The annual arts fest features screenings of Ana Ana, The Crash Reel and Silver Linings Playbook
The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival is once again challenging stereotypes. Hannah McGill takes a closer look at this year’s programme which aims to make us view the world through different eyes
How’s your mental health? There is every chance you might have a lengthy answer to that question; and no less chance that you’d like to keep it to yourself. Mental health issues are vastly prevalent, but carry a stigma that can make them a good deal harder to talk about than even the ickiest of physical complaints. Not everyone wants to share their mental health history with the world, of course, but many will have experienced fallout from limited outside understanding – lost jobs, damaged relationships, legal and accommodation troubles – or felt powerless to help another. Can understanding be broadened without recourse to politically correct finger-wagging?
The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, now entering its eighth year, forcefully believes it can. The festival’s theme this year is power, a major consideration in the field of mental health as festival chair Isabella Goldie explains. ‘The absence of power can do much to erode mental health, and being disempowered reduces people’s life chances. Living in poverty, being unemployed, being in a job where you aren’t valued or have no control and generally not being heard is the experience for many people with mental health problems.’
Access to the arts, not just as audience members but as creators and participants, offers people an opportunity to express themselves and to develop sympathy for others. ‘The arts and power have a long history,’ says Goldie, ‘from the use of written work in order to share experiences when it is difficult to find a voice in another way, through to the use of song to protest and gather round a cause. This year’s festival explores the power that the arts has to shake us up and make us see the world differently.’
The programme features visual art, dance, photography, theatre, music and literature as well as an international programme of films. It visits venues the length and breadth of Scotland, making a particular effort to engage with local communities. The work chosen presents a diverse picture that challenges prevalent stereotypes: that hard work and personal virtue should overcome any disadvantage or that ‘madness’ is a compelling curiosity to be romanticised.
‘It's still far too common for filmmakers, and other artists, to take a lazy approach to mental illness,’ insists the festival’s film programmer, Richard Warden. ‘There's something inherently compelling about it – but that's all the more reason for the romantic / demonic dichotomy to be avoided. The reality is far more complex, and more interesting as a result.’
Films in the programme come from across the board of nationalities, styles and budgets, from the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook, Gillies MacKinnon’s stirring World War I drama Regeneration, and Stuart Murdoch’s musical take on recovery and creativity, God Help the Girl, to Lucy Walker’s documentary on life after brain injury, The Crash Reel, and local talent Garry Fraser’s uncompromising autobiographical examination of his escape from a life of poverty and drug abuse, Everybody’s Child. ‘We were looking for films that had something of an edge to them, work that did not “go quietly”,’ explains Warden. ‘This doesn't mean that everything we've selected takes a hard political stand. However, it's fair to say that all of the films challenge conventionality while also addressing mental health in some way.’
Readers are encouraged to explore the programme themselves to find what’s happening in their own region, whether it might be a movie, play or comedy show to slip into unseen, a participatory workshop at which to explore untapped creativity or learn a new skill, or even just an opportunity to sit and talk with others.
For Isabella Goldie, empowering people just to attend and feel part of the festival is a critical part of its ongoing project. ‘We need to work to break down the barriers to access, which is where there is such an important role for festivals like SMHAFF. When we reach out to communities that might not see the arts as being for them, this is where we know we are doing something really special.’
If ticket pricing tends to keep you or anyone you know away from arts events, it’s worth bearing in mind that many SMHAFF events are free (although some of these require booking in advance, so do check the programme). For Richard Warden, bravery is the most exciting common element in the work being shown. ‘I don't know that I could define precisely what a SMHAFF film is, but I do know that all of the work we've chosen shows people taking chances,’ he says. ‘We don't pretend we have all of the answers when it comes to mental health, and there aren't any official lines that the festival follows. It's about raising questions and awareness. We've often referred to the films that we screen as conversation starters.’ Your chance to listen and talk back starts on 1 October.
Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, various venues across Scotland, Wed 1–Sun 19 Oct.