Tips for making a film about someone else’s mental health journey

In last week’s blog we learned first-hand about why making a film about mental health can be an incredibly impactful experience. Is your motivation to explore personal healing? Creating content that appeals to today’s media-savvy audiences? Exploring the opportunity to make impact in peoples’ lives through meaningful art? Whatever it is, there’s never a wrong reason to make art. And creating a short doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. We continued to ask our experts (OLIVE Film Winners) about the subject and today touch on the delicacies of creating a film about someone else’s mental health experience. In a world filled with misinformation about mental illness, this can definitely be a tricky task. Here are some tips from our community:

Lead with Empathy

Conveying someone else’s emotions is challenging, particularly because they are seen to be experienced internally and we often refer to mental illness as an invisible illness. In order to truly understand what’s going on inside and express that externally, it’s important to portray a character’s range of emotions in a manner that allows us relate to some or all of these experiences.

Telling your own story or helping tell someone else’s story on a subject such as mental health can be a delicate operation. Empathy is for me the first necessary ingredient quickly followed on the list by respect.” -Randy Kelly, Autobiography of a Body

Cinema is most effective when you can bring your audience into the mind and emotions of your character, whether it’s a character the audience immediately relates to, or has never encountered before. The goal of the film is link the minds of the audience with the minds of the character, and you as the filmmaker are the vessel through which this connection comes together.” – Eric Bass, Til Death Do Us Part

Conduct Interviews to Learn

Research, research, research! This can take on a lot of different forms, as we learn below:

Mia’s Story was a collaboration with West London Mental Health Trust’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service and their young service user group we started by chatting to the young service users and asking them what kind of story they would like to tell. We then interviewed each of them and tried to find a common thread which bound them together. They all were suffering from different and quite specific mental health issues but they shared a few things in common… We started to create a character that was having similar feelings then came up with a story of what her life may look like based on the young service users experiences.” – Vicki Kisner, Mia’s Story (check it out below)

Mia’s Story

Interviewing and really appreciating even the smallest elements of an illness can lend authenticity to the film. Speaking to those afflicted or to those who regularly interact with those afflicted can lend some important points of view.” – Priyanka Rajendram, mEAT.

“I think if a filmmaker/creative team is not able to speak from experience with mental health issues, research is incredibly important. I think primary sources are ideal, as getting first-hand experiences, I believe are the best way to make things seem and feel real while being nuanced and complex at the same time.” – Abby Thompson, When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny

Especially When it Comes to Diverse Representation

“Talk directly to different people who have experienced the specific mental health issue you’re making a film about and try to talk to people from ALL different backgrounds.” – Elizabeth Ayiku, Little Elizabeth

Show Gratitude

Sharing your story can be scary and vulnerable. Be sure to express eternal thanks to those willing to open themselves up to you and your audience:

Have confidence and kindness, supporting the people who are helping you out. Being grateful for those that are involved, show respect and value for people you reach out to.” – Betsy Usher, I Am Borderline

Leave Preconceived Notions Behind

“Just be fully present to your subject’s experience. No two people experience depression or mania or PTSD in exactly the same way, and what works for one person as a coping mechanism might not be effective for someone else. I’ve tried to be very careful not to make any generalized assertions and just allow my interview subjects to speak their own personal truths.” – Kim Hunyh, Sal Tran.

See how Kim’s film narrows in on her subject’s specific experience when it comes to mental health and recovery below: 

Sal Tran

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