Friday, December 28, 2007

AIFF and Mental Health - A Summer in the Cage, Autism the Musical, Body/Antibody, Oil on Water

According to the National Institute for Mental Health

An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.1 When applied to the 2004 U.S. Census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, this figure translates to 57.7 million people.2.... In addition, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada for ages 15-44.3
Despite these statistics, we are, as a nation, dismally ignorant about the specifics of individual mental illnesses and the moral and ethical implications of how they work.

I didn't think I was going to write any more about this year's Anchorage International Film Festival, but I was able to borrow a few from the Festival office, and I just watched a powerful piece of movie making - A Summer in the Cage. It begins as a documentary about making a documentary about the basketball players at the Cage in Greenwich Village. But it turns into a film about one of the few white players, a guy named Sam, who takes over the director's life (and vice versa) and gets him to make the film about Sam, who is manic-depressive, also called bi-polar. It all worked for me - the photography, the story, the characters, the music, the lack of resolution. It had the magic.

And that got me to thinking. This was the fourth mental health themed movie that I saw through the AIFF. I guess if we aren't willing to talk about something, we leave it to the artists deal with it. And these films each did in totally different ways. The others were
Autism and the Cage were documentaries. For Autism, the movie making was low tech and succeeded because it didn't get in the way of the story. Cage was a very produced movie - it says "produced in association with the Sundance Channel - and it works well. The editor made good use of even the out of focus footage. Both delve deeply into the world of their mental health disorders to give us an intimate look at how the illness affects the individual and those around the individual. Each use the media of film to convey to outsiders what these conditions are like. Both films followed people with mental illnesses, not knowing where they would end up. Autism the Musical had more structure because it was focused on a musical being produced by a group of autistic kids. A Summer in the Cage was more or less a chance encounter that led the director, through curiosity and a growing sense of obligation (well, he told the story so that's what it looked like) to follow along for five years.

The two features were totally different. Oil on Water was ostensibly a feature film about the romance between an artistic young man and a beautiful model/writer. Only toward the end did it become the story of a schizophrenic. I left the theater with the sense that spreading the message about schizophrenia was the purpose of making the movie, and the interview with the producer Elle Matthews on the Writing Studio website seems to back that up.

On the other hand, Body/Antibody seems like a movie in which a character happens to be obsessive-compulsive. There's nothing preachy about the movie, this is not an 'educational movie,' it's just a good, dramatic comedy, that incidentally gives us a glimpse of what it means to be obsessive-compulsive. The director was at the showing and said he'd been fascinated by the disorder and had wanted one day to make a film that featured it. But it's the character who happens to have the disorder, not the disorder itself, that is the focus. However, the audience learns a lot about the disease. How, for example, can someone obsessed with cleanliness have sex? We find out. In addition to sex, it has that other essential ingredient of a successful 21st century movie - violence. Ultimately, I would expect that this movie will also serve as a greater vehicle for educating the world about mental health because it is basically entertainment whereas all the others are films about a mental health issue and they are troubling. This film could easily be released at the mall cineplex anywhere in the US and do well. The others will have a more difficult time getting that sort of audience. Autism, according to its website, will be shown on HBO and Cage was shown on the Sundance Channel.

For anyone who is teaching about mental health, I would highly recommend all but Oil on Water as excellent vehicles for getting the message across. They are real (including the language) and compelling and the basis for excellent discussion on the specific mental health issues they cover. Oil on Water has a more artsy look. I like artsy, but I had problems with the acting and pace in the beginning. It probably would be of interest to those with schizophrenia and their relatives and close friends.

Understanding about mental illness is critical in the United States and the rest of the world. In the US we have a basic story that says everyone is responsible for how his life turns out. Mental illness doesn't fit in that story. We'd rather believe that people are irresponsible, lazy, or evil when they don't behave appropriately. It's their own fault they don't succeed. What scientists are learning about mental health contradicts that story. One day there must be a showdown between our myths of autonomous man and the reality of mental health and illness.

These movies help show how powerfully, good movies can affect people's basic stories, by giving them an intimate window into the lives of people they otherwise would not know.

For earlier posts that touched on these movies see here and here for Oil on Water (I liked it better after seeing some other films), Autism the Movie and Body/Antibody are briefly mentioned in the first Oil link. Autism also has its own post. Body/Antibody should have had its own post, but I saw it late in the festival, so I hope I've done it justice in this post.


  1. I got many and this a subject we should talk. Mentally health is one's most needed part.
    Addiction Recovery Alaska

  2. This is a topic that we should discuss. Mentally health services should be improved.
    Social Media Marketing


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.