Filmmaker Sheds Light on Mental Illness

From Huffington Filmmaker Sheds Light on Mental Illness
by Gregory G. Allen
Adversity and Diversity author
There is a new film hitting the film festivals with a very heavy subject. French filmmaker Jonathan Bucari has written and directed a short film about mental illness and the effects it has on a family. There are many families across American (and the world) that silently deal with this daily and after viewing “Illness”, I knew I wanted to speak to Jonathan.

Gregory G. Allen: Having seen a screening of your film, Jonathan, I can attest firsthand how powerful it is in depicting the lives of this one family. What drew you to this story?
Jonathan Bucari: The topic of mental illness has been on my mind for many years. I grew up with a sister who has Downs Syndrome and when she was little she lived in an institution. She was living with children with all kinds of different backgrounds and emotional and mental disabilities. I recall visiting her and meeting kids with a variety of mental disorders. On one of my visits when I was about 7 years old I saw a very young boy having an “episode” and I was very shocked. I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t understand and nobody explained it to me. After 20 years, I can still remember that scene, which was the initial inspiration for the story of “illness.”

When I came to the United States, I was struck by the fact mental illness was often associated with violence and mass shootings, reinforcing an assumption that people with mental illness were dangerous to society. In fact, people who suffer from mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators and, of course, discussions like these only reinforce the awful stigma that surrounds mental illness.
Allen: I grew up as a foster family and recall one child having some major emotional breakdowns. At the time, we weren’t sure if mental illness was to blame or not as he came and left our lives so quickly. You capture that so adeptly in your film. How was it to work with the young children in your film on this mature topic?

Bucari: I thought at first that working with such a young cast would be difficult, but working with Noah Silverman and Julian Murdoch was a real pleasure. Both of them have real maturity for their age and seemed to understand the topic well for boys their age. I was actually very honored to work with Noah, who plays Timothy. One of Noah’s older brothers suffers from Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety and Depression, so the topic was really important to him. Not only did Noah want to make sure the film was accurate, but he also wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t portray Timothy as a bad person or a monster.

Finding Timothy’s little brother was more complex. I had worked with Julian before so I was confident in his acting capability, but I was a bit worried about the maturity of the material. Julian is extraordinarily mature for his age and his family has been extremely supportive of the film. They are also very interested in raising awareness of mental illness.

It really was a pleasure working with all of the young people in the cast. We made sure that everyone felt very safe and comfortable. The first time the cast met, everyone seemed to bond and become a real family instantly. Cheryl Allison, who played the mom in the film, really went out of her way to connect with the boys to make sure that they felt at ease. We were also very lucky to have Renae Baker on the team, who is a great child acting coach. It was a pleasure working with all of them.
Bucari: When I was writing the story I needed a catalyst, something dramatic enough to raise awareness of the reality of children’s mental health issues and to raise an important question: what could happen if a child has a mental illness that is left untreated? Even though the shooting is barely mentioned in the film, it was important to me to connect the story of this family to what is happening in the real world. Every mother can relate to our mother in the film, especially when she learns about the shooting. What happened in Newtown was a tragedy beyond words, but it seemed to be the first time that people started discussing mental illness in a way that acknowledged that the underlying problem is lack of treatment. One out of every five kids suffers from a mental health disorder at any given time.
Allen: Those are amazing numbers. I had no idea. People usually fear what they don’t know – and I’m sure many people do not understand what happens behind closed doors in the families of someone with mental illness. Were you at all concerned about the light your film shines on this illness?

Bucari: Mental illness seems to be treated like cancer was 20 years ago. Everyone is afraid of the word and no one fully understands how it is affecting us. Some parents just don’t want to label their kids and many other are just afraid and blame themselves. They live in shame that the society will never accept them and don’t know where to turn for help.

Allen: I know you share several facts in the teaser for the film, but have you talked to many families that live this life either before writing it or since screening it?
Bucari: We were very fortunate and honored to have Randi Silverman as our associate producer. She is a cancer survivor and a parent of a bipolar child. I met her after writing the first draft of the story and she was blown away by how realistic and powerful the script was. I didn’t realize until I spoke with her about her personal experiences just how close to reality I was. She helped make sure that the script was as realistic as possible and spent a great deal of time talking with us about what it really is like to raise a child with a serious mental health disorder.

My story became her story. Our goal was to make sure that the character with a mental illness was not portrayed as a monster or a sociopath, which is what we have seen before on films. We wanted to tell a story of a wonderful, smart kid who is struggling everyday day with an illness so terrible that no words can describe it.

What makes our film special is the fact that in real life Noah was the little brother in my story. Now he is playing the part of the older brother suffering with the illness.
Allen: The story surrounding the film seems just as powerful that so many involved had a stake in it. What is your hope for the film? What do you want people to take away from it?

Bucari: Our hope for the film is to share it with as many people as we can and screen it wherever we can.

One of the next steps for the film is to wait and see where the world premiere is going to be and which Festival will be the first. We already submitted to more than 35 festivals all over the world.

After a year or so of promoting it through Film Festivals, we would like to give the film a Second Life by using it to promote awareness of children and adolescent mental health issues and to fight the stigma associated with mental illness. Ultimately, our main goal is to help families get help for their kids and restore hope for them.

Allen: Where can people find more information about it?

Bucari: You can find information about the movie on IMDb and of course on our Facebook page.

Allen: Thank you for not only bringing this topic into focus, but spending time to discuss it with me today. I do believe the more people that discuss a topic (whatever that may be), the less fear people will have about it.

Official trailer of Illness available via IMDb.

The Rite

The Rite is notable in its portrayal of a teenage girl whom seasoned exorcist Fr. Lucas describes as demonically possessed, but whom doubting seminarian Michael Kovack sees as a “sick girl” who “needs medication” when, having expressed doubt about the whole concept of demonic possession in the exorcists’ class he is taking in Rome, he is referred to Fr. Lucas by his instructor at the Vatican training course for future exorcists, and invited to observe this particular exorcism.

During the course of the class, Kovack had expressed “reasonable doubt” that persons thought to be possessed, having been described by the instructor as “having periods of lucidity” and reletive normal behavior, could be suffering mental illness, because “paranoid schizophrenics have periods of lucidity, too”.

While taking the course, Kovack meets a female reporter who is also following the course as a means of gathering background information on the subject of Church policy and belief on the subject of demonic possession, and what motivates and drives a man who becomes a priest-exorcist in this day and age. To that end, she follows him as he participates in the course, and his involvement with an individual exorcism and his relationship with Fr. Lucas grows. She has a personal interest in the question of whether certain individuals are “possessed” or “mentally ill”, and how to tell one from the other, because, as she later reveals to Kovack, she has a brother who had been diagnosed as mentally ill who now lives in an institution.

Kovack discovered that the girl was a victim/survivor of incest (her father is responsible for her pregnancy, the reason she is not taking medication) and the girl, impregnated under circumstances, he presumed “clearly didn’t want her baby”, leading to his speculation that with the purpose of harming the fetus inside her, she had swallowed the large, old-fashioned nails she is seen to cough up following the exorcism. However, unlike most mentally ill persons who engage in self-harm, it is made clear that she knows things about Kovack that she could only have gained knowledge of telepathically, which initially seems lost on Kovack, though she refers to specific items and incidents in his life which she could not have possibly known about upon meeting him for the first time and having no knowledge of his background.

When they discuss her case after the exorcism session, Fr. Lucas acknowledges that mental illness may well be part of the picture, but although he claims that he _is_ (also) a doctor (details are not given, nor is his status as such verified in the picture), he refrains from characterizing mental illness as her primary diagnosis or as an alternate explanation for her symptoms, which in his role as a Catholic priest, he characterizes as typical of demonic possession, a separate and distinct phenomena in its own right.

When the girl gets worse instead of better, she is taken to a hospital (presumably a conventional hospital, rather than a “State Hospital”) where she is characterized as mentally ill, and thus given medication and put in 4-point restraints. (Whether the old enameled iron bedstead and cavernous Renaissance-looking building, coupled with modern patient-monitoring equipment is a realistic portrayal of a hospital in Rome, is another story.)

Four-point restraints, as depicted in The Rite.

In yet another mystery that keeps the element of reasonable doubt in her case, she nevertheless manages to suffer sudden “massive internal hemorrhaging” causing both herself and the baby to die, though she had remained physically chained to the hospital bed.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic of American cinema, and Jack Nicholson’s most well-remembered cinematic role. The movie was based on an earlier theatrical production, and upon the the Ken Kesey novel of the same name, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which had been loosely based upon his experiences working as a janitor or orderly in a VA mental hospital in California, where he also volunteered for LSD experiments.
A lesser-known fact is that having been released in 1975, as a cinematic retelling of a story set some 10-20 years earlier, it is an extremely realistic portrayal of what State mental institutions were like until fairly recently, insofar as how the facilities were set up and what the available treatments were.
Nurse Ratched is easily vilified and has become synonymous with representatives of institutionalized cruelty in our age, and McMurphy observes that she likes to “play with a rigged deck”. However, though some of her policies are merely protective of institutional inertia (what can putting the World Series game on the ward’s television hurt?), certain of her actions are an attempt to impose order upon chaos and good habits upon pathology; in many cases, she engaged in such restrictive measures as withholding other patients’ cigarettes in an effort to stem the negative influence upon the other patients on the part of McMurphy, who had started gambling with the other patients and had won much of their existing supply of money and cigarettes. Though the patients possess wishful thinking of winning these items back, if enabled to gamble some more, Ratched holds out no such hopes and is immune to McMurphy’s charisma. She thinks the regimen of the institution, if strictly adhered to, can at least partially “fix” McMurphy and the other patients, but McMurphy’s fellow inmates welcome the excitement and fun McMurphy’s stunts bring into their drab world. In an interview with Dr. Spivey, the chief psychiatrist, Randall Patrick McMurphy admits that the reason he got sent to prison, and subsequently to the mental institution was, “as near as I can figure out, it’s ’cause I, uh, fight and fuck too much”. This movie is as much about the way society deals with such a nonconformist as much as it is about the personal conduct of such an individual himself; as the behind-the-scenes deliberations of the doctors and Nurse Ratched are shown and the workings of the various bureaucracies dealing with McMurphy are put before the audience. The treatment team make the fateful decision to “keep him (McMurphy) on the ward”, rather than exercising the other options available to them of sending McMurphy to another ward with more “disturbed” patients, or, as the head of the hospital wanted, sending him back to the prison work farm, on the grounds that McMurphy wasn’t technically mentally ill, and that therefore he could well be returned to the penal system, rather than remain in the mental health system.

Though the medical and psychiatric knowledge of the time had decided that McMurphy was “not crazy, but he is dangerous”, modern-day audiences view this picture with a different perspective than people did when it was released in the 1970s. These days, folks are likely to ask, upon seeing McMurphy’s provoking manner, if perhaps, he “has ADD”, which, back then, was not considered possible in an adult. Some speculate that he might have been a sociopath. Modern audiences also express shock at what was then a common procedure, and, during the time period referenced by the original book upon which the movie is based, the only game in town, electroshock therapy without anesthesia, which is now banned in the US, being widely considered barbaric and cruel.
At one point when a melee erupts in the ward, and McMurphy and the Chief are among those taken away immediately to get electroshock treatment, ostensibly to calm their agitated, violent states, but actually because it is the prevailing punishment this particular bureaucracy can dispense. While McMurphy and the Chief are sitting on a bench outside the electroshock room, waiting their turn, McMurphy does the chief the small kindness of offering him a stick of gum. Chief thanks McMurphy for the gum, and with surprise, McMurphy notes that the Chief “can talk” and is thus not “deaf and dumb” as he had previously been described by others in the ward. (Chief actually came off more as a catatonic to me). The Chief warns McMurphy about people “working on him” by telling him the tragic story of his own bedevilled and alcoholic father. Nevertheless, McMurphy continues his antics and continues to get himself and others into escalating amounts of trouble.
Though the predominant disability portrayed in this movie is mental illness in various forms and degrees, both by actors and by authentic patients who had roles as “extras”, there is the occasional wheelchair user shown at various times and places in the hospital, and it is not uncommon to see stray manual wheelchairs left unattended, and easily commandeered by the able-bodied. Though the hospital was built well before the ADA became law, and is probably not designed with wheelchair accessibility in mind, the patients’ swimming pool has a concrete ramp on which an older male patient in a wheelchair is gently rolled into the pool, wheelchair and all.
There were no shortage of “acquired disabilties” in the mental institutions of the time: in the past, when electroshock was the predominant form of treatment, and was given in much the same way in real life as it was to Jack Nicholson, it was tacitly acknowledged that some brain damage was part of the deal.
Lobotomies were a common form of treatment in mental institutions in the past, and while dramatic loss of intelligence and personality was not always the direct result of lobotomization, in this movie, an individual who has had a lobotomy is portrayed as a drooling, incontinent zombie, and McMurphy is shown as passive and silent, and no longer “him”, following his lobotomy.


Vincere purports to be a dramatic retelling of Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy through a more personal perspective than most. 

Here, we see Mussolini as a young man and aspiring politician who actually has hair and had not yet affected a funny hat and a decorated military uniform, but is attending house parties and events, trying to gain support.

He catches Lady Ida Dalser’s eye, and she ends up selling her assets to start a newspaper to support his political ambitions, and giving him the ultimate gift, her body.  The result is that she bears him a son, and he gives her a marriage certificate.   They become separated as a result of WWI.

Unbeknownst to her, he has another marriage and another child, which she discovers when they reunite. When he becomes politically powerful, the public record of her marriage to him strangely disappears (if it ever truly was) and he disavows any legal, financial, and social responsibility towards her and her son Benito Albino.  Perhaps part of his animus towards them was an effort to conceal the fact that he had gotten his start as a Socialist after having switched his political program to Fascist.  When she tries to press for her rights, she is denied, and ends up appearing to be a “madwoman” , getting taken to an asylum run by nuns. 

While men who are in the wind and the life of an impoverished single mother are often enough to give a woman mental problems, it is unclear what, if any, diagnosis she received, or if she truly had a mental illness.  It is shown in the movie that it is quite possible that like the mysterious disappearing marriage license, her continued institutionalization (and the later admittance of her son to the mental health system as well) was the result of Mussolini improperly utilizing the power and instruments of the State that were at his disposal in order to dispose of personal and political enemies, or, in this case, evade child support payments, and public acknowledgment of this wife and son.  In view of the fact that Mussolini wrested a lot of influence from the Church and established a secularistic state system, it would have been a lot simpler to my mind had he just given Dalser a divorce or changed the bigamy laws.  But claiming that your personal and/or political enemies are “crazy” is a time-honored tradition in just about every political system.  The former Soviet government used to have dissidents discredited by sending them not to the gulag, but to mental hospitals.  There is a book about this phenomenon called “Soviet Psychoprisons“. This tactic may well have become established and notorious by the time  Fascist political movements gained ascendancy in Europe, opposing the spread of Communism.  Mussolini had to have gotten this idea from somewhere.

Ida’s claims of a union with Mussolini are initially not believed by the nuns who work in the asylum and other people whom she tries to ask for help, until she encounters a psychiatrist at the asylum who sees evidence that she is speaking the truth and believes her.  He advises her that she is right to want to expose the fact that she considered herself married to Musolini and bore a son by him, but he counsels care and patience, and to ally herself with the Church, because the Church is one of the few forces which can effectively oppose Musolini.  Some of the nuns eventually become sympathetic, but they advise her to give up the fight until one gives her her habit, which she wears to make an escape from the asylum, at least temporarily. 
Vincere derived from the Latin, means “to win or conquer”. While Il Duce appears to be the overt winner here, his one-time consort can be said to achieve a small victory in not letting him psyche her out.

Much of what is in this movie is ambiguous (perhaps deliberately so) because much of what transpired between Ida and Mussolini cannot be proven, and evidence is being lost as time passes and superficial understandings of history overshadow the personal remembrances of past events.

This movie was released on DVD in July 2010.