What does it mean to be mentally ill? Mentally well? If a person feels debilitating rage and sadness faced with the realities of the world around them, does the problem lie with the person or with society? What exactly needs fixing?
These are some of the questions raised by Crooked Beauty, a 30-minute film that originated in San Francisco and has been translated and distributed internationally.
Filmmaker Ken Paul Rosenthal will screen Crooked Beauty tonight, along with other footage from his ongoing work exploring alternative ways of seeing mental health.The screening is part of the 10-year anniversary celebration of the Icarus Project, a network of support groups, discussion forums, writers and artists, challening the definition of mental health. In their own words, the Icarus Project "envisions a new culture and language that resonates with our actual experiences of 'mental illness' rather than trying to fit our lives into a conventional framework."
It was some of that new language, lines in a book Rosenthal found lying around his Mission Distrtict apartment one day, that first inspired Crooked Beauty.
"The world seemed to hit me so much harder and fill me so much fuller than anyone else I knew," the lines read. "Slanted sunlight could make me dizzy with its beauty and witnessing unkindness filled me with physical pain."
The book was Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness: A Reader and Roadmap of Bipolar Worlds, and the writer of the words was Jacks McNamara, one of the Icarus Project's founders.
The lines made sense to him. “They spoke so much to my experience of the world,” Rosenthal told me in an interview. “They create such a vivid image for me of relating to the world in a skewed way, as opposed to a very bright, shiny, clear way.”
He found that McNamara lived just across the Bay in Oakland “two days later I was sitting with them, talking and proposing this film.”
Rosenthal did several interviews with McNamara that he used for the film’s narrative. McNamara’s storytelling is unscripted and strikingly poetic. Images, all shot in San Francisco by Rosenthal, illustrate the story-- fog rolling in over hills, birds flocking on power lines and trees shaking in the wind as if trying to escape.
The film, Rosenthal said, is “About using [McNamara’s] crucial and critical narrative as a touchstone for the much broader issue of madness, which is not just a biochemical knot from the neck up. That madness is also a reflection of a social condition.”
As McNamara says in the film: “Saying that it is nothing but a biological brain disorder let’s everybody off the hook. Then you don’t have to look at oppression, and you don’t have to look at poverty and injustice and abuse and trauma, and makes it this situation where it’s just the individual versus his of her inevitable biological madness”
Through getting involved in the Icarus Project, Rosenpaul said, “I’ve been radicalized. But that’s not to say that I’m out on the street burning my bra. Or, you know, burning my prescription bottles.”
Instead, he makes films that explore the complexities of mental health beyond the persciption bottle, what he calls "that idea that wellness exists in a pill."
Rosenthal's current project, Mad Dance: A Mental Health Film Trilogy, will use archival footage from educational mental health films, which distance the viewer from the patients that need to be “fixed.”
Tonight, Rosenthal will present some of that footage along with Crooked Beauty.
"Mad Dance film screening and Icarus Project benefit"
Thu/27, 8-10pm, $5-10 suggested donation
Artists' Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
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