Honest and intimate depictions

The 'Lived experience shorts' at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, reviewed by Amelia Remmington.

Led by the Mental Health Foundation, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF) has been a diverse and successful event for 15 years. Although there is no shortage of creative, thought-provoking films presented at the festival, this year the short film series Lived Experience caught my attention. As a postgraduate student who has studied within the field of psychology for the past 6 years, I appreciated the sensitive, yet realistic, depictions of the difficulties and stigma associated with mental health.

The series began with My Own Personal Lebanon, in which Greek filmmaker Theo Panagopoulos explores his Lebanese heritage through difficult conversations with his mother about her past experiences of trauma and war. This short film depicts a young man searching for information about his heritage and forming his own self-identity.

Borderline Coffee depicts a young woman attempting to start her day with a trip to a coffee shop while fighting crippling anxiety. The film was based on star and writer Susanna Stahlman’s own experiences of borderline personality disorder, creatively representing her negative internal thoughts and feelings as Post-it notes. No matter how many times Susanna brushed away the Post-it notes, more replaced them, demonstrating the experience of intrusive thoughts in a visual way that many can relate to. An impressive feat to note is that this film only took 1½ days to film!

In Benny’s Best Birthday, filmmaker Benjamin Schuetze plays the leading role in a short film about his personal experiences of mental illness and recovery. In the film, Benny returns to his family home in the early days of mental health recovery. However, despite his family’s attempts to be supportive, the film highlights the feelings of isolation and struggles of recovery. As the film progresses, you witness Benny’s family grow impatient in bemusement at his slow progress in recovery. The film realistically depicts feelings of hopelessness, isolation, blame, and stigma as a result of mental illness. It shows the reality of recovery, demonstrating the challenges both Benny and his family faced as a result of mental illness.

In Fatboy, Dan Castro reveals some of the self-abusive thoughts he has experienced for years through an animated ‘self-portrait’. With this depiction of male body dysmorphia, this short film breaks down gender stereotypes within mental illness, challenging the concept that difficulties with body image are restricted to women. In Fatboy, a single animated character set on a plain, white background utters damaging and self-abusive words. Through revealing this once internal self-abuse, the film very effectively portrays the importance of self-kindness.

Common Language is an intimate insight into filmmaker Voila Chajkouskaya’s Belarusian family. In this short film Voila discusses difficult topics for the first time with her mother and father. Voila and her mother discuss the impact of her father’s alcoholism and try to learn how to better communicate taboo topics. This short film is a beautiful insight into a mother and daughter learning to open up about difficult topics.

The final film of this series is Wave Form, a short film which portrays filmmaker Daniel Tysdal’s experiences of mental illness in an entirely different way. In this film a female narrator talks about ‘[her] friend’s’ experience of mental health through poetry, comparing emotions to luma waveforms – graphical images showing the light levels of famous scenes from cinematic history. Wave Form describes the importance of watching and sharing films as a means of combating mental illness, and the luma waveforms are undeniably beautiful to watch.

The Zoom Q&A was a great addition to the Lived Experience series, allowing the filmmakers to discuss their personal experiences of mental illness and explain how these led to the production of their short film. Having been slightly confused as to the ‘point’ of some of the short films within the series, listening to the filmmakers themselves made me realise that there didn’t need to be a ‘point’. Instead, these films were honest and intimate depictions of each artist’s subjective experience of life, without the over-complication of special effects, huge film crews, and detailed storylines.

It is common for films about mental health to glorify mental illness – this was far from true in the ‘Lived Experience’ series. These films are a deeply personal insight into real people’s experiences of mental illness, and do an outstanding job of raising mental health awareness, reducing stigma, and sharing lived experiences.

- Reviewed by Amelia Remmington, Developmental Psychology and Psychopathology MSc Student, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, Kin​g’s College London

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