Thursday, October 10, 2013

Behind the Screen:
Hidden Pictures—The Underexposed World of Mental Health

Note: Moving Pictures is featuring the filmmakers from the November 1-3, 2013, CSWE 2013 Film Festival in Dallas, sharing the stories behind the making of their films. Coinciding with today's World Mental Health Day, filmmaker and physician Delaney Ruston explains below the background of her film Hidden Pictures: The Underexposed World of Mental Health, which seeks to show the treatment of mental illness across national boundaries.

Filmmaker-physician
Delaney Ruston
As a daughter of a man with schizophrenia and as a doctor working with the underserved, I experienced firsthand the painful consequences arising from the silence, frustration, and stigma surrounding mental illness in the United States. I documented my father’s story in the PBS film Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia.  In doing so, I personally experienced the power that film can have to spark conversations that can catalyze change.

Then one day I read something that shocked me. The World Health Organization reports that approximately 450 million people suffer from mental illness such as autism, depression, dementia, and many others. Why, I wondered, was this global situation never discussed? Why were there few books and not one documentary on this topic? Could global stories caught on film lead to improved understanding and less stigma locally and globally? The overwhelming number given by the WHO led me to decide it was worth a try. I made my way to India, South Africa, China, and France to seek out stories. Little did I know the obstacles I would face.

At several points I nearly abandoned this project because the stigma of mental illness has driven these stories underground. Imagine, for example, the challenge of getting an Indian family to participate when they did not even reveal the truth about their daughter’s schizophrenia within their own extended family. I was often filming alone, which posed challenges. In the end, however, this probably led people to open up more than had a crew been present.

Ultimately, those who did share their lives in Hidden Pictures opened my eyes in new ways. It was heartbreaking to hear about the immensity of the problem and the paucity of mental health care as well as the widespread disregard for human rights.

At the same time, witnessing the resilient spirits of these individuals and their families kept my hope alive.  Filming families and individuals who have become public advocates was the best part of my journey. Viewers will see a schoolteacher fostering incredible empathy in her students, and former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D–RI) and actress Glenn Close speaking frankly about their family struggles and their determination to fight stigma. In the end Hidden Pictures shows the universality of our shared experience and the power of our collective efforts to reduce suffering worldwide.

I firmly believe that documentary film is not “the answer” but rather “the beginning.” It is a tool to begin dialogue that is motivated from the thing most powerful of all—our emotions. It is only through emotions that we ever become motivated to learn more, change our attitudes, and take action.

It is my hope that the combined force of all the stories in this film will inspire viewers to share with others whatever they take away from Hidden Pictures. It is through this sharing that the cycle of silence will be stopped and that all of the heartbreaking hidden pictures of mental illness will be transformed into public portraits of awareness, acceptance and recovery.

Update, 1/7/2015: Free CSWE film study guide for Hidden Pictures now available.

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