Film Power: Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival 2014

Cinema welcomes you in; it invites you to walk in someone else's shoes, see the world from their point of view. Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival film programmer Richard Warden explains how he's utilised these qualities at this year's event

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 01 Oct 2014
  • Beneath the Blindfold

“Our festival was founded upon the belief that arts and film have the power to raise awareness of social injustice and to stimulate change,” writes Lee Knifton, director of The Scottish Mental Health Art and Film Festival (SMHAFF), in this year's programme. Power is the theme of this eighth edition, and, as festival chair Isabella Goldie notes, it’s an essential issue for mental health discussions. “Having the power to determine our destiny is absolutely vital for our mental health, while disempowerment erodes our sense of self,’ she says. ‘People adopt creative means to explore the complexities of these issues, from personal expressions of power through visual arts and film, to songs of protest and political theatre.”

Cinema’s power isn’t just limited to delivering a message or giving the disenfranchised a voice, however. The medium’s chief power, perhaps, is its ability to channel empathy. “David Puttnam put it this way,” explains SMHAFF’s film programmer Richard Warden: “‘Film is the most powerful medium for developing understanding that has ever been.’ That’s putting it rather boldly, but I do agree that film is an inherently engaging medium. You have sight and sound at work; you’ve got your brain thinking about things while your heart is potentially pounding; you have the opportunity with the right film to step into someone else's world.”

It’s this latter quality that gives a work like Beneath the Blindfold its own, devastating power. Ines Sommer and Kathy Berger’s documentary, which has its UK premiere at the festival, centres on four victims of torture from across the globe. We follow them as they try to rebuild their lives, careers and relationships, and see how their torment has left them feeling like they’re paralysed, unable to move on: “After I was let go I had nightmare after nightmare, fantasy after fantasy, of doing the worst things imaginable to my torturer,” Hector Arisitzábal, a political prisoner from Columbia, says in the film. “I came back, I worked, but I wasn't there.”

"Film is an inherently engaging medium. You have the opportunity with the right film to step into someone else's world” – Richard Warden

Iboga Nights and The Mars Project are concerned with different nightmares: for the former it’s drug addiction, in the latter it’s schizophrenia. But, refreshingly, both challenge the stigma surrounding their respective conditions, as well as the establishment’s attitude towards them. “They are films that question the way things are done normally through the medical system,” says Warden, “and that’s not to say that they have the right or wrong approach, but we’re willing to entertain those perspectives and to have conversations about them.”

In Iboga Nights, filmmaker and former methadone user David Graham Scott investigates a radical and risky treatment for opiate addiction: ibogaine. Derived from African shrub Tabernanthe iboga, it’s a hallucinogenic that many have found to be a miracle cure to get off drugs, Scott included. Iboga Nights is a kind of sequel to Detox or Die, Scott’s 2004 film in which he documents his own withdrawal from of methadone using ibogaine. In this new work he follows several individuals who find themselves similarly out of options and ready to try the treatment.

The Mars Project, meanwhile, follows Khari ‘Conspiracy’ Stewart, a hip-hop artist diagnosed with schizophrenia, who's chosen to channel the voices he hears in his head into his music, rather than try to suppress them. His approach to his condition chimes with legendary Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Lang's attitude to mental illness: “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough.”

This questioning of authority and preconceived wisdom won’t just be happening on screen. Almost all screenings at SMHAFF have some post film discussion to allow the audience to have their own voices heard. “We bring filmmakers and/or experts from the mental health area in question, as well as people who have had their own mental health challenges,” says Warden. “It’s really trying to raise awareness, raise issues and to start conversations that will go on long after people leave the cinema.”

Iboga Nights trailer

Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival runs 1-19 Oct at venues throughout Scotland