Films at Rendezvous with Madness touch a nerve and get to the heart
By Elizabeth Scott, Toronto freelance writer and editor
This year’s Rendezvous with Madness film festival is making its mark in Toronto once again. For 23 years, this outstanding Canadian event has communicated with heart the idea of madness and addictions through the art of film.
Last year my son, Byron, and I were honoured to take part in one of the discussion panels, after the motion picture Gabriel screened. The film looked at the experience of a young man, played by Rory Culkin, as he and his family were coming to grips with the impact of his mental illness on their relationships, with each other, extended family and friends.
Our family was in the audience that night, brother Ben, stepdad David, and Byron’s fiancé Eireann. With this year’s RWM in full swing, we were reminded of public perceptions and the barriers to understanding that exist. So we decided to sit down together and talk about how artistic events, like RWM, are working to increase general insight into the impact mental illness has, on families and in the culture.
Here are a few snippets from our conversation:
The start of the illness
Byron: Well, it was one of those weird things, when I was going through it. I was 16 and you don’t know who you are at that age anyway. So it’s kind of tricky to figure out whether your thoughts are the mental illness, or whether it’s just you figuring out who you are as a person. It started to get pretty bad when I was around 17, and I just found that the paranoia was to the point where I didn’t even want to go to school. Friendships were triggering me to feel unsafe, I guess.
Ben (older brother): Were we triggering you to feel unsafe too?
Byron: Yeah, I think so. But I don’t think it was anything that you guys were doing. I think it was just kind of the way my mind was.
Did Gabriel get it right?
Elizabeth: So, based on your experience, do you think the film Gabriel depicted things well?
Byron: Yeah, there were parts of it that I identified with, and could see that they had done a pretty good job of representing it. Like when he was in the diner, and certain sounds and gestures of people around him grew more intense. Like, he would just hear the fan overhead. I thought that was kind of well done …
The knife scene?
Elizabeth: What did you think of the scene where he had the knife, and was pretending like he was going to hurt himself, sort of fell to the ground?
Byron: As somebody who is not ‘out’ to 95% of the world – there’s only a few people who know that I had a serious mental illness and was in hospital for six months and had a diagnosis of schizophrenia – scenes like that seem to represent the common perception: ‘the guy with the knife.’
Byron: And it’s so different. I’m well now, so most people who know me don’t know about my mental illness. And I like that. Because of the way people think about it.
Elizabeth: The perception people have of people with schizophrenia is ‘the guy with the knife.’
Ben: I think why they made that scene was to make it a more dramatic movie.
Because I think the story, there wasn’t a lot of action and it’s not as entertaining. It’s more exciting to see something climactic happen.
Subtle perception issues
David (stepdad): Well, the thing that struck me most about the film, or at least my experience with Byron – it’s a lot subtler in real life than it was in the film – but it would be the problems with perception. Where you [Byron] perceive things in a different way. Like you perceive criticism faster. But then you come back to talk about the situation later. This was worse when I first met you eight years ago.
David: But you would get angrier a lot faster with your mom. And it would take 7 or 8 hours, then you would come back and have a long discussion with her and you would be fine. Now, you don’t get angry. But it’s those subtle perception issues that I noticed came across well in the film. Gabriel perceived something that wasn’t really there, a romance with a female friend. In real life, you never had a lot of those big delusional perceptions, just more misperceptions around a person’s ‘tone.’
Movie as entertainment
Byron: It’s kind of one of those paradoxes: How do you make a movie – because the movie has to have an audience – about mental illness and make it entertaining in some kind of way. It’s kind of a catch 22.
David: That’s true, but at least today we have movies like Gabriel. We saw Psycho yesterday, and the way the psychiatrist is portrayed is just so dated. Any movies from before 1985, maybe even 1995 are dated and so full of ignorance and stereotypes around mental illness.
Byron: Yeah, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We’ve come a long way. Even in Gabriel, he was portrayed as a human being. It wasn’t too stereotypical. So it’s nice to see that there’s been some progression.
David: And the main character is a member of the family. Whereas in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, everyone’s crazy and in a mental hospital. In Gabriel he is someone’s brother, son, grandson, and that’s true to life. You don’t live it alone; you go through it with your family. You’re a brother and a son, a grandson, and a nephew. You’re all of those things.
What about that knife?
Ben: But I still feel you can tell the story of mental illness without going to ‘the knife.’
Byron: I feel like there’s a lot of stories out there where you get to the hospital without the knife. The worst that I got to was Ben and I had a heated argument and I kicked the door.
Elizabeth: I think the films they’re making today intend to help people get a better understanding of what mental illness is.
Byron: They are a positive force. I think it’s really great that a film festival like this exists because obviously we need to make more progress and get people talking about it. And anything that gets people talking is not a bad thing.
The impact of family support
David: And a film festival is also an opportunity for a family to bring this up in a context where they are not so alone. We all went last year to watch you guys on the panel, to watch the movie. And it was like you’re talking about this, but you’re fine now. It’s nice to look back on this from this perspective.
Byron: At the same time it’s also a success of the family.
Elizabeth: As the ‘older brother’, what would you tell others?
Ben: Well, I mean, I never felt hopeless. I knew it was a big deal, and it wasn’t a usual thing to go through, but I always felt like everything was going to be okay.
Byron: That was good. It was nice that you had that. I remember once that you said everything was going to be alright, and in my mind I thought, “you don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Elizabeth: But it felt nice for you though to hear your brother say ‘everything’s going to be alright?’
Byron: Yeah, absolutely, cause I thought he was wrong. But he ended up being right. But it was just nice to have that support. I can’t imagine what it would have been like not to have those good voices in my life. Being like, you know what, there is a possibility to be, to get better. Because you guys believing in me, I think that has made me want to get better.
Elizabeth: So glad that helped.
Byron: Yeah, just tokens of familial love. Like even when I was in the hospital you guys would bring care packages. Just little things like that.