Film has always been a powerful and stirring medium for storytelling, especially around the theme of mental health. Here, we reflect on the power of film in creating conversation around stigma and the complexity of the human condition — through the films shown at the MedFest film festival, “Inside Outside” last April.
Wilson and WIT H IN drew out the taboo and difficulty around speaking out about struggles with our emotional state and mental health.
John Ogunmuyiwa’s Wilson captures the superficiality of our modern social exchanges, where “How are you?“ skims across the surface of the true state of our being. Wilson, the main character, is caught in one such exchange when the cracks in his composed exterior break down — revealing him trapped in the bleak forest of his mind. Little does he know that his seemingly put-together colleague walks a similar path.
In WIT H IN by Crowns & Owls, we see a man scramble on all fours, desperate, animalistic and primal, through a hostile landscape barren, with jagged rocks, sheer cliffs and fire — a volcano waiting to erupt. We sense his fear, his desperation, his struggle for survival. The suspense of what comes next is defused as we see him in a different room, smartly dressed.
“That’s how it feels…”,
he says to his psychiatrist — who responds with an empathetic nod.
Coincidentally, the main characters in both films were young black men.
With the festival panel, we discussed whether the films were positive and progressive — in encouraging and normalising help-seeking within this population, or whether it was problematic. Young black men are the most overrepresented within the mental health system and more likely to be sectioned under the mental health act. This raised the question of ethnocentricity and systemic bias within the NHS.
The varied cinematic techniques used across the films presented the opportunity to talk about film as a versatile medium of expression and storytelling. We talked about how filmmaking requires empathy — knowing your audience and your actors as well as how to honour and respect people’s identities and stories, while not being patronising.
In these two shorts we were taken on a journey across the spectrum of realism — with Wilson and WIT H IN set in live-action, but with increasing elements of fantasy.
When we arrived at Eggand Wood, we were thrust into a fully animated, surreal world — which perhaps sets the backdrop for the telling of narratives which may be quite far removed from the reality that most of us encounter.
Egg is told through black and white animation, stark geometric shapes and vivid imagery, a retelling of director Martina Scarpelli’s personal experience.
The soundtrack is intense and enveloping. It depicts a woman locked within a cube with an egg. She simultaneously admires and fears the egg. Her daily routine is lived out through routine and ritual, especially when it comes to her struggles with food, citing “doctor’s orders”. She eventually eats the egg and destroys it.
Wood, by Sean Sears and Tor Freeman is the eerie tale of a lonely dollmaker, passing his days in isolation, told through the disarmingly innocent visual feel of a fairy tale.
The doll-maker’s loneliness is magnified by the happy lives of those around him. He decides to make a doll in the likeness of a person, whose picture he keeps with him in a locket.
Initially, he lives in a fantasy world accompanied by the doll.
Things take a dark turn when the doll seems to take on agency of its own, becomes a giant, evil creature and eventually pursues the dollmaker through the city. The dollmaker is forced to confront it and ultimately kills the doll. The film closes with him cradling the lifeless body of the person he once held dearly.
These films offered the opportunity to think about the conscious and unconscious lenses and frames through which we viewed them. We wondered if the topic of race would have come up if Wilson and WIT H IN were shown separately, and not consecutively.
Similarly, we talked about “showing, not telling” and to what extent a narrated voiceover helped with conveying the story within the film. This was particularly pertinent in Egg, where the voiceover specifically mentioned anorexia. For some, this had the effect of breaking the intrigue and tension within the narrative.
Moving further inward, we took away different interpretations (and projections) from Wood, which was absent of any spoken word. These ranged from grief — and the confronting (and resolution) of grief, to thinking that the doll-maker might have been guilty of causing his loved one’s death. This was made especially interesting given that the makers of Wood had not intended it to be specifically about mental health.
Ultimately, seeing is believing.
For the past 10 years, MedFest has celebrated the power of film to move and inspire through bringing people together in conversation and reflection around themes related to mental health.
The film screening and panel discussion hosted by KCL PsychSoc was (and will be) one of many happening around London, the UK and the rest of the world.
If these themes have resonated with you in any way, don’t miss out on the chance to be part of upcoming MedFest screenings, especially the Keynote events at the IoPPN (3rd June 2019) and the RCPsych (5th June 2019) — where we will be joined by mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin MBE as well as some of the filmmakers themselves!
About the Festival Panel Chair: Dr Sotiris Posporelis, Neuropsychiatrist @Pospo Jonny Benjamin MBE @MrJonnyBenjamin: An award-winning mental health campaigner, film producer, vlogger and public speaker, bringing his powerful lived experience of mental illness to the fore. Dr Adnan Raja: Medical registrar and filmmaker @addyfilms, as well as committee member of MedFest. Psychiatrists and film enthusiasts Prof Carmine Pariante@ParianteSPILab and Dr Sally Marlow@drsallymarlow of @KingsIoPPN.
Image Credits: All obtained from the MedFest website.
header image: Graphic created by Mao Fong Lim