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The Reel Mind

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“The films have a message of hope and recovery, and people can so relate to that. People come in, they’re feeling alone and isolated. They leave feeling very differently. That’s powerful.” –Dr. Larry Guttmacher

Three years ago, OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie was included in The Reel Mind Film Festival, a super film series in Rochester, New York. One of my favorite memories of the whole adventure was when co-directors Bud Clayman, Scott Johnston and I sat in a diner across the street from the theater – we were hoping to grab a bite to eat before the the screening — and we watched (with jaws wide open) as a line formed around the block.

What followed was perhaps the most energetic screening of our film we’ve ever attended. The theater was packed, and the Q&A afterwards was dynamic, and very moving. Audience members were intensely interested in Buddy’s journey and the excitement about the film was palpable. There was something very therapeutic for everyone in attendance – it was an extremely rewarding experience for any filmmaker.

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OC87 Co-Directors Scott Johnston and Bud Clayman at The Reel Mind Film Series in 2011

The Reel Mind is a remarkably well organized, supported and attended film series. One of its strengths is that it is executed in collaboration with all of the area mental health agencies in Rochester. I think it could serve as a model for other cities that would like to replicate its success.

I was interested in the energy behind this festival, and spoke with Ruth Cowing, co-director of The Reel Mind about the six-year history of the film series and the rewards of the job. Later on I followed up with Dr. Larry Guttmacher, who directs the festival with Ruth Cowing.

Glenn: How did something like The Reel Mind film festival come about?

Ruth: Dr. Larry Guttmacher (Clinical Director of the Rochester Psychiatric Center) wanted to promote a sense of hope and recovery. And he started thinking about this idea of showing films. He pitched this to the local NAMI chapter. Also on the board at the time was Herb Katz, who had been the artistic director of the JCC. So Larry pitched this idea, and Herb got excited.

They took their idea to the George Eastman House (The George Eastman House is the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography and one of the world’s oldest film archives). The George Eastman House did have interest, but their idea was to pull films from their archives, you know, all of these neat old films. Unfortunately, the Eastman films showed people with mental illness in almost the opposite kind of way that Larry was interested in showing, so that idea didn’t really get too far.

Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon, 2014 Selection at The Reel Mind Film Series

At the time I was the co-programmer at the High Falls International Film Festival here in Rochester. It was kind of a big festival here in town. Larry approached me and asked if I would come on board as a consultant, “because we have this idea but we just don’t know how to make it happen. How do you get in touch with the titles? How do you get the venues? The tickets and all the logistics . . .”

I thought it was a really cool idea, and because I was still at the High Falls Film Festival, I suggested that it start as a collaboration between the High Falls Film Festival and they came up with the name The Reel Mind Film Series. So we gathered together this committee, and one of the ideas was “Let’s collaborate with all the different mental health agencies in town, you know, let’s just be partners with everybody.”

Glenn: Are there a lot of mental health agencies in your area?

Ruth: There are probably seven organizations that got involved, including the local NAMI chapter, the Mental Health Association, there’s a place called DePaul, there’s East House, and there’s a neighborhood center. So they all came around the table and we started to plan this event.

Glenn: Was there a lot of interest?

Ruth: The first film that we chose was one on hoarding, a wonderful film, and it was before hoarding had become a big issue. It was this wonderful film called My Mother’s Garden by a filmmaker named Cynthia Lester about her mother.

Trailer for My Mother’s Garden by Cynthia Lester

A lot of the mental health people were feeling like, “Boy, how many people are going to come out for a film about mental health issues?” The expectation was not high, so we were really worried with the first film.

We thought, “Well, if 25 people show up, we’ll feel like it’s a success.” The night of the screening, there was a line around the block.

Glenn: Wow.

Ruth: We just were floored. So we sold out the very first screening, and for the rest of the series that year there was just this kind of amazing response. And so what we really found, and we found this through all the years we’ve done it — this is now our sixth year — is that the film is one thing, but it’s really kind of the springboard for discussion.

What we do is we follow it up with the panels. And our formula is to always have a consumer — that’s very important — and then there’s usually a doctor, or an expert who can answer the medical questions that come up.

At times, we have special guests like filmmakers or authors. We’ve shown narratives, but we find that the documentaries have been much more successful because the audience creates such a connection with these people in these films.

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Top L to R: Scott Johnston, Herb Katz, M.F.A., Bud Clayman, Ruth Cowing, Laurence Guttmacher, M.D., and Glenn Holsten (bottom). Bud, Scott and Glenn Co-Directed OC87. Herb, Laurence and Ruth are the three original designers of The Reel Mind Film Festival.

Glenn: Why do you think the documentaries are more successful?

Ruth: I think the audience connects to the vulnerability of the people in the documentaries — and that’s exactly what happened with Bud — and they relate to it. It kind of gives them a safety and a freedom to then stand up and talk about their own issues and their own fears and concerns. There’s this opening where they feel that they are not alone. And not only are they not alone, but there are resources out there, there’s a community out there, and there are people who’ve gone through the same thing, and have come out the other end in very exciting and hopeful ways.

From the beginning, Larry was very adamant that all the films we showed had to be hopeful, and really have a recovery focus. He was not interested in showing “survival stories,” people who had had these pretty awful experiences.

It’s been a moving, beautiful experience from day one. I had no idea. I came on board to help them get off the ground, and have never left!

Every time I go I feel very honored just to be there and listen to what people have to say.

“People want truth. They want real stories. They want people they can relate to.” –Dr. Larry Guttmacher

Glenn: Interesting. You started in this adventure as a film person, but have since had this education, I’m sure, about this world of mental health.

Ruth: It’s been great to marry these two interests like this. It’s been a wonderful project.

Glenn: Do you find your audience just wants more? Is there enough product around?

Ruth: We have a programming committee and we look for films. It has to be about mental illness, so that kind of narrows the field. Then it has to be excellent, then it has to be hopeful and have a recovery focus, so by the time it starts to meet all these qualifications, sometimes we feel on any given year that we don’t have as much to choose from as we would like.

We did start to open it up. We’ve started to show some films on developmental disabilities, so last year for example we showed a film on Tourette syndrome, which was fabulous, and we also showed another documentary on Down syndrome. I think if we continue to branch off into that area we absolutely could program quite a few more films.

Glenn: It’s all about awareness, isn’t it? People are so interested in learning more. Especially about things that they might be scared to ask about. I’m struck by what you said earlier about a film festival being a safe place for people to feel bold enough to ask questions. It almost like it allows staring at something that’s not so easy to stare at.

Of Two Minds, 2014 Selection at The Reel Mind Film Series

Ruth: It’s kind of perfect. You sit there in the dark and you have that time to yourself to let it all wash over you and process it. Which is very different from sitting in a workshop or a place where the lights are on and you’re a little more exposed. There’s kind of a safety to being this anonymous member of a film audience. Which we’re all so used to doing. And then when the lights come up you can either choose to share or not, but anyway that just struck me.

We see some of the same people come back. And over time, there’s been this kind of community that’s developed. People who might not have spoken up a year ago, suddenly, this year, feel brave enough, comfortable enough to speak up. And the more and more we do this, it’s interesting just with my own ears, it feels so . . . it doesn’t sound as foreign anymore. The stories start to sound very familiar.

Glenn: That’s true. I also like the kind of “chemical reaction” that happens with a live audience. Someone will stand up with a question that none of us on the panel can answer, but then suddenly someone in the back stands up and says “We tried this . . . or that” and then there’s this sharing that goes on that you started, but then you step back . . .

Ruth: I don’t know if Bud knows this, but I’ve heard Larry tell this story many times. After your story in particular, (OC87), one young man — he was probably 17 years old — stood up and said to Bud, “you just told my story.” I still get chills when I hear that.

Trailer for OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie

Glenn: That’s great. After one of our first screenings of OC87 for mental health consumers, a man came up to me and said “You gave my story the red carpet treatment!” I loved that comment, because he saw himself in the story that had great production values and was a really good film, if I can say that.

Ruth: Yeah, it legitimizes it. I remember the first time that I hear Dick Cavett had depression. You know, all of a sudden, someone who you respect and look up to, who is intelligent — it changes all those horrible old notions that we grew up with about “What is the face of mental illness?” You realize it’s the face of our families and our friends and of us, and it’s not a frightening face by any means.

Echo Of The Past: The Terrence Tower is a powerful short film by Dylan Toombs that was screened at The Reel Minds film festival. The main character of the documentary is the high rise Psychiatric Center in Rochester, New York. Dr. Larry Guttmacher, one of the directors of The Reel Mind festival, is featured in this film.

Glenn: This is a really great thing that you do. What keeps you going?

Ruth: I think it’s the response from the audience. When I was at the larger festival, one of the things I always struggled with, as much as I loved film, and I really love film, was that I always carried with me some sense of guilt — not that I was doing something frivolous — but that it wasn’t direct service.

I wasn’t out there feeding the poor, you know? [laughs] I was kind of organizing films to show people with money who could come to a theater and you know, so I have a part of me that has always wanted to make a difference.

And so through Larry — and I really credit him with this idea — I have the opportunity to use film to make a difference in people’s lives. You see the people coming up to the doctors afterwards, and I’ve heard people say, “Can I make an appointment?” or follow up with phone numbers of different resources that they now can make use of, or ask very specific questions either about themselves or family members and how they can now pursue health.

You know that people are not just leaving thinking “Oh, I saw a neat film and that was an interesting discussion.” There’s a change that’s going to potentially take place. Seeing film being used for that purpose is just incredibly exciting, and it’s great to feel that you’re a part of making that happen.

“Every time I do this, I emerge with a sense of a new community. The questions, the discussions that follow afterwards, blow me away. Everyone sticks around for discussion. You feel this sense of bonding happening.” –Dr. Larry Guttmacher

Glenn: How has the series evolved?

Ruth: We found this film a couple years ago called Crazy Art, that was about three artists in California who use art as part of the recovery process, and we started thinking wouldn’t it be cool to show it in an art museum setting? So we contacted the Memorial Art Gallery in town and asked them, can we show it there? And then we thought, wouldn’t it be cool to then also have an art exhibit by consumers?

So the Mental Health Association has a group called the Creative Wellness Coalition, and they have a space that’s completely devoted to art therapy classes and music and all that good stuff. They put out a call for work and we had our first show – it was a juried show – and about fifty pieces in the art gallery space. We had an opening at 6 and then at 7 we watched the film.

We repeated it last year, we paired a film about an artist with an art show and this year we’re going to do that as well. This year, we are going to show My Name Is Alan and I Paint Pictures (directed by Johnny Boston) a documentary about this artist who has schizophrenia who was living in NYC for a long time and is now back in London.

My Name Is Alan and I Paint Pictures, 2014 Selection at The Reel Mind Film Series

And then we are going to show Hidden Pictures, by Delaney Ruston; and Of Two Minds, by Doug Blush and Lisa Klein. The last one we’re showing is called Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon, by Thomas Murray. It’s a really interesting film. It starts out being about the filmmaker’s brother who has autism but then he really starts exploring his family history. And it turns out the grandfather had bipolar disorder, the father had bipolar disorder and then has a suicide. The family dynamics are just intense and complex and then it loops back to the brother with Autism who is just amazing.

Glenn: What a great group of films. I wish this was going to happen in my hometown (Philadelphia)!

Ruth: Here’s another one of our dreams. We’re always talking about how can we grow. One of the things that Larry and I have talked about is moving into the schools, and we’re starting to explore that.

Another thing we’d like to do is set this up as a model that different towns could take on. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could set up some sort of network where we could share these films? So let’s say we have these four films, but what if they traveled? An established network of cities (Philadelphia could be on that stop) so the filmmakers and the films could travel . . . so we’re in the dreaming mode about that — wouldn’t that be neat?

Glenn: Sounds great to me! I’ll be there. Thanks so much.

Please visit reelmindfilmfest.com to learn more about The Reel Mind Film Festival.

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Glenn Holsten

Glenn is an award-winning director who loves to create compelling documentary story experiences of all lengths for screens of all sizes. He is an avid reader, studied literature in college, and his passion for stories with strong characters and interesting narratives stems from those years. His career as a visual storyteller began at WHYY (the public television station in Philadelphia) where he worked for 15 years before becoming an independent filmmaker. In addition to his PBS documentaries about arts and culture, he has directed films about justice and human rights, and now, mental health. He was emboldened to undertake his current documentary project, Hollywood Beauty Salon, a colorful feature-length documentary about surviving mental illness and finding the courage for recovery, after his transformative experience directing OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie, along with Bud Clayman and Scott Johnston.

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