Mad in America International Film Festival: New perspectives on mental health

Mad in America hopes to open dialogue about the treatment of mental illness. Courtesy Laura Delano

The power of film, as many professional and part-time directors have no doubt discovered, lies in its ability to show us things in a new light — to take on a different perspective. Through the camera’s eye, we may find fresh meaning, strange emotions and perhaps new ways of moving forward.

Such is the hope for Mad in America’s International Film Festival this weekend, where people from all over the world will come together, joined by an interest in cinema and the examination of modern psychiatric care.

According to Laura Delano — a board member, editor and festival organizer at Mad in America, Inc. the main goal of the film festival is to explore and contest various aspects of the mental health system. Some of the works analyze the standard of care and the single-track approach to treatment and prescription medications — solutions that are often pushed without the mention of other options. Other films try to make sense of our understanding of what we call “mental illness” and discuss alternatives to hospitalization in times of crisis.

We really want to bring awareness to these issues and encourage people to question, get curious and open the dialogue,Delano said.

The festival, which officially begins at 5 p.m. this evening, includes, among other events, screenings of 30 films and conversations with 40 speakers arriving from eight countries around the world. Discussions, screenings and live events will continue throughout the weekend in Arlington’s Regent Theatre until Sunday night, when a dinner and award ceremony will conclude what Delano believes will be a very stimulating experience.

 Mad in America: An online community

What kind of company is hosting this four-day event of international scope? Though the size of the event may lead one to believe otherwise, Mad in America, according to Delano, is not a giant psychiatric company, but rather a grassroots organization based in Cambridge that aims to get people to rethink psychiatry and the mental health system. Operating primarily online, the group functions not only as a publishing company and a collaborator producing original film content, but also serves as a forum for those wishing to share their voice on related issues.

We see ourselves as a journalistic space,” Delano said. “Our website really is an online newspaper that gives a platform to a variety of different voices around this idea of rethinking psychiatry.

The company is small with only eight employees. Some are paid; others volunteer. Yet, with few employees, Mad in America has managed to capture widespread interest and readership. Delano explained that for the people involved in Mad in America, the site represents a community and a place where often silenced people can exchange ideas.

The main purpose of the website is to give voice to people who are so often stripped of a voice by society — people with personal experience of psychiatric diagnosis in a hospital, of being in the system,” Delano said. “It’s really important to us to highlight those voices.”

Having been a part of the mental health system herself, Delano understands the value of such a community and described the importance of being able to discuss other options and share one’s opinions. College-age people in particular can benefit from such conversations, Delano added. After all, whether one is a part of the system or not, she continued, it can be very hard to be in college.

“It’s really important to us to create this kind of space — for all people but definitely for young people — to feel like they can be surrounded by others in exploring emotional distress and all these very difficult experiences that we go through as human beings,” she said.

The sense of community among Mad in America writers and followers proved useful when preparing for the festival. Though Delano found many of the festival artists and filmmakers online and during the open submissions period, others were found simply by looking to the organization’s contact networks. Delano attributed this to the company’s growing prominence.

“It took a lot of work to put the list together, but I think as Mad in America has increasingly become more visible over the last few years, we definitely have built a really wonderful international network that we were able to tap into to build the festival lineup,” she said.

Artists and activists

For guests planning to spend all weekend at the festival, each day will bring a new theme and a new perspective on the psychiatry system. Friday films will focus on the history of psychiatry beginning from the “Thorazine Era,” while Saturday will explore ways of changing the paradigm for how we treat mental health challenges and investigate the experiences of people who have struggled with trauma and distress. Sunday, the final day of the festival, centers on alternative methods of treatment and features not only films but several speaker panels as well.

Friday’s program will also bring the first of two live performances — a feature showing of “Sick” (2011), a play by Elizabeth Kenny. This live solo performance written and acted by Kenny, a local artist, depicts the true story of her experience in the mental system.

It’s a powerful narrative of the harm that can happen even when people have the best intentions, and of how confusing and scary the experience of being in the mental health system can be,” Delano said. “The first time I saw it I remember so vividly sitting there and just having this very profound, visceral experience because I so deeply identified with her story.”

The second live performance features music by writer, actor, director and musician Dylan Tighe, coming all the way from Dublin, Ireland. Tighe will incorporate music from his debut album, “RECORD (Remix),” released earlier this year, with video and spoken word.

“It’s the creative process that he went through to make sense of his own experiences in the mental health system,” Delano said.

Delano added that tickets to both live performances, Kenny’s “Sick” and Tighe’s live music, can also be purchased separately from festival tickets.

Those interested in learning more about particular films also have the opportunity to meet several of the film directors. For example, Sera Davidow, an author, activist and filmmaker, will join the festival to present her two films, “Beyond the Medical Model” (2013) and “The Virtues of Non-Compliance” (2013), as well as to appear on one of the discussion panels.

According to Davidow, one of the advantages of film is that messages communicated onscreen reach people in ways that lectures cannot. She hopes that her first film, “Beyond the Medical Model” — screening Saturday — will help show how this inflexible system often causes more pain than good.

One of the things that that film talks about is that the medical model was in its history intended to be somewhat of an art form and a practice and not the rigid set of categories and things predicted based on those categories, and it’s really lost all of that,” Davidow said “I think people are largely ignorant of how people are hurt by being approached in that way.”

Her second film, “The Virtues of Non-Compliance,” to be screened on Sunday, poses another question to audience members that have struggled with their mental health in the past: Where would you be now if you had listened to what you were told about your future? According to Davidow, the Mad In America festival in particular is a valuable place for exploring these topics because it encourages participants to discuss other models of care.

What’s actually most different between this and some of the other film festivals and events that are out there is there’s a willingness to invite rather than just demonize other perspectives, whereas other film festivals on this topic would probably see what we’re doing as some sort of heresy,” she said.

Looking ahead

According to Delano, she and her fellow coworkers decided to move forward on creating the film festival — the organization’s first live event — about a year and a half ago, and since then she has led all organizational responsibilities. While the festival is unlikely to become an annual occurrence, Delano believes these types of real-life, non-virtual events will be an important part of Mad In America’s future prospects.

“It’s definitely safe to say we’ll be doing more events of this general nature in the future,” she said. “For the most part, our community is online and we do really love the idea of getting into real time, out into the community, putting together events that get people face to face.”

For now, Delano is anticipating about 250 guests, coming from all over the United States as well as from Europe and Canada, and is working to promote the festival online.

Davidow expects that the festival will lead to rich dialogue that will inform the public. In particular, she hopes that people dissatisfied with the psychiatric system will be comforted to find such a large group of people who are looking to find alternative solutions.

What I think Mad In America does for people is act as somewhat of a beacon, [showing] that there is a whole community of people who are saying those things,” Davidow said. “Knowing that there’s a possibility of some other way of thinking about things and understanding their life is a turning point for a lot of people, and that’s true even if they decide that the medical model approach is the right way.”


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