Talking Heads

Veronika Raila lives in Germany. She can neither speak, nor walk, and she has been completely dependent on others to assist her with the entirety of her care needs since birth. Despite this, Sandgirl is not a story about the struggle and plight of a disabled woman with complex care needs, but a visually enchanting celebration of an artistic, creative and highly intelligent mind. Not only is Veronika intelligent, but she has a photographic memory and the ability to write both poetically and philosophically with an astonishing degree of talent.

Veronika, a cowriter of the documentary, illustrates her story using her own words, narrated through the voice of someone else. She describes her disability and her day-to-day life using evocative poetry that provides a fascinating insight into the creativity, writings and introspectiveness of a woman who was labelled at birth as having an IQ of zero. Akin to this, Veronika’s writings and poetry are accompanied by the sand art and animation of Anne Löper, who uniquely captured the emotion of Veronika’s story, and the beautiful cinematography of Ines Thomson.

The film follows Veronika and her family, in particular her main care giver and mother, during their everyday lives, from University, where Veronika studies German literature and catholic theology, to ancient monasteries in Italy where the family spends their annual holiday. Her mother, almost always by Veronika’s side, shares a deep, caring and supportive bond with her daughter. One of the few moments of pity or sadness within the film is when Veronika’s mother, before understanding her daughter’s potential, describes the guilt she felt for almost giving up on her child. Veronika herself displays very little anguish towards her circumstances, instead she wholeheartedly embraces it, which she sums up succinctly by stating “I love my life because it is mine”.

Sandgirl provides a colourful, poetic and mesmerising insight into the mind and life of an incredible young thinker. The documentary itself focuses more on the talent and creative works of Veronika than it does on her physical impairment. Sandgirl should be celebrated for taking an, unfortunately, uncommon approach in regard to the depiction of people with mental health issues and/or disabilities. This intriguing documentary not only investigates the depth of Veronika’s mind, but also questions common discourses about the importance of able-bodiedness and speech for communication and connection.

by Lisa Rashleigh

Lisa is a 25-year-old Australian living in Glasgow. She has a background in youth work and homelessness, and is currently working as an independent advocate. Lisa is passionate about both mental health and the Glaswegian music and art scene.  Follow her on Instagram @bin_leisel or on Twitter @LisaRashleigh.

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

Talking Heads reporter Louise Farquhar writes about Documentary Shorts, which screened as part of the SMHAF 2019 film programme on Saturday 4th May.

Reflecting the wide spectrum of mental health, along with the wonderful diversity of SMHAF 2019, this carefully curated event brought together five very unique short documentaries. Taking the audience through an evolving narrative, each film followed people marginalised by society as a result of mental illness and trauma, sensitively highlighting the harrowing effects of futility and isolation. But there was also hope. Every one of these moving and powerful films shared a strong positive message; whether that was one of acceptance, recovery or a call to action. Although challenging to watch, this series of documentary shorts was ultimately very uplifting, infusing feelings of love, courage and understanding through a harsh world. With film, it is not only the action that speaks to the audience but also the spaces in between, the silences and the thoughts. These films all encapsulate this principle beautifully and give a strong voice to those who can’t always be heard.

Asylum, directed by Jaap van Heusden and Jefta Varwick, starts in a confused state, with the world upside down, flicking between sharp and blurred images as subtitles state, ‘life has no meaning’. We are in the head of protagonist, David Brown. This ultra-subjective film submerses us in the life of a young psychotic man, who has lived in a number of psychiatric institutions and is on the move again. The constantly alienating camera work, shifting focus from shots of sterile interiors to unrecognisable blurred images and then bucolic forest scenes, is oppressive but also powerful as it parallels the disordered state of David’s mind when he hears voices. He describes the ‘entity’ in his head once offering him a choice to kill his brother or jump from a window. He chose to jump. With occasional comical moments, which add realism and relief to his condition, he talks candidly about attempts he made to end his life. Whilst at times he longs for death by suicide or euthanasia, he also frankly admits being just as scared of dying as of being alive. This film masterfully crawls from his mind into ours, infiltrating our own thoughts with invisible voices until the psychoses seem our own. In one particular moving moment, David hugs a tree as he walks through the forest. Although obviously contrived for the film, this is something he often finds peace doing and we feel his sense of calm.

Enjoying a world premiere at SMHAF 2019, the second documentary, Comics by Monica Zinn, countered the disturbing disorientation of the first feature with an instantly bright and cheerful character, bringing sunny yellow tones and sounds of laugher immediately to the screen. Rose Turner is a young artist, whose experience of anxiety and depression started after the suicide of a friend. Amidst leafy sunshine scenes, happy music and smiling faces the film depicts her deeply personal struggle to overcome the bleakness and disconnection triggered by this trauma. As she describes warm memories of her childhood on the family farm, with loving parents and big family, the sudden starkness of how an unexpected event can fracture mental health is clear. Rose talks openly about being unable to maintain her studies during this time and the feelings of fatigue and isolation she succumbed to. These descriptions are set against carefully crafted idyllic scenes of nature, narrated beautifully using the metaphor of a lukewarm day. Yet this is a story of recovery. Rose called on four lights of healing; namely kindness, stories, hiking and art. From these she turned from the darkness of depression and anxiety. This powerful film, peppered throughout with warmth and laughter, is a positive story of prioritising health, learning coping strategies and becoming empowered. Giving a clear message of hope to young people, this film should be shown in every school, university and college in the world.

The third feature, Raquel, is directed by Tania Cattebeke and set in Paraguay’s capital city, Asuncion. Raquel Varga, a 54-year old schizophrenic, has been living on the streets for two decades after mental illness affected her ability to continue as a student of architecture. Cattebeke knew of Raquel through her sister, who works in social services, and started the feature with a clear intention to document the harsh realities of Raquel’s life. The hand-held camera technique and peppering of stills amongst the imagery create a real and instant bond with the old lady, even eliciting shock when she is erratically aggressive. Interestingly, the perspective changes at this point as Cattebeke sees herself as ‘violent’ in attempting to define and force Raquel’s story to fit a model we all expect in these circumstances. Now Raquel assumes control of the narrative and suddenly the film becomes totally fascinating. In contrast to the start, Raquel demonstrates a sense of acceptance and understanding of her life, as well as genuine pleasure in what she does, from dancing to drawing intricate chalk pictures on the pavement. In place of a tortured narrative, we see Raquel as strong and self-assured: a human being who knows how to live and to laugh.

Through the Cracks, by Nathan Fagan and Luke Daly, captures the degradation and loneliness experienced by families living in emergency accommodation in Ireland. Although filmed using actors, the narrative is taken directly from first-hand accounts of mothers and their children. Initially children talk optimistically about their futures, maybe wanting to be a teacher when they grow up, as we are shown them playing in parks or with Lego. The paradox, however, is swift and unsettling as mothers share their guilt and shame of being homeless, along with real fears for their children’s deteriorating mental health. Filmed in natural light, drawing on relatable scenes, we are shown the relentless search the families must undertake to find shelter. In these ‘hotels’, children are unable to socialise with others their own age, spending time in cramped rooms, bored and exposed to a scary and inappropriate adult world. The film, like the mothers, sees a very different future for the children. Pointed unashamedly at Government policies, this documentary is a call to action. It clearly demands an end to this miserable situation.  The heavy heads of the audience, which hung in futile despair throughout the film, lift at this point amidst a feeling of confidence that, as a society, we can demand a better life for these people.

Then came the final film in the programme, Model Childhood. Winner of the Grand Jury prize at SMHAF 2019, Tim Mercier’s astounding documentary joins him as a filmmaker embarking on a journey to find answers to his experience of childhood sexual trauma. Immediately opening with loud and attention-demanding sounds, there is also a poetic quality to the start of the film as it settles by the river on a summer day, watching nature and people thrive in the sunshine. A sudden cut to the very ordinary and unkempt surroundings of Mercier’s flat, where he films himself using basic equipment, is a sharp contrast and harshly realistic. He is clearly isolated, unable to talk to family about his experience and living in a world where a very definite stigma exists around sexual assault. As someone who always enjoyed making models, he starts by creating an Austin Cambridge, which seems like a fun clay model of an old car at first, until we discover it to be the scene of the horrific crime. The narrative stays with him as he reconstructs the day of his assault using more animated clay models, intermixed with strikingly direct footage of him as he returns to the forest where the assault took place. Against a backdrop of insects frenzied around a streetlight, he describes the frantic mode started by this traumatic experience, which is so much more than a single incident, affecting every day of his life since then. His words, “Look what it does to a man,” are arresting, suspending the viewer in Mercier’s haunted world for that moment. A beautiful ending then softens the sheer depiction of malevolence, violence and disgust aroused by the film. Mercier stands amidst the beech trees, which he describes as mainly growing tall and strong except for some which have kinks, as though they have something to grow around. We can all take something from this. Model Childhood is a courageous film and Tim Mercier is a generous artist to share it. This film will benefit anyone who watches it.

Louise Farquhar is a writer, covering the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival for the first time. She lives in Glasgow with her family and too many books. 

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

Talking Heads reporter Nina Abeysuriya writes about Dramatic Shorts, which screened as part of the SMHAF 2019 film programme.

Tom Lock Griffiths is no stranger to exploring and exposing the complexities of difficult and painful subjects; with his second film Mistral he does just that. Centred around the elements, Griffiths takes us on the wind to London and the south coast of France.

Following Griffiths childhood story and the story of Eva. With both a captivating narrative and beautiful cinematography we are given a fully immersive sensory experience from the opening scene. He uses various audios to enhance the experience. At times I almost felt the wind on my face.

Griffiths captivating voice adds a deep rhythmic dimension that carries throughout and layers over a series of moving images. This film is rich in metaphor and atmosphere and feels like a poem at times.

The film explores the fear of madness that sits in us. It uses the elements with images of water, earth and fire to explore the links between us and our fragile existence and our interplay between the outer forces of our lives.

Throughout the film Griffiths uses strong images to link us to his journey of loss and pain. From suicide and to the spirits of those who were held in the old asylums and buried under the London streets he grew up on.

The wind in the south of France is called the Mistral and has been known to be linked to both the destruction of landscape but also to cause psychosis. We are shown the beauty of light and dark with strong imagery which builds the tensions and the possibility of surrender to the wind and the madness it may bring. 

I Love You by Victoria Thompson is set over the course of one night in the lives of Charlotte and Liam. This is a raw and realistic window into their intimate relationship. This is especially well depicted due to its improvisation, which brings an unsettling closeness to the subject. We are shown a tenderness that is present whilst we are privy to their everyday lives. Charlotte is experiencing mental illness. 

Thompson shows us there is an intimacy and responsibility in romantic relationships, that it can be our greatest strength and a mirror to our greatest suffering. Mental illness does not just impact the individual and we are shown how this impacts Liam.

Sometimes unsettling to witness, we can relate to the actions of both characters. We are shown a build and escalation of Charlotte's distress, which leads to some extreme consequences and impacts her ability to ask for the tenderness and understanding she needs to receive. 

The film achieves a real sense of normality and reality as we share the space of the couple’s relationship just as the illness shares their home. Inevitably, like any unwanted guest, this brings a sense of invasion and disruption.  

Directed by the Nuesch sisters from Switzerland, Forget Me Not is based around their experience of growing up with their mother who experienced bipolar disorder.  

This is a brave exploration of their own journey with a serious and enduring mental illness. The intention of the film was the tell us the story through the eyes of the young sisters and the effects of their mother’s illness on their lives. A great attempt had been made to be factually accurate with set and costume, which strongly showed us the 1970s timeframe. 

The story follows the children and mother with some tenderness and sensitivity but sadly it lacked the emotional impact that I expected. Having lived through the experience of growing up in a household with a parent with bipolar disorder I felt Forget Me Not falls someway short in sharing the experience from the children's point of view, leaving me more frustrated than able to relate with an overly simplistic depiction of the possible damage and difficulties both in and out of the home for a child in this position. Having said that, all experiences of the same condition cannot be generalised and the sisters' experience is unique. It’s commendable to bring your own story of living with mental illness into a space to be discussed and explored. 

Portuguese director Sebastiao Selgado brings us a 15-minute short Segunda-Feira, which explores the growing impact depression has on families. Portugal, Selgado notes, has the highest rate of depression in Europe. His work has an important message, highlighting the common experience that is hidden in plain sight of Portuguese families. 

This is shot all in an affluent family’s home, introducing us to Helena, a woman who appears to have a successful life from the outside but is locked into the routine of her suffering. This is broken by an enforced visit from her grandchild.   

The frustration of Helena’s family is shown with her granddaughter’s escalated need for her attention, but Helena is unable to break through the deepening divide between them. 

Helena when asked by her son if she is unwell, simply replies, she is tired as is unable to show the truth of how she feels, which gives us some hint to the situation in accessing help and support in Portugal and why films such as these are of great importance.

Segunda-Feira was filmed in slow sequences which really goes well to explain the expanses of time depression can steal from us. For example, Helena’s heavy footsteps as they tread her designer stairs. I found it challenging to watch at times and scenes seemed to linger longer then I felt comfortable with, but this beautifully parallels the characteristics of depression and how they impact the physical body, losing energy, time and connection.

Finally, and personally the stand out film from the Dramatic Shorts, is Gaston Stabiszeweki’s Take a Breath

Brilliantly scripted, filmed and produced, Take a Breath is the longest from the selection, but uses the extra time extremely well. Shari Asha Crosson’s performance of Sara, our protagonist, is outstanding, bringing passion, empathy and depth to the role.

Sara has looked after her mother who has experienced a long-term mental illness and shows us the aftermath of an event which leaves collateral damage to both Sara and her estranged brother Jan, played by Stabiszeweki himself. 

Both siblings have processed, live and responded to their mother’s illness and attempted to gain understanding about themselves and their mother’s illness. However, this does not have a final destination and will continue to challenge them both.

Stabiszeweki’s film depicts dream-wake sequences, as we see the inner struggles of Sara set in a forest of her consciousness as she tries to deal with her anger, despair, relief and confusion. Switching from one to the other on an emotional journey. Jan has dropped out of society and lives in a tent, exploring his understanding of madness and creativity through theatre. But both siblings are forced back together to move through the next stage of their fragile relationship. 

Though a dramatically challenging subject, Stabiszeweki manages to bring humour and light in places. The scene I could most relate to was set around Sara and Jan having dinner to discuss their mother. Sara’s resentment of her brother is played brilliantly, bearing the scars of the responsibilities she wears openly and awkwardly, while a third party fills the airspace with small talk. This is an all too familiar scene for me – and countless families – that have been bent by the legacy left through mental illness. Sara has given time to the care of her mother but has affected her esteem, her own relationships, her own mental health and undoubtedly will continue to do so. Just as Jan has been unable to connect and relate to his sister and their mother through the illness, and is navigating his own sense of sanity.

Stabiszeweki’s has achieved an entertaining and compelling short film, which most importantly shows the audience a glimpse into the complex subject of how mental illness can impact an entire family’s structure, not just the person experiencing it. It is difficult to begin to identify how many ways Sara and Jan will be affected by this tragedy in their lives. This is the unfinished story for both Sara and Jan, and their mother. Stabiszeweki’s hope was that the film can make people in similar situations feel a little less alone and for 23 minutes, it did for me, and for that I thank him. 

by Nina Abeysuriya

Nina is an Edinburgh based writer, mother, barista, baker, candle stick maker! She has aspirations of singing to a bigger audience than her dog and is a keen jumpsuit enthusiast. She is delighted to be starting this new adventure of working with the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.
The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

Talking Heads reporter Ella Duncan interviewed Patrick Keast about his exhibition Disconnected, which continues at Cyrenians’ Flavour and Haver Cook School in Edinburgh until Friday 31st May, as part of SMHAF 2019.

Patrick Keast has an exhibition of his photography showing at Cyrenians, a fitting location as it was through the Cyrenians Addiction Recovery programme that Patrick first realized he had a talent for photography. Disconnected deals with themes of dispossession and exclusion, and the way that people can often be ignored by society and fall through the cracks. Many of Patrick’s photos were taken on the way to and from his addiction appointments, and show a stark juxtaposition between people who have, and those who have not.

Mental health issues are often strongly linked to addiction issues, and both are still surrounded by a level of stigma. With his photography, Patrick hopes to challenge these pre-conceived ideas, provoke a reaction of kindness in the viewer and to “make people think again.” I spoke to Patrick on the day the exhibition opened, hoping get a more in depth perspective on the exhibition and the themes displayed.

You started by taking photographs going to and from your addiction appointments. Can you explain what the decision was behind this?

It was just handy. It was available, something I could carry with me. It wasn’t part of any plan; I didn’t think it was going to lead to anything. It was just one of those choices someone makes, like learning to play the guitar. You just pick something up, and go with it!

You began by using second hand equipment out of necessity, do you still?

I’ve upgraded my equipment as I’ve went. So I’ve got into a more pro-spec range of equipment now. It was along the lines of reward and success; for example if I got an exhibition put together then I thought ‘Well, I should buy a more expensive camera’. Always trying to improve in different ways, and a new camera and a lens gives you more creative choices. Every time I made progress I thought ‘Well, I’ll invest in that’.

Why do you think it is important to document the things you photograph?

For me every photograph’s got a memory attached to it, it’s a place in time that I remember. For me personally, looking at that photograph brings back that day to me. So it might have been a day for example I went to an appointment, or attended a recovery meeting, or came out of hospital, or an interview with the benefits agency. Before and after, I’d be taking pictures. Because there’s a connection with that memory, it helps me have a narrative in my head when I reflect back on things. I’ve built stories about other people’s recovery also, rehab courses, graduations, days out, events etc.

Do you think it’s important for people who aren’t in recovery to see your photographs?

It’s things that people pass by, on the street, basically shut out, tune out. Don’t wanna see it, don’t wanna hear about it. People will make judgments about who they see and the condition they’re living in. Basically a lot of victim blaming.

But bringing it into a photograph, what I hope to create is very empathic images, so it’ll stir something in the viewer and they’ll get an emotional response instead of a negative response. They’ll have some kind of feeling for a fellow human being who is basically in trouble, deep, deep trouble.

I don’t know about changing peoples behaviors, as that’s not my role, but I think if there’s a shift in someone’s perception their feelings will be a bit different, and their reactions will change.

You’ve said you find taking photographs “liberating”. In what ways do you find it liberating?

It’s liberating because it’s an altered state of mind from the regular A to B. You’re in a creative zone in your brain, you’re engaging with your sight, your senses, your perception, three dimensional space. Looking at things with a fresh perspective. I’m engaging with my environment in a different way. Instead of having that sort of hyper-vigilance where I’m looking for trouble – I’m looking for a photograph.

Do you feel that photography has helped your mental health?

Yeah, immensely, yeah. It’s given me a form of self-expression. I get to share some of my experiences through photography. It gets me out of self-destructive thought modes; it gets me out of low moods, when I can’t be bothered.

It takes me out of my regular, day-to-day 9-5. My ordinary everyday concerns kinda diminish. So I believe it helps with tension and stresses building up over time. If I go out and have a break from that, when I come back to the tensions and stresses, they’ve actually gone down. Things aren’t as grim as I’ve made out. Having that mental pause, a change of place, a change of pace – whatever issue I was concerned about kind of processes in the background.

Do you think art is good for breaking down barriers on subjects like mental health, which can be difficult to talk about?

People might have certain prejudices about what mental health is and how mental health issues affect people. If you see someone who has had mental health issues, addiction issues and you can see some great artwork they’ve done, you’ll think differently about that person. Plus you’ll get a message. This person

is relating to me through art, through media, through photography. Could be poetry, could be sculpture. People might think ‘Oh, I didn’t know lads and lassies like that could even do something like that’.

Do you think this project can challenge those prejudices and stigmas – especially around addiction and recovery?

Rather than just being photography, it’s the photographer. I don’t make any secret of the fact that I’m in recovery, that I’ve had addiction issues, that I’m rebuilding my life.

Part of the stigma is the shame, because people don’t want to talk about it. It brings down the stigma because I’m not being secretive, shameful or hiding my past. That’s liberating it itself and people can feel a bit freer to talk about where they’ve been, what their life journey has been and what’s brought them to where they are today.

It [mental health] doesn’t define me, it’s not the biggest and most important thing in my life, but it is something I think needs to be shared. I felt my photography needed to be shared.

Finally, the theme of this year’s festival is ‘Connection’. What does connection mean to you?

The type of relationships you have, especially societal relationships and how you relate to the society you live in, the culture you’re part of. The more positive relationships you have within the society you live in, the more connected you are. Once they start dropping off- then you’re disconnected. You don’t have those positive relationships, everything’s dysfunctional, everything a problem.

How we come to understand who we are is in the way we connect with other people.

Patrick’s exhibition is on at the Cyrenians Flavour and Haver Cook School until Friday 31st May. Click here to find out more.

Ella Duncan is a mum of two wee boys and lives in Edinburgh. She currently works at Santosa Yoga Studio as Promotions and Events Manager and writes for fun. She loves baking and running and meditating and Prince, not necessarily in that order. You can follow her on Instagram @bella_duncan_ella.

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

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