As the lights come up after Kauwboy (Little Bird), opening film for the Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival, the audience is so moved, it’s hard to talk. Little Bird is an internationally acclaimed Dutch film that tells of Jojo, a young boy living with his father who appears alternately preoccupied and rough, while talking occasionally to his mother by phone. Full of both pain and exuberant young-boy energy, Jojo finds and nurtures a baby jackdaw. He quickly adopts the bird, but knows his father will disapprove, so tries to keep this and other initiatives secret. As the father discovers Jojo’s feelings and initiatives, tensions mount and are heightened by a painful revelation and unexpected events. The film’s impact is visceral.
Rendezvous With Madness continues until November 19, and is a remarkable opportunity to see both current and historic films relating to mental illness. Many screenings include panel discussions by artists and mental health professionals. I posted my last blog review a week earlier than planned so that I could comment on Rendezvous With Madness while the festival is ongoing.
After Little Bird, Kate Lushington, former Artistic Director at the Nightwood Theatre moderated discussion and Dr. Joanna Henderson, psychologist and clinician scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), provided a mental health perspective. Dr. Henderson affirmed that Little Bird accurately depicted a child in a difficult situation. Ms. Lushington asked who in the film was mentally ill. Dr. Henderson said that she would not use that language in relation to the characters. She mentioned the father’s alcohol abuse as well portrayed, the boy’s struggle to cope, and his varied coping strategies. The moderator pursued audience questions and reactions. Dr. Henderson later mentioned Jojo’s taking on certain responsibilities as indication of his being “parentified” and thus likely in need of help.
After the film’s enormous vitality, this discussion felt quite flat.
Workman Arts Executive Director Lisa Brown commented during her opening remarks that Rendezvous With Madness aims to make mental illness normal. When this happens, “We’ll then have talk about mental wellness, but there will not be much drama in that.” In fact, the flat discussion that followed Little Bird suggests just the opposite. The festival’s purposes seemed to obligate moderator, discussant, and audience to comment on Little Bird in terms of mental illness, even though, as Dr. Henderson tactfully implied, reducing complex struggles to psychiatric diagnoses is unhelpful. Focusing on mental illness invites placing the film’s characters in static categories. It’s boring. The vitality of the film lies in dynamic interplay of the characters’ pain, responses to pain, expressions to one another, and, ultimately, efforts towards wellness. To be vital, a discussion needs to be free to match the film’s scope and complexity.
Had festival purposes invited talk of wellness, recovery, and healing, Little Bird could easily have sparked discussion on human resilience in the face of adversity, loss, and trauma, and on the qualities, e.g., internal locus of control, self-confidence, that enable resilience. Discussion might have considered how time in nature, connections to animals, and caring relationships contribute to well being and healing, and might have considered how healing always occurs in relationship. Such discussion might have led to a recognition that the lives of film’s characters changed for the better without mental health intervention, thus implying that healing is best understood as a power residing within individuals, families, and communities rather than a force deployed by doctors or other mental health professionals.
A scan of the Rendezvous With Madness program suggests that the festival is very much about wellness, recovery, and healing, as many of the scheduled films promise insight into these matters. If the festival invited talk about wellness, recovery and healing, discussions might become as passionate and vital as the films themselves.
Production: 20th Annual Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival, November 9-17, 2012, Toronto; Little Bird screens again at 11:00 on Saturday, November 17.