Rendezvous with Madness: Long-running Mental-Health Themed Festival Timelier Than Ever

By Liam Lacey

Life takes some strange twists. A couple of weeks ago, Geoff Pevere — for years one of the country’s best known film journalists and chief programmer of the Rendezvous With Madness festival (running October 10 through 20) — was hospitalized.

A scene from the film Retrospekt.

A scene from the film Retrospekt.

At 61, he found himself, for the first time, diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

I know this because he posted about it, as it was happening, on social media and though I consider him a friend, we don’t see each other often and it was a surprise to me. Shortly after being released, he was delivering a lecture in Hamilton, and returning to his duties at the festival. I contacted him recently and he texted back: “Don’t be afraid to ask me anything.” We rescheduled an interview because he had a counselling session and finally picked up the conversation by phone.

Did all this come out of the blue?

“No,” he said. “It’s only identified now. I turn 62 next week and I have wondered, for most of my life, why I have incredible difficulties for accepting things as they are. Often, this has been good for me; often it’s been to my detriment. I would say a good part of my behavior, which I had to filter through my experience with alcohol recovery, I realized I had experienced my entire life, though undiagnosed.”

What he credited to moral failure were, in fact, better understood as mental health issues. “It has meant I maintained a very private and isolated life. At this point, there’s no point in anything but being as public as I can.”

In many ways, Pevere’s experience is extremely relevant to the mission of the Rendezvous With Madness: Isolation and inability of friends and family to recognize or acknowledge a problem. As is often said, mental health issues touch everyone. The festival is a 27-year-old event that, long before the corporate mental health days and hashtags, promoted the idea of increasing the cultural conversation around mental health.

There are some obvious reasons why mental health issues seem more urgent nowadays. The American Psychiatric Association has documented, for example, that President Donald Trump increases people’s perception of anxiety. The president has proposed building new asylums to lock people up as a solution to gun violence, and to rounding up California’s homeless — where people with mental health problems are disproportionately represented — and putting them in government facilities.

Bedlam screens at RWM.

Bedlam screens at RWM.

Pevere says he was never interested in turning the festival into a “Trump event” but the discussion of the current political climate raises naturally from the themes of the films. “I don’t recall who said that insanity was a reasonable response to insane circumstances but it never seemed more relevant than today.”

While “there has been tremendous progress culturally and politically in the discussion of mental health issues” there’s also a disturbing backlash and misguided policies.

Those are summed up with impressive rigor in the film Bedlam by psychiatrist-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Paul Rosenberg. The film is about the disaster of American mental health care, in which people are incarcerated in crowded jails meant for criminals, or let loose on the streets and underfunded emergency rooms.

At one point, eight former presidents of the American Psychiatric Association sit around in a circle and talk about the failure of mental health care. The film also follows three patients over several years, including one man whose sister Patrice Cullors was one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, following several police killings of mentally ill black men.

There’s a theme that emerges from several of these films from different cultures, which might be described as “sharing means bearing.”

That’s very much the issue in Fabienne Godet’s French film Our Wonderful Lives, which follows a woman drug user in her thirties who enters a group home for counselling. The interesting device of the film is that, while the actors improvise in part, all of their stories and monologues are drawn from the records of actual people in recovery.

The Japanese documentary Our Soul Drifts Light Upon a Sea of Trees is another kind of group therapy. Buddhist monk Ittetsu Nemoto lost an uncle and two friends to suicide. He decided to offer online counselling to other people, which led to a small commune of people who stay with him in a mountain temple, practicing meditation, talking, working and creating together. One woman, a former sex worker who was fixated on suicide, observes that while you can’t change the past, you can change your perspective on it.

Conviction is a National Film Board documentary about Canadian women in prison (the mental health and addiction issues are included) who work with art supplies and offer their ideas for community facility that would be rehabilitative and cost-effective. The very process of making plans, and feeling a sense of ownership over their futures, helps change their lives.

With its mixture of humour, trauma and narrative complexity, Retrospekt — from Dutch filmmaker Esther Rots — is one of the festival’s most interesting and deliberately uncomfortable films. It follows Mette (Circé Lethem) a woman in her thirties who ends up in a rehab hospital with a confused memory about her recent past.

We learn, in time-jumping moments, that this young mother was a caregiver at a shelter for abused women, and briefly allowed one of them to live in her house. The idea that caregivers are intimately involved with those they care for is pervasive in these films. In Bedlam, for example, three of the psychiatrists interviewed chose their profession after family members were institutionalized.

“The cultural discussion is the primary programming element,” says Pevere. “Mental health issues are everywhere. The way they are lived is based on culture. A film like Retrospekt shows how no one is immune. And how the very people you would look to on the frontlines of help are sometimes just not there. I can tell so many stories of calls that went unanswered or counsellors who disappear.”

The idea that Rendezvous With Madness can be a forum to talk about the cultural meaning of mental illness, including holding a mirror up to social pathology, makes it seem like an obvious festival to franchise to other cities. (“I’ve been saying that for four or five years,” says Pevere). Perhaps the tipping point is close.

This year, the festival has launched a social media hashtag #GetMad, demanding better care and conversation.

The festival, which is based in Workman Arts on Toronto’s Dufferin Street, involves panels, Q&As, multimedia presentations, including post-screening Q&As and a visual arts exhibition at the Toronto Media Arts Centre at 32 Lisgar Street.

For a complete schedule and ticket information, visit the festival website.