately beautiful The Silence of the Flies, knows these communities as well as anyone. Having first visited the area around twenty years ago, he has studied their lifestyle in detail and witnessed first-hand the dramatic changes that have taken place in that period. ‘I was part of the landscape,’ he jokes, years before starting to make this film. ‘I was working there as an anthropologist for a long time. I was the researcher who came to ask questions.’
Since opting to tackle this subject, however, he has encountered few easy answers. Describing the phenomenon as ‘complex’ and ‘multifactorial’, he says there are ‘too many [things] that can explain why people commit suicide. You can of course look for some tendencies that could explain it in these rural areas,’ but there are always going to be numerous exceptions. The problem is not strictly a local one either, with suicide rates in rural communities across Latin America, as well as in countries like Japan, Switzerland and the UK, outstripping national averages, but the region’s unique culture may account for its scale.
Arias believes that the driving force behind the issues in this Venezuelan town is the rapid pace of change occurring within it and the introduction of ‘new values that come from globalisation’. ‘My hypothesis is that these communities [have changed] a lot in recent years,’ he says. ‘They still live with old traditions, a lot of machismo,’ but the ancient ‘institutions’ that sustained and justified that culture are crumbling. Farming used to be the region’s lifeblood, but with the economy in ‘a mess’, it is very difficult for people to be successful: ‘When you talk to the farmers, the poor farmers, they feel like they are failing.’ It is perhaps no coincidence that the most common way for men to take their lives is by drinking agricultural pesticides.
Young people are hit hardest by the changes, caught ‘in a trap’ between the old and the new. ‘It’s more difficult to be young in a rural community than in a big city,’ says Arias. ‘In a big city, you can be someone else. For example, if you have a tattoo, if you paint your hair blue or green, that’s normal. But in rural areas, you are stigmatised.’ Homosexuality is particularly difficult to deal with and coming out is rare: ‘You have to be willing to be oppressed by the community.’ But nobody seems safe from all forms of social alienation. In the interviews we hear with their friends and relatives, there is an overriding sense that the victims felt they did not belong and were ultimately not allowed to. People are unable to express themselves, to reveal their true personalities, particularly when they go radically against the prevailing culture.
Their inability to speak out is reflected in the way that Arias presents the testimonies that comprise the film’s soundtrack. Recorded entirely without cameras, they are given as voiceovers alongside shots of the speakers in different settings, looking silently and expressionlessly into the camera. This technique was a ‘risk’ and an ‘experiment’, but encourages multiple interpretations in this context. In part, it was simply a way for Arias to protect his subjects and avoid ‘exposing them to the camera’ in their most emotional moments, but it also enabled him to explore innovative ways to bring the dead into the film. In depicting the relatives in this way, he explains: ‘I wanted to show that there is an emptiness, an absence.’ They are both there and not there, and in many cases always will be.
The dead also occupy a physical space in the landscape, through belongings carefully placed in trees, streams and mountainsides. There is something uncanny about their presence here, in contrast with the spectacular and idyllic environment. Arias was interested in showing ‘something very terrible’ against this setting, which he describes as ‘bucolic’ and ‘very romantic’, adding that it is still a popular honeymoon destination for couples from the cities. But he finds ways to draw the tragedy into the story, his imagery suggesting connections between the natural environment and the pain and isolation the locals suffer. ‘The landscape is part of the movie,’ he says, ‘one of the characters.’
The film focuses on two mothers, Marcelina and Mercedes, who both lost their daughters in the same year at the same age. Their search for answers eventually takes them to the top of a mountain, which is ‘very arid, very grey’, almost a blank slate for them to start again on. Generally, there is an ‘attitude of stoicism’ about the suicides in the community, which Arias describes as ‘something like a defence. They are saying: I suffered this loss but I have to keep going with my life.’ Within the community, ‘they have a different way to understand suicide. Sometimes, they even say that the expression, suicide, is not something they understand at all. They see it as 'something that happened’ to them as opposed to something they did, which can be interpreted as deeply empathetic, as well as a kind of denial.
The film’s title, The Silence of the Flies, was inspired by this disticintive attitude, as well as one of the region’s most striking but less attractive features. ‘In this community, there are a lot of flies,’ says Arias. ‘It’s amazing. Twenty years ago, the first time I was there, I was impressed by the flies. But none of the people reacted to them…The flies are part of the community, part of the landscape. And suicide is the same.’
The people in the town have to a great extent ‘normalised the phenomenon’. But Arias cannot say whether that is a good or a bad thing: ‘It’s [simply] a different way for relatives to give meaning to the suicides.’ There is little stigma surrounding the issue, largely because it is so common, but that seems to be doing little to help alleviate the situation. ‘Suicide is a universal phenomenon,’ he says, ‘but has different meanings for different people.’ His film is a moving and valuable exploration of a community’s search for answers, and an examination of a culture that is finding it increasingly difficult to stay alive.
Written by Rob Dickie
Gina McKie, Radio Clyde presenter, is not only passionate about the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, but also about helping others with anxiety, fears, phobias and confidence. Gina hosted the Renfrewshire Festival launch event, Feel Good Friday, where she spoke more about inspiring change.
‘I’m a talker, of course, so I’m currently halfway through creating my own audiobook. I could write things down, but it’s easier for me to record them.’
Gina is a qualified counsellor, hypnotherapist, reiki master and Neuro-Linguistic Programming Practitioner. She has also studied Psychology. But it is from her years of working in the media that she has seen how limiting a lack of confidence can be:
‘It’s easy to lose confidence, and I’ve seen it be knocked out of people. I’ve known people who want to go on auditions for TV and films, and just can’t find the confidence to do it.’
And that’s where her latest venture, her audiobook Change Your Life Over Lunch, comes in.
‘Confidence doesn’t grow like hair or nails. This audiobook is my system to build confidence. I want people to go out and grasp at what they want in life, not to get caught up in the minutiae and to stop worrying what others will think. I want to make a difference in their life.’
It seems like Gina is already making a huge difference in the lives of her current clients, who she loves to ‘help fly’. And it is this nurturing, warm persona that makes Gina so inviting, and so very genuine.
Written by Louise Marie Smith
Image by Stephen Rygielski
You can listen to a free chapter from Gina’s audiobook on her website: www.ginamckie.com.
‘Please do not think that I am suffering. I am not suffering. I am struggling. Struggling to be part of things, to stay connected to whom I was once.’
The highly acclaimed independent film Still Alice depicts the story of renowned linguistics professor Alice Howland as she and her family come to terms with her diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Following the disease’s progression, the film explores not just what is lost, but also what is retained throughout the fundamentally human experience of dementia. The award-winning cast features Julianne Moore as Alice, Alec Baldwin as her husband, John, and Kristen Stewart as daughter, Lydia. The film has been praised for its authentic, unfeigned portrayal of Alzheimer’s, alongside its immediate and wider consequences.
The incredible sincerity pervading the film comes as no surprise when you consider those instrumental in its production: the novel on which the film is based, a New York Times’ bestseller, was written by neuroscientist Lisa Genova; and the screenplay adaptation was written and directed by Motor Neurone Disease (MND) sufferer Richard Glatzer and his husband Wash Westmoreland. It is clear that Glatzer and Westmoreland’s experiences with illness have informed Still Alice — it is raw and refreshingly frank, yet never over-dramatised.
For those interested in film, Still Alice is incredibly moving and faultlessly acted, with Julianne Moore’s performance deservedly winning her an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe. For those dealing with a diagnosis, the fictional portrayal, though melancholy, is relatively realistic and informative, emphasising the gradual nature of the disease. For family members of those diagnosed, the struggles of Alice’s family are relatable and ‘human’, rather than unrealistically saint-like or heroic. And for anyone wishing to learn more about Alzheimer’s, Still Alice provides an honest and compassionate depiction.
Still Alice is a must-see; it educates and eradicates misconceptions, exemplifying film’s ability to explore difficult, and often misunderstood, topics like dementia.
Written by Nicole Bell
Later on this month, a response to Still Alice will form part of a short podcast series looking at the contribution the arts make to the representation and discussion of mental health.
Radio Clyde’s Gina McKie invited us to feel good on Friday with the launch of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in Renfrewshire. This afternoon of theatre, music, poetry and song kick started the programme and gave us a sneak peek at what’s to come.
First up to perform at The Wynd Auditorium was Jenny Lindsay, whose intense performance poetry captivated everyone in the room. After experiencing mental ill-health and getting some much needed space to recover, Jenny penned a poem about what she went through, detailing her days on a scale of 1-10. ‘Six is fine, six is fine’ she tells us, though the deeper context is that it’s really not.
Next up was Arts Co-ordinator Sarah Grant, who spoke about the upcoming Paisley Poetry Trail, which continues until Saturday 31st October. Sarah has been immersed in organising the Renfrewshire events and, after a busy week, said how much she was looking forward to attending the events and seeing everything come together.
Theatrial performance Cirque Du Passion by Changing Stages took us through the connotations of passion in mental health. The struggles caused by anxiety pushing passion to the back of your head was beautifully demonstrated in the group’s performance. The actors spoke of passion and its ‘bully brother’ mania, the taker to passion’s giver.
With passion at the heart of this year’s festival, Gina took this opportunity to speak to the audience about her own: confidence building and helping others deal with anxiety attacks, fears and phobias. She is currently halfway through recording her forthcoming audiobook on confidence and esteem, which she hopes will help others realise that ‘the most important thing you can invest in is yourself’.
Andrew Eaton-Lewis, Arts Lead from the Mental Health Foundation, spoke of this year’s theme, explaining that passion is not only central to the festival’s ethos, but is what ultimately drives artists.
Static, a short film by Louise Baird, led us in to the disarray of the depressed and anxious mind, before finishing with hope, that maybe it’s all ‘not that bad’. In an energetic performance, Claire Craig also performed the Charleston, complete with 1920s dress. She will be running a dance workshop, Passionate About Dance, on Monday 26th October as part of this year’s festival.
George Walker, Ruth Adamson and Julie Hardie of Paisley Writers Group opened up their hearts and minds with prose and poetry readings. Ruth’s passion and pride at what she can bake beamed across the room and Julie’s poem captured perfectly the feelings of many fighting their way through mental ill health: ‘I just don’t deal well with roundabouts and swings’.
Jeanette Allan, Renfrewshire Festival Co-ordinator, spoke fervently about the region's commitment to arts and recovery. She also touched on Read It, Pass It On, which takes place in cafes throughout Renfrewshire this October. Participants can go to any of the designated cafes to pick up a copy of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive and upon returning, write their name inside and pass it on.
Young songbirds Rachelle and Brittany Davies touched the audience with ‘Shout Out’, a dedication to their friend who took her own life in 2014. Their self-composed song is available on iTunes and has received Twitter support from musical legend Rod Stewart. The duo are raising funds for Young Minds, a child mental health charity. You can show your support for the girls on Twitter at @Rach_Britt.
In exploring this year’s festival theme, RAMH held their Passionate About Photography competition asking entrants to show what they are passionate about. Stephen McLellan, chief executive of RAMH presented awards for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners. The top entry was by John Joe Gallagher for his picture taken in Warsaw, capturing his enthusiasm for people photography.
Finally, Buddy Beat treated the audience to some hypnotic drum beats, performing an African piece. The talent and hard work of the group and their well-rehearsed music was a fitting end to a day about passion, mental health and community.
Written by Louise Marie Smith
Image by Stephen Rygielski
Feel Good Friday launched the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in Renfrewshire. For full listings in Renfrewshire, featuring many of the artists mentioned above, please visit our events page.
I have a confession to make. I’m not a huge fan of physical theatre. I’m a word junkie. Language is what I love. So, I was interested to see how In Her Shadows, a piece of aerial and physical theatre that addresses one individual’s battle with depression and anxiety – conditions that often seem hard enough to articulate in words – would convey those struggles visually.
The piece begins with performer Rachael Macintyre shuffling on stage, shouldering a backpack which seems to contain the weight of the world, as we see projections (on a gorgeous scallop-shaped screen) of social situations that appear to overwhelm the protagonist. This is represented beautifully by the interplay of the two performers, as Debbie Robbins climbs on top of her co-artiste, conveying the crushing weight of a family meal at Christmas. In another scene, Macintyre’s chair is rocked from side to side by a gracefully squirming Robbins, showing how social anxiety leaves us unsteady, at sea, even in the simple act of enjoying a cup of coffee in a café. Robbins’ character serves as a personification of the mental turbulence that the protagonist shares her life with.
Frequently, Robbins seems to represent the mother figure that haunts this whole piece, shadowing Macintyre’s every move. At times she’s physically climbing on her shoulders – the ‘monkey on her back’ – while at others she’s curled in a spooning embrace as Macintyre lies in a foetal ball on the floor. There are also moments that see her climbing the sash or the rope, lording her control over the mind of the central character; she spins with the rope coiled around her middle as Ewan Macintyre’s portentous soundtrack peeks and crescendos, conveying an umbilical attachment that makes this relationship all the more confused and difficult to resolve.
But there is hope. At times the protagonist climbs higher, flying unencumbered by the daunting presence of the mother figure, the range of movement conveying those brighter, more hopeful days that her condition occasionally affords her.
And words do come, in the form of the astounding poem Today by Jenny Lindsay, which comes in a voiceover in the final sequence. A rhythmic flurry of verse which hums along with sibilant intensity and plosive curses, rattling through a scale of good days and bad, by rating them 10 down to 1. It’s hugely effective as a summation of what we have just seen, an encapsulation, even a validation. And yet, for the previous 40 minutes, these sentiments have been performed with nothing but movement, music and visuals, with equal power.
Today I learnt a new language, a language full of vigour and candour, which beautifully portrays the hugeness of depression, and tenderly soothes and nurtures at the same time. In Her Shadows is fantastic. Words fail me.
Written by Tom Grayson