Talking Heads

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

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.

Neu! Reekie! put on a party in Dundee and it wasn't much like your traditional Saturday night out. It was real. An exploration of mental health, specifically in relation to anxiety. 

We begin with a short film about Picasso and a tip of the hat to the current referendum fallout in Catalonia. It’s safe to say that Neu! Reekie! seemed keen for another referendum in Scotland and for the vote to be a Yes this time! Fair enough! 

Introducing tonight's show, is Kevin Williamson, co-founder of Neu! Reekie! He describes what WH Auden called The Age of Anxiety in his famous long poem, and how we are living in similar times now. 

Next up is Jenni Fagan. The acclaimed novelist and poet is no stranger to anxiety – her work targets subjects like this head on. She reads her carefully chosen words with deft lilt, and it’s a pleasure to hear.

Then comes a film by Jenni, which is about the old Edinburgh District Hospital. Remarkably, Jenni was born there, and her poetic description of what life was like there grips us all. You get the feeling, on this occasion, that mental health has come a long way. 

The next performer is Darren McGarvey, or, as he is more commonly known, Loki. Loki's newly found sobriety is responsible, in part, for a new clarity of vision. His piece about the class divide in Glasgow is a call to arms, urging us to understand how the other half live. There's a sense that we are all in this together and how toxic pre-conceived notions of others can be. 

A pleasant interlude from guitarist Craig Lithgow follows. If this man were any more laid back, he'd be horizontal. At times, Craig makes the banality of existence something worth celebrating with simple stories, beautifully told. 

To finish, Kevin Williamson comes back to the stage to perform Tam o' Shanter by Robert Burns. His reading is hypnotic, spellbinding and enhanced by three demonic dancers. It’s a great end to a great evening. Neu! Reekie! have made everyone welcome. High spirits are found through delving into difficult subject matter. 

by David Lamond 

Having recovered, to a certain extent, from years of ill health, David is now studying at Fife College. David hopes to reclaim more of his identity by attending the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival and writing down his experiences.

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.

In this Talking Heads podcast, reporter Michael McEwan interviews some of the people involved in Making Our Mark, an inclusive event showcasing work from community arts projects in Renfrewshire, including Limelight Music and Dirty Feet Dance Company. 

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.