What it means to 'gather'

Jack MacLean reports from the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.

Now in its 16th year, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF) has long been a platform for artists to wrestle with the concept of mental health and to find and convey meaning through their own experiences. 

The festival, which ran 4-24 May, invited viewers to explore what it means to ‘gather’. Having attended several of these events, it is clear that the 2022 SMHAF not only brought together people and their experiences, but also brought the impact of social inequality to the forefront. 

One such event was the short film series ‘Who Cares?’, which explored the detrimental impact of racism, discrimination and financial insecurity upon mental health, and how these factors impact our ability to ‘gather’ support. 

I am good at Karate (Jess Dadds) offers a surreal look into the life of a young boy tormented by physical and verbal abuse from a demon made of tattered football shirts. It was hard not to feel the burden of the boy’s isolation and fear in the uncomfortable silence which was repeatedly broken by critical hallucinatory shrieks. The film clearly wrestles with the impact of intergenerational poverty on mental health and highlights mental illness as a collective, social issue. 

Similarly, A La Folie (Léa Luiz de Oliveira) examines the burden that is placed upon families when state provisions do not meet the needs of those living with mental illness. The documentary follows the daily life of the director’s brother and the loving yet overburdened mother who cares for him. At the event, de Oliveira highlighted the disempowerment her family has experienced within the mental health system in France and how this has ‘prevented [my] brother from growing up’. 

Uncle (Michelle Jones) delivered a moving recreation of the Director’s experience of losing her uncle, Kenneth Severin. Through retro video-game inspired visuals, Jones explores the confusion faced by her teenage self as she tries to make sense of his untimely death. The creative and light-hearted visual style starkly contrasts the subject and leads us to confront the harsh reality of a child attempting to come to terms with institutional racism. Her loving portrayal highlights the hardships faced by minority groups, as well as her family and community’s strength in coming together to fight for change. 

These films, along with Why Wouldn’t I Be? (Ella Greenwood), I’ll Call You in a Few (Carmen Sarieddine) and In Plain Sight – Part 1: In Erms of Clay (Heather E. Andrews) lovingly demonstrated the impact of social inequality on mental health across communities and beg us to ask the question(s) ‘who cares?’ and ‘who should care?’

Beyond film, Moving Minds brought together members from asylum-seeking and refugee communities to celebrate storytelling and community through photography, dance, music, poetry and beyond. In a wonderful display of solidarity and sisterhood, Maryhill Integration Network’s community members came together to perform poems from their booklet titled In Our Shoes which explored the delights, frustrations and dreams of their everyday lives through ‘bonds of sisterhood, despite their differences in language and culture’. The wonderful event brought light to the experiences of an often-underrepresented group and celebrated the power of community.  

The events of SMHAF beautifully and creatively beg us to question what it means to ‘gather’ and to challenge the systems which disempower and isolate marginalised and under-represented communities. Whether it be sharing stories , experiences or space with others, for the 2022 Mental Health Arts Festival ‘Gathering is something we do to make sense of our lives and experiences, and, explicitly or not, while creating art’.

- Reviewed by Jack MacLean, Assistant Psychologist at Gartnavel Royal Hospital, Glasgow.

Photo: Ingrid Mur

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