By Aike Jansen
CCA, 13 October ‘17
Thinking about representation of mental health in mainstream media brings to mind either exaggerated, judgemental, or overly comical portrayals that often don’t have a positive effect on the way people experiencing mental health in their day to day life are regarded by others. It is thus excellent to see two young filmmakers tackling this subject in a sensitive yet highly artistic way .‘Northern Lights’ and ‘OverLove’ are presented together as ‘Youth Perspective’ at this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. Both films are not perfect, as no film about a subject that is experienced in so many different ways will be, but they are emotional, tense, and contributing to a more honest portrayal of what mental health is like.
Nicholas Connor’s mid-length film ‘Northern Lights’ follows Emma (Katie Quinn) during the final weeks of high school and the following summer holiday. Recurrent shots of a wooden box with metal chains around it represent Emma’s experience during her panic attacks – the feeling she cannot breathe, cannot move. Connor said he was interested to make a film which creates more understanding about mental health, but also because of the cinematic possibilities. The sepia coloured shots, melancholic music, and intense visualization of an anxiety attack definitely show this interest. The actual narrative of loss, love and anxiety from a female perspective feels cliché at times, perhaps only because we hear similar stories around us too often. On one hand, it is fantastic that this narrative has made its way into the cinema, yet I wish Connor had explored the mental health of his male characters further.
Those are, after all, often untold stories, and Connor remarks that in this case it is perhaps the result of his internalization of comments that men should always hold their emotions back, be strong and silent about mental health issues. Yet cinema, and visual media in general, can bring about a change in society, by showing people that talking about feelings of alienation or loss is normal, and these don’t have to be silenced by alcohol or repression.
While the plot and dialogue in ‘Northern Lights’ feels a little clumsy at times, a reminder that the director was only 17 when he made the film, Lucas Helth’s OverLove looks extremely professional. The shots are beautiful, the acting is superb. It must be noted that both Quinn and Caroline Vedel, playing Olivia in OverLove, present the feelings of anxiety genuinely, skilfully, and with emotional understanding. Olivia is scared of hurting others, especially her younger brother, and imagines throwing him down the stairs or hurting him otherwise. This results in the film being filled with extreme tension. She could do something to her brother at any moment, and once it happens there is no certainty whether it is real or not, as her imaginations are filmed very realistically.
Again, this film sees a male director focussing on a female perspective of mental health, yet Helth assures that this was done consciously. He aimed to create a strong contrast between a sweet, perhaps even innocent, character who suddenly has these unexpected violent thoughts, and this certainly works. However, I do believe cinema should start playing a greater role in the de-stigmatization of mental health. Emphasising a female experience is definitely important, but male experiences are still too often left untold.