Blake Backlash on the film strand of a festival that looks at power.
‘I’m not necessarily the most educated man but it seems to me that the person who has power often gets their own way.’ Power is the theme of this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. The person speaking about it – through an interpreter – is Mohammed, a film-maker who has survived torture. Someone has asked Mohammed how he feels about David Cameron’s promise to scrap the Human Rights Act.
Mohammed is speaking at a post-film discussion, after a showing of Beneath the Blindfold, a documentary that tries to capture the experiences and testimonies of four survivors of torture. If you write about films you spend a lot of time trying to find words to capture the impact a film had on you. When you see something as raw and real as Beneath the Blindfold, the only words that seem to count are telling other people to try and see it. Because the power the film has resides in the words of its subjects. In some ways the film is about the power of words. Those who have survived torture talk on camera about how painful and risky telling people about their experiences can be. But if it is done at a time and in way that they choose, it can help them become more powerful. Hector Aristizabal has built a one-man play out of his experiences of being tortured by the Colombian military. He performs it around the world and this seems to have allowed him to become more free of the traumatic experience, as well as allowing him to raise awareness of the existence and activities of The School of the Americas in Georgia, an institution that his torturers told him they attended. So the process of testifying does something for Hector and for the people who listen to him.
When people write about documentaries being cinematic, they are usually trying to say something about how visually and formally exciting they can be. But when someone needs to be heard, listening to them tell their own story becomes cinematic. It is cinema because you sit and listen and notice how what you are hearing moves you, even changes you. And when you experience that as part of a cinema audience, you feel the effect it is having on the people around you. You feel the kind of charge that might pass through a crowd listening to a speech at a demonstration. The subjects of the films in this festival are often struggling to change something about themselves or the world around them. A common question from audience members who see the films is ‘What is happening now, and what can we do to help?’
Sometimes it seems clear where the problem lies. Glasgow Girls is about a group of friends coming together to stop the detention and deportation of one of their classmates, and then to challenge the inequities of a system that allowed the detention to happen. At the post-film discussion the executive producer of the film called it ‘an underdog story’ and the emotional wallop that such stories deliver means everyone in the audience knew where their sympathy lay. We also got to hear from Amal Azzudin and Roza Salih, two of the classmates, who talked about the work they do now and the things they still want to change. They also talked about what they have studied – Human Rights & International Politics for Azzudin, Law and Politics for Salih. All of this is a reminder of the ways that challenging power and getting some of your own go hand-in-hand.
While the Glasgow Girls’ struggle continues, the film tells the story of a kind of victory. Mars Project presents a more unsettling version of the interplay between power, struggle and change. The film is about Khari Stewart, a Canadian hip-hop artist who believes he is being persecuted by a demon named Anachron. We hear a number of voices during the film. We hear Khari talk about his music and about Anachron. We hear his twin brother Addi and their mother talking about their experiences of living with Khari. And we hear from psychiatrists, sceptical about the efficacy of the kinds of treatment Khari has received. The film’s director, Jonathan Balazs, blends these voices and immerses us in complex arguments about the limitations of schizophrenia as a diagnosis, and the moral questions raised by trying to get someone to talk and think more like the way most of us do. Dr Gordon Warme’s voice suggests that if treatment is just a diagnosis and some drugs, if it forgoes listening and establishing a human connection with people, it will rob people of power and agency in a way that will leave them feeling more controlled or persecuted. For Dr Warme, this means the mental health care system is at risk of being oppressive or even racist – and so it needs to change.
Khari’s family want to respect Khari’s agency – and at the same time they want, maybe even need, him to be different. His mother and his twin brother talk to Khari within Khari’s own frame of reference. They don’t tell him he is delusional or talk about his illness; they talk about Anachron. But they do want him to change. Early on in the film Addi and Khari argue. Khari talks about being labelled, feeling controlled, about how people are trying to knock him off his chosen path. Addi tells Khari, ‘All I know is Anachron has fucked up your life to the point you have no place to live. There is something in your life you have to fix.’ Addi also talks about sleeping with a knife under his bed, while a brother he felt he didn’t know lived with him. Trying to let Khari find his own fix seems to have been a difficult and painful process.
Iboga Nights is also about people trying to find a fix that works for them. The film’s director David Graham Scott used ibogaine to come off methadone. For him ibogaine not only alleviated his withdrawal symptoms but made him experience visions and insights which he believes gave him perspectives on his own behavior, and helped him stay clean. He documented his own ibogaine treatment in a documentary called Detox or Die in 2004, and this led to him being contacted by other addicts who wanted to use the drug to kick heroin or methadone addictions.
At the post-film discussion Graham Scott spoke of how he initially thought that documenting other people’s experience of ibogaine would mean making a kind of ‘propaganda film’ that celebrated ibogaine as a kind of ‘magic bullet’. As the film progresses, we see him come to question that notion. He sees someone undergoing the treatment apparently have a seizure and then end up on life support. He remains a supporter of ibogaine treatment, though his experience has qualified his enthusiasm, and given him insight into who can safely use it and under what circumstances. Graham Scott also listens to the stories of the addicts he meets, so we in the audience listen too. All the stories are moving. Richard, a young man in his twenties, talks about the time he spent as one of the Queen’s footmen. ‘It seems like such a fall. My address used to be footmen’s floor, Buckingham Palace, now it’s Saint Mungo’s, King’s Cross,’ he says, while getting ready to inject a cocktail of crack and heroin into his groin.
We watch as Graham Scott looks after Sid, who is taking a course of ibogaine over five days, to overcome his own addiction. Graham Scott checks Sid’s heartbeat and blood pressure regularly; he helps Sid walk when he experiences ataxia, which makes co-ordination and walking difficult. And he listens to Sid. I was left with the impression that the things that made Graham Scott a worthy companion to Sid during that time were the same as his virtues as a documentary maker – his empathy and his willingness to listen to, and be with, those at the margins of society who are in pain.
One of the things this festival does best is provide a platform for people to tell their own stories. This happens through the films that are shown but it happens at the festival itself as well. The post-film discussions included contributions from people who had gone through what the subjects of the films had gone through. Now, that can be unsettling – it means the kinds of human connection Gordon Warme says are so important in mental health might happen right there in the cinema, and if you are used to a cinema-going experience where you don’t talk with anyone, that can be challenging.
And, if such connections occur, what happens next? Especially in the light of Mohammed’s point about how the people with power often get their own way? On Friday I wrote here (cheekily but sincerely) about the value of the connections one can make at a film festival. At the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, this seems to be about more than just an audience’s passion for film. People want to know how they can help. People who can help want to make themselves available to those who need help. People get in touch with organisations that might advocate on their behalf, that might help them get power.
And since the theme of the Festival is power, that might make you ask: what challenges to power might grow out of the festival?
If you want to find out the answer to that question for yourself, the Festival continues until the 19th of October.