TIM PALMER: How mental illness is being portrayed on the big screen will be examined at a Melbourne University symposium next month. The event will look at whether the growing emergence of mental illness as film fodder is helping the community’s understanding, or perpetuating the harmful stigma surrounding it. Rachael Brown reports.
RACHAEL BROWN: The movie Shine was a 1996 hit about pianist David Helfgott’s mental breakdown.
FINCINA HOPGOOD: I think the lesson that filmmakers and TV producers learned from Shine is that it’s okay to have your hero be mentally ill; the audience will go on that journey with them.
Mental illness on screen is an emerging field of study that interests Dr Fincina Hopgood from Melbourne University. Dr Hopgood says before the 90s filmmakers and TV producers primarily focused on two stereotypes.
FINCINA HOPGOOD: There’s this stereotype of either the crazy comic mad character or the psychotic serial killer.
RACHAEL BROWN: Eliciting empathy from audiences is the key challenge.
FINCINA HOPGOOD: That’s where it’s very challenging, of course, for filmmakers because asking your audience to empathise with someone who’s having a psychotic moment, that’s a pretty scary thing. Organisations like SANE Australia have been really crucial, I think, in kind of advocating with TV producers and filmmakers for more accurate, responsible portrayals.
RACHAEL BROWN: Silver Linings Playbook won the hearts of audiences and a string of awards looking at the odd friendship between a bipolar sufferer and a widow through their shared neurosis.
RACHAEL BROWN: Raimond Gaita watched his biographical memoir, Romulus My Father, adapted for the big screen in 2007 – watched, he adds, with relief thanks to the craftsmanship of director Richard Roxburgh. However he wasn’t a big fan of Shine.
RAIMOND GAITA: It’s very, very hard to portray mental illness without sentimentality. Then people aren’t really introduced to a deeper understanding of something, but in fact introduced to a sentimental and distorted understanding.
RACHAEL BROWN: As the keynote speaker at the Melbourne University symposium, professor Gaita wants to explore the limits of empathy. He thinks its importance in understanding others is often overstated.
He uses his mother as an example, who struggled with mental illness and committed suicide on the eve of her 30th birthday.
RAIMOND GAITA: If one did see things as she saw them, one would realise that her own perception of things was often very fragmented. And if one tried to put the fragments together, as it were, or to ask what the fragments are, then one might end up introducing concepts which were not concepts that she was entirely familiar with. One gets only a certain way with anything deep in a person by seeing things as they see it.
RACHAEL BROWN: Nonetheless, he hopes greater coverage of mental health issues in film or in books like The Rosie Project or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will help demystify certain illnesses.
RAIMOND GAITA: It’s not just a question of the depiction of mental illness. It’s just a question about art and life generally. We keep hoping that our art deepens our sensibility – not just when we’re at the theatre and talking about it afterwards over dinner – but in life.
TIM PALMER: Professor Raimond Gaita.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC‘ on 23 January 2014.