Student Life

Au Contraire Film Festival puts the focus on mental illness

Four days of international films that reflect the realities of stigmatization

The Au Contraire Film Festival (ACFF) received over 300 film submissions from around the world for its  fifth edition.  Among those, the festival’s jury selected the top 25 films to present in Montreal from Oct. 24 to 27. “We want films that entertain, that make people aware and that educate the audience. That’s the thread of how we select films,” said Philip Silverberg, the festival’s founder.

The ACFF is an initiative of Paradis Urbain, a charity created by  Silverberg and festival director Marcel Pinchevsky, along with a small team. “Our mission was to provide a stage for adults who live with persistent or chronic mental illness to rehabilitate,” Silverberg said. In an effort to expand the charity’s mission and raise money, the team developed the ACFF.

“It has now become an important event in the annual Montreal mental health continuum—the festival is there to destigmatize mental illness,” Silverberg said. The ACFF showcases international, thought-provoking films that explore mental health issues from different perspectives. “We want to screen films that will change people’s perception on mental illness,” Silverberg explained. “Our films actually reflect all the realities of stigmatization, the feelings of being afraid, ignored, devalued and rejected. The films we select demonstrate that mental illness is not a fault, it is not a weakness and it is not a lack of character.”

Stills from the opening film of the festival, Elizabeth Blue.

Over the past few years, the ACFF has acquired an international reputation. “We have attracted not only good films but the directors and producers who attend the festival,” Silverberg said.  On Oct. 26, the ACFF screened a documentaries series featuring short films under the patronage of Réseau Alternatif et Communautaire des Organismes (RACOR), an association that represents nearly 100 community and alternative organizations involved in the mental health of Montrealers. One of these films was 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, a documentary that showcases the life and mental illness of Ruth Litoff, the sister of the film’s director, Hope Litoff.

This years festival offered a workshop called Re-Animation Introductory Workshop which was developed, designed and delivered by Animation Therapy Ltd. Focusing on both mental and physical health as one, the workshop was delivered to interested attendees including the animation department at Concordia University, Up House and The Museum of fine arts Art Therapy department.

Unique to this year’s fifth edition of the festival, the ACFF focused one night on francophone films at an event called Soirée-Lumière. This screening put the spotlight on Quebec films, with all proceeds going towards the ACFF and Weekend Champêtres, an experimental camp program for those with persistent mental illness. Silverberg said he hopes Soirée-Lumière will become a main stay in the festival’s program.

According to Silverberg, the festival’s goal is to enlighten the audience’s perceptions of mental illness through participation and discussion. “Whoever attends our festival should be prepared to be amazed, to laugh, to cry and to learn,” he said.


Au Contraire Film Festival opens with comedic appeal

The film festival addresses the issue of mental illness through the visual medium

Stand-up comic Christophe Davidson gave a humorous and personal insight into his struggles with mental illness during his performance on the opening night of the Au Contraire Film Festival at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Oct. 25. The festival aims to change our view on mental illness.

Davidson said the first sign of his mental illness manifested itself as he was about to board a plane from Singapore to Cambodia, during a comedy tour in Southeast Asia.  He said he He said he thought that, rather than filling out the forms at security, he would do chi for about 45 minutes in front of the security guards.  He recognized his actions as a sign that he was unhinged, and returned home to seek the help he needed.  He joked that, after a year and a half in treatment, he still isn’t sure he is bipolar.  He refers to it as his, “bipolar bear,” since it can track him down from miles away come back into his life. “So right now it might be miles down the Arctic tundra and maybe it will find me again,” said Davidson.

A screening of the musical documentary Patient’s Rites immediately followed Davidson’s comedy routine. The film portrays the personal experience of Issa Ibrahim, its director. Ibrahim was involuntarily admitted for 20 years to Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, in New York, after being found innocent by reason of insanity for the murder of his mother.  This insightful and informative film offers an armchair view into Ibrahim’s world as he struggled with mental illness, and attests to the healing power of art as a form of therapy.  In the film, Ibrahim describes himself as “a psychiatric survivor.”

He wrote the lyrics and composed the music for the film. In the opening scene, Ibrahim sings a song that contains catchy but jarring lyrics, accompanied by guitar.  This song gives the audience insight into his state of mind.

Songs and monologues move the story along, while the images show Ibrahim using the various forms of art expression he learned while hospitalized, to help him to understand his illness and to his crime of killing his mother.  Ibrahim then embarks on the long process of taking control of his life.

Patient’s Rites concludes on a positive note with Ibrahim stating his determination to continue to create and use his art as a therapy for mental illness.

After the screening, an informative Q&A session with Davidson and Ibrahim took place with Dr. Karl Looper, chief of the department of psychiatry at the Jewish General Hospital, and Dr. Harvey Giesbrecht, a psychoanalyst, as moderators. A reception followed.

This opening gala was a benefit for the Donald Berman Up House, which provides support to people suffering from mental illness.


Stigmas tackled on the silver screen

The Au Contraire Film Festival aims to change negative representations of mental illness through more than 20 works

In film, mental illness has often been used as a scapegoat, or as an excuse for a character to act a certain way. There is a predictable pattern that emerges—characters living with mental illness are often isolated, dangerous or unpredictable. They are dependent on caregivers. These characters find themselves being defined by their illnesses and are at the mercy of their symptoms. This is especially true in the horror genre, where many “evil” or “bad” characters are crazed, deranged, or on the run from the psychiatric hospital.

The Au Contraire Film Festival, a film festival focusing on the theme of mental illness, seeks to change this negative representation of mental illness by challenging the usual narratives surrounding mental illness. From Oct. 25 to 28, over 20 works by filmmakers around the world will be presented at the fourth edition of the festival, which will take place at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Each film defies the conventional understanding and representation of mental illness, and instead offers edgy alternatives. Each work destroys stigmas of mental illness by reclaiming what it means to either be living with mental illness or know someone who is.

Philip Silverberg, the festival’s founder, thinks there are a few gems worth noting in the program. “Our free Youth Awareness Matinée for senior high school students is always a much awaited event, and this year we are featuring an interactive assembly, using short films, to combat stigma,” said Silverberg. “We are also excited by a new program called Animated Minds that features short films that, in some manner, involve animation in the production.”

The festival will open with a monologue by internationally-renowned comedian Christophe Davidson. Drawing on his own experiences with mental illness for the first time on a public platform, Davidson will talk openly about his own struggles, while incorporating a comedic element.

Silverberg considers this comedy routine, followed by the screening of a Patient’s Rites, to be one of the most powerful parts of the festival’s programming. Patient’s Rites is a musical documentary, and tells the story of a patient who spent nearly two decades in a psychiatric hospital after descending into psychosis.

This year, the festival will also feature a short film by a former Concordia student. Robby Reis, a Montreal-based filmmaker and founder of the Montreal film production company Natali Film, graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in film production from Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. Good Words, directed by Reis, is a short film that looks at what happens when the subject of mental health comes up in a job interview. The short film will be screened on Thursday, Oct. 27 at 2 p.m.

Since the festival’s inception, Silverberg has noticed a shift in how mental illness is portrayed. “At the local media level, there are increasingly more human interest stories that touch on the positive achievements of those who have mental illness. Although sensational headlines involving fanatic behaviour spike the stigma, on the whole there is a definite trend of acceptance,” Silverberg said.

The festival opens on Tuesday, Oct. 25 with Davidson’s monologue. Tickets for screenings are $10 and can be bought on the festival’s website. Tickets for the opening and closing ceremony days are also available online, although the prices differ.

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