In an age where there is so much digital connectivity, but also such disconnect between people on a personal level, it can be gratifying to discover a sense of community and the knowledge that we really are all in this together. The screening of Walk a Mile in My Shoes at the Glad Café in Glasgow’s Southside provided the story and the setting for just such discoveries.
The film presents an honest (at times brutally so) portrait of Chris Young as he embarks on a journey of 10,000 miles around the periphery of the UK, in an attempt to challenge mental health stigma. He draws attention to the isolation that results, often leaving those living with mental health problems on the ‘periphery’ of society. More than that, however, the film poses questions about our ability to trust and our capacity to see ourselves reflected in one another.
In 2008, following years of mental ill health, Young received the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a condition which even by the standard of ordinary common or garden mental health stigma seems to be particularly targeted for shame and misinformation. A quick internet search for the label and it’s not long before we are faced with words such as ‘attention seeking’ and ‘manipulative’ and the characterisation of those living with the condition as incapable of relationships and even dangerous. As Chris himself jokes with a passerby he meets on his travels: ‘If you watch CSI, I’m usually the one who did it’.
It was the news of his diagnosis and the often fearful and closed minded reactions he faced from others that propelled Young towards the desire to highlight the experiences of people living with mental health problems. His enthusiasm for simply walking and talking gave rise to the idea for the coastal trek in which he would rely on the kindness of strangers to provide him with food, shelter and companionship to sustain him.
Surprisingly, or perhaps it shouldn't be, those he encountered stepped up, by welcoming him into their homes and lives time and time again. Sharing food and warmth and at times their own stories and struggles. Young’s charisma, honesty and capacity to trust that there is good in others as long as we choose to give it space to shine through are perhaps what helps to attract those he meets and to make him a compelling presence both on screen and off.
The film, however, does not pull back from showing the difficulties and pain that Chris faces; we see with vivid clarity the reality of living with a condition which at times renders him incapable of putting one foot in front of the other, or communicating with the people and world around him. With a huge degree of honesty, he says, it was his desire to give a ‘3D view of BPD’ and the film achieves just that.
Walk a Mile in My Shoes is a film about a man living with the rigours of a challenging condition, a man with immense warmth and generosity of spirit, a rounded individual who is far more than just a label. It is a film which asks us to take a chance and trust in the inherent need for connection and potential for compassion that exists in all of us. When the task of breaking down the barriers between us – which allow stigma and exclusion to exist – seems so great, perhaps it would serve us well to remember that all we need to do is to start somewhere, connect with one another and talk. Maybe it really is possible to take on mental health stigma, one conversation at a time.
by Susan McKinstery
Also taking place at the Glad Café, Out of Harm sees young people use storytelling, film and photography to explore self-harm and the reasons for it, and takes place from 7-8pm on Wed 26 Oct. Click here for more information. For full film listings in Glasgow and Edinburgh, see our film flyer.
Ahead of the European Premiere of Touched with Fire at the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival, director Paul Dalio spoke with Theresa Moerman Ib about an intensely personal feature project.
In one of the first scenes of Touched with Fire, Carla, a poet with bipolar disorder played convincingly by Katie Holmes, reads from her latest collection to an awkwardly unenthused bookstore audience. One can't help but wonder if Paul Dalio incorporated his own personal experience of a similar situation into his debut feature. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder himself, and astonishingly open about his struggles with mental illness, I was half expecting the experience of making such a personal film to have been traumatic, but Dalio surprises me right off the bat with his positivity and the mostly encouraging responses he has had both to the film and his honesty.
"I’ve had screenings of the film all over the US with different mental health organisations, mental health festivals and medical schools. Across the board, it’s been astounding how universally resonant the film was with people who have bipolar. All of them say: 'Oh my God, that’s exactly what it’s like'. To me, the beautiful thing is also that the parents of these people can empathise with the parents of the characters. A lot of people expressed to me that they were able to have dialogues with their children that they were never able to have before."
HOW TO FEEL THROUGH SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN
The idea that the arts can encourage conversations about mental health within families and communities, that they can help people open up about their experiences and begin to break down stigma, are causes at the forefront of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, and Dalio is excited that the European premiere of Touched with Fire will take place on Monday at Glasgow Film Theatre followed by a second screening later in the week at Filmhouse in Edinburgh. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A in which Paul Dalio will be present via Skype directly from New York alongside local representatives from Bipolar Scotland.
"I’m so honoured to have my film play in this festival. To be screening the film in Europe is a big step in raising awareness about something that’s very misunderstood," he says. "Cinema has a power like no other to transport an audience member into the senses of the character in a very visceral way. There is such opportunity for film to change stigma because of its ability to have you feel through someone else’s skin."
Not all films about mental health get it right in Dalio's opinion, but it's not for lack of trying. His own driving force was the desire to do something different, to show life through a bipolar lens, so to speak. "Every film I’ve seen so far about bipolar naturally looks at the person from the outside, which is a little bit alienating, because the person making the film has no idea what it’s like to see through their eyes. So the stigma remains, because whatever they’re doing looks crazy from the outside.
"There are great examples of films that are moving to me, that capture things very powerfully from another person’s point of view. For example, Infinitely Polar Bear had a lot of charm. There are films that allow you to sympathize with the bipolar person but still don't show it in an authentic way. I was really happy about Silver Linings Playbook. While it didn’t capture what it’s really like, and you don’t really understand the person and what they’re feeling and going through completely, it did break down a lot of the stigma, because the filmmaker had such compassion for the characters. I think that was a great case because it was the filmmaker’s son that had bipolar, and that’s what inspired him. I could easily see the filmmaker had great tenderness and love for the subject, and Robert De Niro’s character almost reacted the way my father would look at me, with love but not quite understanding.
"Even with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, while it was alienating to look at a lot of these crazy people, it still made you think: who’s crazy and who’s not? Is society crazy? Or are these people really crazy? But even in the examples of films such as these that do it well, I’ve heard negative things in the bipolar community, because they miss certain stuff. I think that's because it really all comes down to the fact that having bipolar and gives you the opportunity to tell it from that perspective."
“FOR THE FIRST TIMe You UNDERSTAND ME”
One of the double payoffs of making the film for Paul Dalio has been that it worked both as a form of self-administered therapy, while allowing him to reach out to others at the same time. A woman from the International Bipolar Foundation said: 'I’m having the first connection I’ve had with my daughter in years'. And her daughter said: 'Mom, I think for the first time you understand me'. The mother finally gets it after seeing things through her daughter’s eyes, and the daughter can see herself through her mother’s eyes. So that was very important to me. The other thing was the doctors. I didn’t expect such a positive reception from the medical community. I was wondering whether they would think I was romanticising or that it was too controversial, but it was heartwarming, encouraging and optimistic to me that they actually took to this message and agreed that it should be approached differently in terms of how to describe bipolar as an illness."
With such a profound effect in the real world, I couldn't help asking if Dalio ever considered making a documentary about himself instead of drama with fictionalised characters. While he values and appreciates the documentary genre, he feels fiction has greater power to transport the viewer into the heart of a protagonist by speaking to their emotions rather than their intellect. "Also, I started as a screenwriter, which was my background even before my bipolar surfaced. So that was naturally the way for me to go. Documentary has its place and it’s important to have both; it’s just that narrative filmmaking is my passion."
Dalio is convinced that art and creativity has therapeutic value, and as someone who wrote, directed, edited and scored his own film, he has lived experience in many art forms as well. But rather than feeling overwhelmed by wearing so many different hats on one production, he loved how it allowed him to channel his bipolar experience through the medium of film. "It was very rewarding. I personally enjoy doing all that stuff myself just in general. I’ve always enjoyed different art forms. The exciting thing to me about film is that it’s so multidirectional, and you can enjoy doing these art forms in a synchronised way with a singular purpose, which is just fun and exciting to do. In this case, it wasn’t only exciting but it was meaningful, because I wanted to capture what it’s like through a bipolar’s senses. So to be able to control the editing and the music from the point of view of someone who’s been through it is extremely important."
WORKING WITH THE STARS
Although the key creative roles were played by Paul Dalio and his wife, who was both his cinematographer and one of the producers, the film wouldn't be what it is without the gripping performances of Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby. He credits his casting director Avy Kaufmann, known for her work on major productions such as The Sixth Sense, The Bourne Ultimatum and Life of Pi, with the daunting task of finding the perfect match for his lead roles, bipolar poets Carla and Marco who meet in a psychiatric hospital and fall in love only to end up questioning the consequences of their love for each other.
"They were both really committed and intense about how important it was to get the best performance. Because of that, it was fun working with them. A lot of the work was in the preparation before shooting the film. First they needed to understand their characters as separate from being bipolar, so they could just empathise with them on a human level, and get to know who these people were and what their paths were, what formed them.
“Once they had that, I needed to give them a full understanding of what it’s like to go manic, and what the depressive experience is like. I would immerse them in poetry by bipolar poets, and paintings by bipolar painters. I'd show them things that really expressed each of those states. Once they were able to understand who their characters were and could empathise with them, they could visualise and make the emotional leap to understanding how each of their characters would react to having bipolar suddenly strike their life.
“Most of the dialogue was scripted, but in cases where they were manic, for example in the hospital, I would encourage them to improvise. The interesting thing was that when I let them improvise, as long as they stuck to the script in between, the written lines in their acting would seem more spontaneous and lifelike, even if the unscripted scenes were cut out. Katie and Luke have extraordinary emotional range. Bipolar is the outer range of human emotion, so they made the imaginary leap to the brink of their emotions in a very real way."
Being able to work with high profile, experienced actors and old timers in the business, such as Avy Kaufmann, he attributes largely to his former mentor at NYU film school, Spike Lee, who also is executive producer on the film. "He’s a very independent spirit who does things his own way. He approaches his teaching that way too and encourages you to have your own voice. Interestingly, he does most of his teaching through questions. He asks probing questions that point to blind spots, things you should be looking at that you’re not looking at. He would give me feedback on the script and every stage of the process. He’s very hard, he has very high standards, but he was very supportive creatively, in putting the film together and by facilitating introductions to the right people. He was supportive while trying to allow my voice to lift off on its own."
THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS
The title Touched with Fire refers to a book on bipolar disorder and creativity written by Kay Redfield Jamison, an acclaimed psychologist with lived experience of bipolar herself. The book was a huge inspiration to Dalio and changed the way he thought about bipolar, seeing it as a gift rather than an illness, but he half regrets borrowing the title for his film. "The film was originally called Mania Days, but there was concern that the word 'mania' would resonate with people in the wrong way. So I was looking for another title that might be appropriate and Touched with Fire seemed to make sense.
While I was always moved by that title, my regret is that certain people have taken the film to be a thesis on bipolar disorder and creativity, suggesting that I made the film to prove the book’s thesis. That’s not the purpose of the film at all. The film is a love story about two people and how they relate to the book to find some meaning in what they have to live with. No one is saying that these two poets are geniuses or that they're exemplary evidence that bipolar and genius are connected."
But the myth dies hard. Especially with the protagonists in Touched with Fire being poets, it's hard to resist comparisons with the confessional crowd of the 1950s and 1960s that included Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, whose mental anguish fuelled much of their writing. Dalio doesn't disagree. "Poetry is an art form that at its best brings a lot of beauty to horrific situations, finds beauty within them, and I think that’s why, of all the art forms, bipolar people are drawn to poetry. It’s not just a means of expression, it’s a means of healing, a means of getting through it, and a way to bring some kind of meaning to this thing. That was my own experience with it," says Dalio who began honing his screenwriting skills before was diagnosed at the age of 24.
"I never did poetry or rap before I was bipolar, but the interesting thing is that, when you’re manic, you start speaking in rhymes constantly. Your mind makes these rapid sprawling connections between things and taps into these natural rhythms. When I came out of the hospital, it became an outlet. Rap is a darker, more aggressive form of poetry when you’re in the angst or torment of feeling cut off from society, when you're feeling alienated or pushed off into the shadows, feeling frustration and an anger towards God or fate for what has happened to you. You compete with people who are wearing pain and darkness as a badge and basking in the glory of it. The more crazy the rhymes you come up with, the more celebrated it is. Screenwriting is a form of artistic expression where you’re conveying sane stories to a sane audience, and suddenly that's no longer fulfilling your need for expression."
This element of Dalio's personal history comes to light in the film through Marco, who prefers to go by his poet's name Luna, a thinly veiled self-portrait of the director. "Rapping was a way of redeeming my own insanity, which is why I took the alias Luna, which is short for lunacy or lunatic. People really embraced me and held me up in that world. Then when I was coming out of the bipolar and forming connections to the world through my wife and other people, I naturally went into poetry as a way of self-healing."
While some artists may prefer not to make connections between their practice and their mental health struggles, Dalio has no qualms about admitting that the spoken word was a significant part of his healing process and his career development. A journey which came to a satisfying conclusion when he finished the film: "The poetry and the rap helped me to cope when I was lost in it. The making of the film was a deeper form of therapy in that it was the final point of closure with this struggle, this condition. I was finally able to overcome it and make sense of it in a way that I could leave the pain behind, and, more importantly, could help bring others, who were still going through the pain, out of it. That was the most profound form of healing I’ve ever experienced because it transcended myself."
Although he appears to have put his darkest days behind him, Dalio admits he will always carry the fire, especially in his work. He is currently developing a new script, and, although he is too superstitious to talk about it, he admits it is a story as bittersweet as Touched with Fire, albeit with a different subject matter. "I feel that it has been my way to leave all of this behind. Being bipolar will always inform who I am. I’ll always appreciate the role it plays in my life, and there will always be some flavour of that in my creative output, but this feels like something totally different.
“But I think I’ve developed a taste for the tragic ever since bipolar, and it’s not just that I want to look at tough stuff. When there’s positive and negative stuff happening at the same time it resonates as being real life. I used to write comedy, but, in a really positive way, going through bipolar you’re forced into the brightest and the darkest of moments. You’re forced to go through life situations where you have to give up a lot. Things that are good come with a great sacrifice. You really experience the good and bad, and you finally get life and the beauty of it in a way that you wouldn’t if you just lingered on the surface of things. Bittersweetness is essential to a bipolar film. The script I’m doing now has the same thing, so I think it’s something that has marked me for life."
Moving on to other themes in his work doesn't mean that Paul Dalio has given up on talking about mental health. He hopes his openness will encourage others in the entertainment industry to come out, because the media has a huge effect on social environments and how mental illness is viewed. "I think if any of us were afraid to be the first to dip our toe in the water, all of this would remain in the dark, and no one would want to work with someone bipolar in Hollywood, no one would want to come out about it, and everyone would have the worst assumptions about it, more movies would be made that convey it in a really alienating way, and the stigma would go on and on."
When asked if he is worried that his candour will have a negative impact on his career, he voices his concern that Hollywood is still full of stigma and that there is a real risk he may not get certain jobs because people are worried he'll "go off the rails". The benefits of speaking out in public about bipolar, however, far outweigh the potential downside. Dalio feels a strong responsibility, even an obligation, to combat stigma and try to instigate change, especially when people come up to him on the street and tell him how much his work means to them.
"To not be open about it, when I made a film about it, when I’m a living example of it, when I know I could potentially change people’s perceptions about it? I couldn’t do that. I feel like it would be a crime not to help change people’s perceptions. Number one: I’m not ashamed of it; I am genuinely proud of it. Number two: I’ve never been capable of being ashamed of my own DNA and being quiet about it. But the most important thing is that I knew how essential it was to be open about it. We’re at a turning point," he asserts and concludes: "It's been the biggest reward to my life to be open about it. I feel like there was finally something to come out of my life that had a real genuine and important purpose. It feels so fulfilling at the end of a journey that had such torment to find only satisfaction and strong closure with some really positive results."
by Theresa Moerman Ib
Bipolar Scotland will participate in both post-screening discussions.
In Motion Theatre Company’s first touring production Where the Crow Flies premiered on Tuesday 18 October, with a well-attended performance at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Talking Heads reporter Rachel Alexander reviewed this authentic and affecting piece of theatre, which is touring with SMHAFF until Thursday 3 November.
Commissioned by Sense over Sectarianism, in association with the Scottish Government, Where the Crow Flies was based on extensive research carried out with around fifteen women from a parenting group in Blackburn, West Lothian. Playwright Lisa Nicoll met with these women over a period of eight weeks, and, although the play is not about them, Nicoll and director Beth Morton are happy with the way in which the play has captured their essence. Following writing and development, Nicoll and Morton took the play back to the women in the community and sought their feedback, and the result of this collaborative means of working is an incredibly authentic and affecting piece of theatre.
Where the Crow Flies tells the story of young mother Carrie, whose husband has been jailed for a violent crime he claims not to have committed. As a result of this, she has been ostracised by the community in which she lives. But when new neighbour Emily moves in next door, the two women begin to form a connection, despite Emily’s own multifarious issues.
The stage is set up to show two homes, with most space devoted to the adjoining back gardens. This is where the two women were most often, on either side of the low wall that separated their gardens. Carrie’s side of the stage was messy and strewn with clothes and rubbish, reflecting her chaotic state of mind. Although Emily’s side initially looked more composed and collected, by the end of the play it was clear that it similarly reflected her mental state and there were a lot of feelings that she was avoiding dealing with.
At regular intervals throughout the play, the loud and discordant noise of crows cawing was heard. An audience member at the Q&A after the performance characterised these crows as ‘threatening observers’, something that Nicoll was quick to agree with. Morton too saw the crows as representative of the community and their repeated cries throughout the play were intended to stress that in this community you are never alone; there are always others watching and listening.
Graffiti was sprayed across the house at regular intervals: aggressive words and taunts such as ‘traitor’ and ‘phone sex slut’. In a similar fashion to the crows, this was an effective way to suggest the presence of a wider community in a play with just two actors. The graffiti also introduced the motif of attaching labels to people, something explored throughout the play. The way that the women responded to the labels they were given was really interesting, especially Carrie who tells Emily: ‘Ah’m just seen as scum.’
The Q&A session that followed the play involved writer Nicoll, director Morton, and actors Keira Lucchesi and Angela Darcy. Darcy spoke about how she had initially felt that it was unrealistic for women to make such close bonds so quickly, but, after speaking to the women in Blackburn, she realised that circumstances did often lead people to become very close, very quickly. It’s certainly true that necessity often forges connections, and in this play the two women really did need one another.
Nicoll encouraged the other women on the panel to speak about the character of Annabelle, and, without giving too much away, the ambiguity surrounding Emily’s wee girl is intended. Morton was very happy to deliberately leave an element of uncertainty there for the audience and allow them to reach their own conclusions about this particular element of the narrative.
The play did a superb job of exploring isolation and Nicoll talked a little at the end of the Q&A about the idea that living really close to other people, perhaps even only separated by a thin wall, we still often have no idea what other people are dealing with.
In Motion Theatre Company’s next production is a play called Caravan, and, if Where the Crow Flies is anything to go by, it will be one to watch out for.
by Rachel Alexander
Where the Crow Flies is touring with the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival until Thursday 3 November. Full listings and booking information below. Images by Mihaela Bodlovic.
Fri 21 Oct, 7.30–8.45pm
Eastwood Park Theatre, Rouken Glen Road, Giffnock G46 6UG
£13 | £11 | 0141 577 4970
Tue 25 Oct, 7.30–8.45pm
Bathgate Regal Theatre, 24 North Bridge Street, Bathgate EH48 4PS
£10 | 01506 630 085 | BATHGATEREGAL.CLOUDVENTURE.CO.UK
Wed 26 Oct, 7.30–8.45pm
Paisley Arts Centre, 15 New Street, Paisley PA1 1EZ
£10 | £6 | 0300 300 1210 | RENFREWSHIRELEISURE.COM
Wed 2 & Thu 3 Nov, 8–9.15pm
63 Trongate, Glasgow G1 5HB
£10 | £7.50 | 0141 552 4267 | TRON.CO.UK
There has been much discussion of the strong connection between music and dementia. Yet, I had never thought much further than the obvious ‘sing-along’. In attending Music & Dementia: Where Do We Go From Here?, I was witness to stirring, specialist practitioners sharing their work and showcasing best practice, heart-warming stories, live music and a challenge for those who were there. What was most beneficial was realising that music is so much more than something to listen to.
Dementia describes different brain disorders that trigger a loss of brain function. These conditions are traditionally progressive and ultimately severe. Symptoms of dementia include memory loss and confusion, as well as problems with speech and understanding. There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over a million by 2025. 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia.
My grandmother was diagnosed with the degenerative disease over three years ago. I watched as she quickly transformed from a bright, warm role model, to an aggressive and distant shell of her former self. She seemed to have seamlessly slipped away from us. In spite of this, one of my most treasured memories of my grandmother was a shared experience with music after her diagnosis.
Granny always held a passion for music, which I never quite understood when I was younger. I mean, she played an air guitar the wrong way round. However, her true passion came to light when the family treated her to see The Sound of Music. The audience quickly asked, ‘How do you solve a problem like my grandmother?’, as her bellowed singing matched that of the cast. There was something about music and the power it has to reach someone that seemed, on the surface, so far away.
This idea sharing session led by Dr Jane Bentley, who you cannot help but be enthused by, allowed the audience to explore this power, travelling through Singapore, where they use rhythmic music to overcome culture and language barriers; Japan, where they have a thirty piece orchestra made up of hospital patients with varying stages of dementia; and Korea, where they have a strong traditional culture that gets everybody involved in music. We discovered that, regardless of where we are in the world, music can be used as a method of communicating across cultures, languages and age.
Opening with a beautiful rendition of ‘Loch Lomond’, performed by Alison Green on the bassoon, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Reconnect Project, described by Anna Hainsworth, allowed the audience to take part in aspects of the sessions they run for those with dementia. We experienced first-hand the performed repertoire, improvised repertoire and group playing that they would use in their workshop sessions, using Harry Potter wand type chimes, the audience could accompany Alison as we communicated though body language, facial expression and music, a new language we may want to pay more attention to.
Andy Lowndes, then introduced us to Playlist for Life, an exceptional programme which looks at engaging those living with dementia with songs from their past. He presented a screening of the story of Harry and Margaret, who had not been able to communicate during visits due to Harry’s dementia. However, with help from Playlist for Life they were able to reconnect over songs that evoke memories from Harry’s life. There are few who wouldn’t have been affected by watching such a beautiful story unfold in front of us. Music was the setting and context that allowed this couple an opportunity to share, once again, with each other.
My granny has now been taken into full time care, and visits are hard on all the family. Nevertheless, Music & Dementia has allowed me to hope that I may still be able to have a meaningful way of communicating with her and continuing our relationship even with this illness. It has inspired me to seek out new ways to share with my granny. I may not know exactly why music has such an influence, or precisely how I should use this, but it is important to recognise that it does work and that it is a medium, a language, that friends, families and care professionals can and should make use of. I know that for me and for my Grandmother, it will not only be the hills that are alive with the sound of music.
by Jamie Goodwin
Music for Dementia was part of Music & Mental Health Day at Paisley Arts Centre. This open event saw networks and partnerships developed in East Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire across various private, public and third sector organisations. Playlist for Life were also involved in fundraising concert The Power of Music at Saint Luke's.
Written and directed by Scottish writer, photographer and filmmaker Kenneth Macpherson, the silent movie Borderline was pioneering for its time. In 1930, more than 80 years ago, Macpherson made a film that crossed boundaries which many found unspeakable, let alone acceptable to be recorded onto 35mm film. Talking Heads reporter Anne Austin gives her interpretation of the film, focusing on the challenges and rewards that come with deciphering its cinematic language.
As a first time silent moviegoer, I was intrigued and a little cynical to see if I could detect what this so-called ground breaking cinematography set out to achieve. However, I was already intrigued – and surprised – that a Scottish man at this time had been involved in writing and directing a film about an interracial extra-marital affair, lesbian lust, murder and injustice. I was sold! Off I popped to the Centre for Contemporary Arts to discover more.
The main setting for the film is a small boarding house on the Swiss border, home to the society of the 1930s’ less accepted individuals. But before we see this, the opening scene of a train hurtling through wild weeds may suggest panic, unstoppable carnage or perhaps a long journey. As I said, I am new to this type of cinema, so please bear with me.
The boarding house inhabitants include the joyously drunk Manageress, played by Macpherson’s wife, the writer Bryher (also known as Annie Winifred Ellerman) who was involved in funding the film. The intensity of the nameless character is loveable and contagious, which contrasts with the dour, still character of her lesbian lover, Astrid, played by Hilda Dolittle, billed as Helga Doorn and better known as the poet H.D.
We meet Astrid in her opening scene, she is clearly agitated and ferociously attempting to contact someone by telephone. In another room in the house Thorne, her husband, seems troubled with his mistress Adah. A close up of a picture falling off the wall and the smashing of an ornament certainly hint that my first impression of a train wreck is on the way. Adah and her husband Pete, and I struggle to write this word, are described in the film as American Negroes, making the affair no ordinary matter. The camera zooms into Adah’s emotional eyes and, so far, the cinematography is doing a splendid job. I have easily absorbed that the scorned wife Astrid is on the edge of turmoil, the mistress Adah looks a bit sheepish and dismayed and Thorne is stuck between love and the right thing to do. Well for 1930 anyway.
The boarding house owner bursts on to the screen with her over exaggerated dancing. Her wild movements shout out that she is merrily drunk without much of a care in the world and knows how to have a good time. Hence, perhaps, the liberal and very ahead of its time boarding house which accepted all. So far so good and I am enjoying this very different kind of cinema experience.
The wife and the mistress engage in dialogue and intertitles (words on screen, yes I had to look that up) show Astrid telling Adah that she must leave Thorne and go back to her man Pete. The camera shoots back and forth to the nameless boarding house owner who dances the day away with her glass half full, whilst a cheery looking chap plays the piano. Undoubtedly the contrasting of the carefree socialising and the melancholy of Adah leaving, to do the right thing, and Astrid’s sheer panic are captured. A smirk from Adah to Astrid suggests that she is in fact in no mood to leave Thorne.
Thorne is still not a happy chap. He stares intently to the floor at a knife sticking out from the floorboards amongst debris from whatever has been broken. An overhead shot of Thorne staring at the floor shows how hopeless he feels. Pete, the betrayed husband, has more complex emotions. His eyes are clearly sad but somewhat forgiving and very kind. Close ups of his relaxed hands confuse me, yet it is apparent that Pete is by far the most rational and calm character.
Throughout the film, the boarding house owner and her lover, who seems to be a barmaid, mostly appear happy until a bit of flirting by the former with various inhabitants puts a look of distaste on her girlfriend’s face.
The catalyst for change comes when Astrid dances in front of Thorne with a sharp knife. She cuts his face and hand and kisses the knife which in the hands of Thorne ends up killing her. Meanwhile, in the bar area, the mood joyous again with embellished dance moves and the literal over flowing of booze. The house owner, her barmaid girlfriend and Pete are having a fun time and the smiles from Pete say it all. Two lesbians and a black American man enjoying socialising together but injustice is not far away.
Thorne is acquitted of Astrid’s murder and the mayor orders Pete to be removed not only from the boarding house but from the town. The drink keeps flowing but the merriment and dancing stops. A hand shake between Thorne and Pete, prior to Pete leaving, again crosses the borderlines of the time as not only has the cheated husband forgiven his foe, but a black man and a white man shake hands on screen for a lengthy time.
As a novice to this type of entertainment, it was clear that the cinematography depicted each character’s personality without any ambiguity. However, in my eyes, it did little to guide the plot, in which there are many areas that still perplex me. For example, the artificial seagull and the deck of player cards, the cat fetching a goldfish from a glass jar full of water and a toddler trying to kick away an adult who was attempting to put his shoes on. I also remain confused about the frequent appearance of an elderly lady, who only becomes clear when intertitles reveal her thoughts on black people.
That said, the emotions and feelings of these startling characters are wonderfully portrayed and worth viewing for that in itself.
by Anne Austin
Borderline screened at the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival, with a live score from Rick Anthony and Duncan Marquiss of The Phantom Band. For full film listings, click here.