On Saturday 14th October, Men’s Mental Health Day at SMHAF 2017 featured a programme of events, including short films, features and workshops, dedicated to exploring issues of mental health and masculinity. Screenings of films like Being Greene and Becoming Cary Grant – winner of Best Feature Documentary at the SMHAF International Film Awards – were received warmly, often with a distinct sense of recognition, expressed through knowing smiles and teary eyes.

The issue of men’s mental health is deeply embedded in the zeitgeist of this age. Statistics showing high rates of suicide and untreated mental ill health in male-identifying people are so widely known that, as a society, we rarely deem it necessary to discuss them. Indeed, in the face of political attacks on women’s rights and a resurgence in anti-feminism in recent years, it is no wonder that men’s issues are often met with a shrug. But, in the age of Trump and ‘meninism’, how fascinating and vital it is to examine people’s varied experiences of masculinity through the prism of mental health.

The principal lesson of the day was, for me, simple: when we define masculinity in strict terms, everyone loses. I saw a diverse array of men making art about emotions, and talking about their feelings onscreen in ways that so many men that I have known would have resisted. The arts are inherently political, and what I saw was an act of rebellion against oppressive gender stereotyping.

In a period during which gender paradigms have shifted so dramatically – and, yet, the machismo and unchecked narcissism of several male leaders threaten the continued existence of our planet – it is clear that the concept of masculinity has to be readdressed and redefined. The art I saw at this event is proof that attempts to do so can be cathartic for both the artist and the audience – regardless of gender. Indeed, the atmosphere throughout the day was joyous, and the films were received gratefully by audiences, who are so often deprived of recognisably human subjects.

Men’s Mental Health Day was a battle cry for positive change in the face of what so often, especially in 2017, seems to be perpetual regress. It made me feel hopeful.

by Alice Smith

Image by Oscar Lewis from his short film Waterfall, which won Best Animation at SMHAF 2017 and screened during Men's Mental Health Day.

Inspired by director Joey Klein’s personal experience with grief, The Other Half is a modern love story involving Nickie (Tom Cullen), a man haunted by the loss of a family member, and Emily (Tatiana Maslany), an artist with bipolar disorder.

Best described by the w ord anticipation, The Other Half alternates ambient light with powerful colours, loud and sometimes edgy music, tense dialogue and prominent body language, building up each character’s image little by little. Whether that is Klein’s way of deliberately dispensing information about his characters, or due to the complexity of how mental health issues impact on interpersonal relationships, is up for every one of us to decide.

Nickie is a British guy living abroad in Canada, with a history of changing girls, fights at night clubs and scars on his knuckles. Heartbeats, blurry flashbacks follow him throughout the film, building up an impression of a grieving guy with deep internal struggles. As the story progresses, we find out that Nickie’s brother has disappeared five years ago, leading to a deep hole in his family. Nickie’s fragmented relationship with his parents becomes apparent from the numerous monotonous conversations over the phone that persist throughout the movie.

Emily, a colourful, playful and mysterious artist, appears – accidently or not – in the right place at the right time to “save” Nickie. But it does not take long for their blazing love at first sight to turn into a rollercoaster of emotions. The tender scenes of love and intimacy soon grow up into something more than just being “high on love”. Emily goes through an excruciating manic episode which sees loud music, paint and colours followed by some of the most intense moments in the film.

Some months later Emily and Nickie start a journey in which shared moments of intimacy and laughter are accompanied with a taste of bitterness. They create a combustable ‘push-and-pull’ relationship, desperately needing each other but struggling to maintain a balance because of the accumulated problems with their families and themselves. Introduced as a violent guy, Nickie remains silent and passive in the second half of the film. Once finding expression through anger, his feelings of distance and helplessness become even more apparent through the contrast with Emily. On or off medication, she struggles to be in control of herself, even as she tries to cope with her emotions for the sake of their happiness.

The Other Half is not a story in which love wins against all the odds. It is a quiet drama that represents reality as it is, with no sugar-coating. Its main goal is to present a realistic depiction of what love can bring and take when it happens between people with similar internal issues. The end of the film remains open for the audience to fill in the gaps, yet still everyone knows that despite having each other, Nickie is not going to stop grieving and Emily is not going to get better. It made me ask myself whether finding your other half is all you need, when you do not know your other self.

by Katerina Gospodinova

Katerina is a final year PhD student in molecular psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh. She believes that art and science can work hand in hand to raise awareness and fight the preconceptions surrounding mental illness. Follow her on Twitter at @KaterinaGospodi.

In this Talking Heads podcast, reporter Michael McEwan interviews Thomas Mullin, who works in the integrated alcohol team at Back Sneddon Centre, and some of the filmmakers involved in Dykebar & Me, a service user directed short film which screened at St Matthew's in Paisley during this year's festival. They discuss the impact the film has been having in challenging stigma about the hospital and mental health in Renfrewshire, and the effect it has had on their own lives. 

Michael McEwan has a learning disability and is a motivational speaker who talks about challenge, stigma and his own experiences finding employment. He previously worked for the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disabilities (SCLD), presenting to organisations including the Scottish Government and the National Autistic Society. Find out more on his website.

Chico Pereira’s Donkeyote could be summarised in many ways: as an immersive exploration of mental and physical health, and their relationship with masculinity; a meditation on culture and ageing; or the simple story of the elderly protagonist Manolo and his hydrophobic donkey attempting to travel from southern Spain to the USA to complete the gruelling Trail of Tears.

Beautifully blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, this film is poised in places, and honest in others. A scene in which the wilful donkey Gorrión refuses to board a boat over the course of two days is so perfectly comical it must be staged, and yet, when Manolo clutches his chest and the filmmaker (his nephew) worriedly cries out “uncle!” from behind the camera, the viewer too fears for his health. Despite this fourth-wall-breaking interlude, the film is neither reflexive nor self-referential, but simple and elegant, much like Manolo.

In terms of plot, there is not a huge amount to describe. From the moment we first meet Manolo and Gorrión they walk continuously and purposefully – initially, simply to pass the time, and later, towards their goal: the cargo ship they hope will take them to the United States. Regardless, it doesn’t take long for the viewer to determine that for this pair the destination is rarely the priority.

Attempting to recreate his purposeful stride on a treadmill in a doctor’s office, Manolo becomes breathless, and is warned not to push himself. However, ignoring both mockery and concern from travel agents, doctors and family, the man and his donkey set off for America, walking through the desert, along busy highways, through post-industrial cityscapes, always towards the sea.

While they walk, Manolo cheerfully monologues – often seemingly for only Gorrión’s benefit – providing a soothing soundtrack, as tight shots intimately frame their faces. This breeds more than just familiarity. There is something familial about the way in which he interacts with the camera. At times, it is as though Manolo is our uncle too.

While the film does not explicitly state that Manolo has mental health problems, there is a sense throughout that his journey is the cure for some psychological ill. Often it seems that his constant trekking is remedying the feeling that he is out of step with the world he lives in, that his self-imposed isolation is treating the social isolation he experiences at home. This is a journey during which he tests his boundaries, proves his capabilities, and achieves something, even if it wasn’t his goal. It is meditative, medicinal even.

Donkeyote is not just a beautiful film, but a reflective and contemplative experience. The documentary is punctuated with silences during which I often paused to collect my own thoughts. In the evening scenes, as Manolo and Gorrión set up camp, and the hot Spanish sun and crunching boots give way to soft and silent silhouettes against desert sunsets, it is almost as though the film is reminding you to stop and breathe.

If you’re wonder how the journey will end, you’ve missed the point.

by Alice Smith

It is imperative people feel able to talk about their mental health and that they are supported to access help. But what happens when you ask for help? What does that help look like in our mental health system? 

The ‘Changing Lives’ series gives a platform to stories, which respond to these questions in the context of lives changed from mental ill health and lengthy inpatient care at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. 

Summerhall Café had a great turn out for the celebration of the third project, which includes a book, exhibition and film. The book pays respect to the memory of Ronnie Jack whose work and passion on the second book made the third possible. The project’s editor and development worker Katherine McMahon expressed how the themes of hope and solidarity illuminate this year’s publication, which is made up of prose, poetry, artwork, photography and transcribed interviews. 

Jo McFarlane’s readings to the audience touched upon the mixture of emotions people feel when being admitted to hospital and they emphasised the feeling of ‘relief in being taken seriously’. Their poem Illegitimi reveals that asking for help is not always well-received as the poem recounts being told: ‘Suicide isn’t a mental illness / You’re not a priority, none of our business.’ 

Once taken seriously, people with different backgrounds and experiences access help and care within an arguably one-size-fits-all medical model. The book showcases various reflections on this. Holly C. Behan in their piece My experience of Madness writes ‘a combination of crisis in Mental Health provision and understanding have life and death consequences’ and highlights that there is ‘a rigidity in the system unable to treat patients as individuals with very different needs.’ 

This is where the Patient’s Council has stepped in. This independent collective of patients and former patients of the hospital strives not simply to improve the mental health care system, but to challenge and transform it. 

The film produced by Peter E Ross is made up of interviews with former patients who have returned to living in the community. The contributors to the project do not shy away from sharing the unpalatable aspects of being in hospital, such as the monotony, the routines and the staff seeming to hold all knowledge and power. Yet, we do hear the positive aspects from having access to the grounds to the friendships made with other inpatients – often the only people who truly understand and relate to complex and chronic mental illness. 

The project also builds bridges between staff and service users by giving a platform to voices of mental health professionals and there is an insightful interview in the book with mental health nurse Merrick Pope. This feels especially optimistic when considering the potential of these conversations to influence the medical world to work more compassionately with people towards recovery and management of mental illness. The audience also heard a moving reading by peer worker Jodi, who works with the charity Penumbra, and they shared the positive outcomes which can be achieved through recognising ‘each person as an individual (not a diagnosis!)’ 

The ongoing success of the ‘Changing Lives’ project is testament to the necessity of these voices and stories in the fight for a mental health system which has the funding, capacity and holistic understanding to help individuals. Through the creative documenting of these stories, we are able to imagine the changes we want for the future whilst offering knowledge, hope and solidarity for the present. 

by Z Nugent


You can pick up a copy of the book Stories of Changing Lives 3 at Summerhall during Out of Sight, Out of Mind. The exhibition runs until Sun 29 Oct.