Can we play with madness?
Toronto's Rendezvous with Madness festival chips away at the lingering stigmas surrounding mental health
"I can't think of two more underwhelming words describing a cultural experience in Toronto than film festival," says Geoff Pevere, program director for annual Toronto film festival Rendezvous with Madness. "There are over two hundred of them in the city every single year. Who needs them! This is the one that I can think of where the focus is, to me, so clear and so dynamic and so useful."
Of course, Pevere (who has previously contributed to The Globe and Mail) is more than a little biased. Like other smaller Toronto film festivals – Toronto After Dark, Reel Asian, Planet in Focus – Rendezvous with Madness has its own, supernarrow focus. Since 1993, the film festival has been screening movies that deal with subjects of mental illness and mental health, a subject that has long preoccupied the cinema.
With its ability to draw the viewer in close proximity with a character, and to visually depict that character's mental state, movies have a long history of chronicling everything from run-of-the-mill phobias (What About Bob?) to serious cases of schizophrenia (Through A Glass Darkly). But many of these depictions have drawn criticism for their unsophistication or straight-up exploitation. For every A Woman Under the Influence or Punch-Drunk Love, there's a dozen Psychos, Shock Corridors, Shutter Islands and K-Paxes.
In 2006, a study was published examining depictions of mental illness in films and television. The researchers concluded that "on-screen portrayals are frequent and generally negative, and have a cumulative effect on the public's perception of people with mental illness." A festival like Rendezvous with Madness – even in its name, which sounds like it could be the title of an old Vincent Price movie – runs the risk of further propagating such negative effects.
But for Pevere, the festival is a chance to open up discussion around such subjects, to chip away at the lingering stigmas around mental health. "What I'm constantly looking for are films that will generate what I think are productive and interesting discussions around mental health and recovery," he says.
"Even the purely exploitative films are being placed in a context where they're being discussed, and challenged."
There's not much in the way of scintillating exploration in this year's Rendezvous lineup. The opening-night film The Other Half follows the troubled romance of a bipolar woman (Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany) and a man slogging through a family trauma (Tom Cullen). Canadian filmmaker Steve Sanguedolce's experimental doc Land of Not Knowing follows a group of people living with suicidal impulses, who have all resolved to not end their lives.
The closest thing to a genre exercise might be the arty Czech thriller I, Olga Hepnarova, which premiered earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival. It's the true story of a mass murderer who accepted the death penalty for her crimes and rejected a life-saving insanity defence because she believed herself no more crazy than the world that made her. There's also The Battle with Satan, which features plenty of sensational footage of young, mentally tortured Polish women writhing and screeching their way through Catholic exorcisms.
"Any disagreements people have about interpretation are part of what make the discussions so rich," Pevere says.
It's these discussions, and disagreements, that serve as the festival's main event. Pevere says one of the "universal" aspects shared by many different mental illnesses is how totally isolating it is, trapping the afflicted in their own mind. More than just another subsidy grab in Toronto's overpacked slate of weekend film festivals, Rendezvous with Madness is an opportunity to ease these barriers, and create a communal experience centred on mental health and wellness.
The Rendezvous with Madness film festival runs Nov. 4 to 12 at various venues in Toronto (rendezvouswithmadness.ca).