For the past ten years, The Reel Mind series has been fighting the stigma of mental illness with empowering stories of advocacy and psychiatric wellness told through film, live theater, and art.
Beginning this week and continuing through June 26, Reel Mind has been a labor of love for founders Dr. Larry Guttmacher, Clinical Director of the Rochester Psychiatric Center, and co-producer Ruth Cowing, who joined forces with former JCC Artistic Director Herb Katz to create the event series. Drawing on their collective personal and professional experience with issues surrounding mental health, Reel Mind was born out of their shared desire to educate the public about the realities of living with mental illness and further the message that recovery is possible.
A community-wide event seemed an ideal way to break through the isolation felt by many who suffer with mental illness and prove to them that they're not alone. The unique ability of film to generate a sense of empathy in viewers made it the perfect medium to help educate the public.
As the search for films began, the team decided early that they weren't interested in what Guttmacher calls "survivor's stories" -- films that dwell on the hardship and injustice faced by those suffering with mental illness. While those films can be powerful tools, the team behind Reel Mind were much more interested in sending a message of hope: that while recovery is often a lifelong process, a happy and fulfilling life is within reach.
"It was very important from the beginning that these not be depressing films," Cowing says. "We don't people to walk into a film and leave feeling worse. We want them to see stories of people who had gone through a journey, worked through it, and come out the other side."
Though the series began by screening a mix of narrative and documentary films, it gradually shifted to focus almost exclusively on nonfiction films. "We found that there's something about documentaries -- where you're watching a real person -- that's feels so much more authentic," Cowing says. "And especially if that person can then be present after the film's over, there's an emotional connection that's formed with the person up there on screen."
Reel Mind will kick off on Tuesday, May 8, with a program of short films, featuring "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405," winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short earlier this year. The evening's events also include an art show at the Memorial Art Gallery (500 University Avenue).
The feature films being screened this year cover a wide spectrum of subjects, and include the Western New York premiere of "Deej" on May 22, which focuses on a young man with autism whose passion for filmmaking and poetry offers him a means to communicate; the powerful "Alive Inside" on June 5, documenting the restorative effect of music therapy on patients with Alzheimer's; the award-winning "God Knows Where I Am" on June 19; and "Suicide: The Ripple Effect" on June 26, which documents the journey of director Kevin Hines, transitioning from his own suicide attempt to a career as a mental health advocate. Those films will all show at the Cinema Theatre (957 South Clinton Avenue).
Also on the docket this year is a live stage reading of "Depression: The Musical," a work by Herb Katz chronicling his lifelong battle with depression through stories, jokes, and song. That reading is on Tuesday, May 15, 7 p.m. at the JCC, and will be followed by a Q&A with Katz and performer Ralph Meranto.
Each screening is followed by a panel discussion, some with the filmmakers and -- whenever possible -- the subjects themselves. The panels always include a facilitator from a local mental health organization, providing them the opportunity to speak about their organization and the resources they provide. The discussions generated by the films can often be the most important and rewarding part of the evening.
"Rochester is amazing in terms of mental health services offered here; we're very, very lucky, but not everyone knows it," Cowing says. "So it's an opportunity for these organizations to get their message out."
Whether those who attend Reel Mind have a personal connection to mental illness, or are simply lovers of film, their participation helps to break down barriers and create an environment conducive to healing. That receptive atmosphere is crucial, Guttmacher says, in sending a message that "recovery is possible, that there is hope, and that the support of friends, family, and community is vital."
Series tickets to The Reel Mind are $35; individual tickets are $8 ($10 for the "Depression: The Musical" stage reading). More details can be found at reelmindfilmfest.org.