Directed and produced by the award-winning Montreal-based director and producer, Catherine Mullins, Saving Minds features real people through their arduous journey of self-discovery and self-reclamation accompanied by experts who empathetically help them see the light and make great strides towards it. As Mullins herself states, it all began as a “quest to understand mental illness” because of her son and then what had started as a “personal journey” turned beautifully into a valuable “shared experience” among people struggling with mental health problems and experts who are courageously striving to take a novel approach to dealing with and treating mental health problems. In 1989 Mullins launched her independent company, Green Lion Productions, and made her directorial debut with Their Brothers’ Keepers – Orphaned by AIDS which was followed by several equally powerful documentaries on social issues including the multiple award-winning Being Innu. The captivating Saving Minds has Michael Wees as its director of photography, Jennifer Seguin as the narrator, and benefits from the candid contribution of Joanne Greenberg, the author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.
The stunning documentary captures the story of two people, Alo and Myriam Anouk, who have been on medication for years within a mental health care system which heavily relies on drug-based methods, a system that has failed to address the roots of their problems and help them come to terms with themselves as full humans. As they complete their quest for a more patient-oriented non-hierarchical therapeutic treatment, inner peace, and self- acceptance, their pathway to recovery is powerfully dramatized through a series of direct interviews and is given more validity by added insights from professionals and experts. These professionals also have their own journeys and narratives since they are trying to take a stance on curing mental health problems against the dominated mainstream which focuses mostly on medication.
The non-linear story and ideational montage combined with the exquisite musical score by Eric LeMoyne blend compellingly to the overall atmosphere of the film, emphasize the changes characters go through, the urban situations and create a universe that absorbs the viewers’ attention and keeps them engaged from the very first scenes. Another outstanding aspect of Saving Minds is including other narratives from different people with the same experiences in the heart of the main parallel narratives that has done a great deal in developing the story and confirming the themes.
The opening of the film is masterfully crafted in a way that the film speaks for itself. We follow Alo, a twenty-five-year-old student whose passion is performing comedy, to an Open Mic event. Alo starts the show with an intriguing question: “What happens when you commit suicide?” The answer they provide is comic on the surface, tragic in depth, and sums up the ills of the mainstream mental health care system which indirectly inculcates a sense of guilt in people diagnosed with mental health problems, and instead of interacting deeply with them, administers medication that is potentially toxic and conditions the brain allowing relapses. Later, as Alo’s story is revealed step by step through performances and interviews, we learn they have to tackle suicidal thoughts as well as several other mental problems.
Alo’s episode is immediately followed by a long shot that depicts Myriam Anouk in a snow-covered garden, moving towards one of the two benches without looking at the camera. She clears the snow off the bench and sits there in silence, her back at the camera, at us, at the world, the other bench remaining empty. This beautiful scene artistically captures Myriam Anouk’s coldness, isolation and distrust in the world, exuding a bitter sense of loneliness and exclusion. Having spent ten years in the system and hospitalized nine times, she is now determined to tread a different path and take control of her life. The next scene shows her walking away from the hospital and leaving behind that coldness with the words “Saving Minds” appearing beside her, suggest the inefficiency of a system that suffers from a paucity of empathy and understanding. This is further reinforced by prison-like images of the hospital some of which are corridor scenes taken from an angle that implies an ever-observing eye accompanied by Myriam Anouk’s account of the locked elevators and being told even when to sleep. Alo’s experience of psych ward has a lot in common with that of Myriam Anouk. Alo is monitored and the feeling of being under arrest is very well conveyed by a camera angle that resembles that of a security camera. When Myriam Anouk takes the subway, she is still uncertain of herself, but she believes in one of the voices in her head that has already told her this would be her last hospitalization. The following close-up of her face on the train and the images blurring and fading into each other as the train speeds up signify the start of her journey.
Growing up in families where they had to suppress their emotions, both Alo and Myriam Anouk have had a troubled past that has denied them any form of self-affirmation and self-validation and hence when life becomes unbearable the self with whom they identify cannot tolerate the situation and hence creates its own escape pushing them into what Joanne Greenberg metaphorically describes as “a geography” where there are plains, trees, people, and places only they can see. This unique geography is depicted by Mullins’ brilliant use of animation that takes us directly into the imagination of the people we get to know during the film.
When they were first diagnosed with several mental health problems and put on medication, not only did the terror not subside, but the “label” and the stigma worsened the situation as the labels stay and cause social discrimination. Lack of social acceptance of mental health issues is best described by Alo in one of their performances where they are joking about going to a Halloween party right after being released from the psych ward and is told by a frat boy “you don’t look” bipolar. As all the groundbreaking experts agree--from Robert Whitaker who “has pointed out flaws in the research that underpins current practices” to Dr. Joanna Moncrieff, the author of The Bitterest Pills, people diagnosed with mental health issues need an inclusive environment, friends and family who believe in them and a much more psycho-social approach. What Joanne Greenberg found sixty years ago in a mental health care system still free from brandishing mental problems and the claws of big pharmaceutical industries, Myriam Anouk finds in the strong relationships she forms with her friend, half-brother and her Jungian therapist, while Alo finds an outlet through performances as part of the Montreal comedy community. In the film, we witness Alo’s outpour of pent-up emotions and a coming to terms with their “own pain”.
The film also benefits greatly from Mullins’ clever use of recurrent images of cities and nature. At the beginning there are extreme wide shots of the dusk, when the day is fusing into night but there is still some light, and shots of people going about their own business, and bodies of water and forests. These scenes can signify the not-yet-explored realms of unconscious and imagination that, if not accepted and tamed, can swallow one. There are also powerful images of illuminating light peeping through clouds of confusion symbolizing the inner light, that part of any human “that loves life” and is always “there for you and is gonna rebuild you.” Towards the end of the film when the conflicts are resolved, and the quest completed these images give way to more serene ones that inculcate inner peace. This inner peace and equilibrium are achieved through a journey inside and into the depth of the forest, establishing healthy relationships with understanding people, arts, and making a bond with nature—all facilitated by experts who have refused to stick to “a failed narrative” by listening rather than dictating and fusing psychiatry with psychotherapy. The integral parts of this empowering alternative narrative are admirably pointed out in one of the most memorable shots where a clock, a watering can, and a flourishing plant are captured in one full-of-sunshine scene: time, care and support plus an inclusive environment will culminate in growth.
When Joanne Greenberg describes what she had to go through as “tears and darkness,” her words are vividly dramatized by wild waterfall waters thundering down. The waterfall is pushed to the background and a saint-like statue is foregrounded that may be a reference to Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Frieda understood Joanne’s “metaphor” and knew that they were “miners”. She trusted Joanne’s “map” and provided the necessary “light” to mine the imagination for its treasures. Myriam Anouk’s search for serenity and self-discovery is pictured symbolically through the reflective walks she takes in nature with a reliable friend who accepts her as she is, reminiscing about Myriam Anouk’s childhood and her intense mother. Her achieving self-autonomy and inner peace through embracing her dark side is amplified by the scene of Myriam Anouk in a garden surrounded by colorful butterflies that symbolize and reflect this new found peace. These images are in sharp contrast with the scenes corresponding to the beginning of her narrative where the camera follows a distressed Myriam Anouk on a street as she opens up about the “invasive voices” she started hearing after her mother’s death. These voices kept calling her name loudly and the appropriate camera angle getting closer and closer to her from behind puts the viewer right into the scene while creating suspense and communicating uncertainty and tension.
Myriam Anouk’s journey reaches its end as she is depicted sailing the waters she had no control over at the beginning of her journey. She is confident and at peace with herself and, therefore, at peace with the world, no longer turning her back at it. Similarly, Alo’s final performance remarkably addressed to themselves in an empty room marks the self-reliance and the “strong foundation” Alo has found.
By giving voice to people suffering from a form of mental health problem and letting them articulate their emotions and verbalize their experiences rather than having an expert who “never knew” and has “never been mentally ill” do that, Mullins has allowed us to become part of their experiences first-hand, to identify with them and to embark on a life-altering odyssey of self-discovery. The use of real data and the many direct interviews with people who have experienced a form of mental health problem--people who can compare the drug-based therapy with psychotherapy-- have added enormously to the theme.
Saving Minds is absolutely a must-see. It raises public awareness of mental health problems, and endeavors to eradicate prejudice and social stigma on the subject by engaging viewers deeply and taking them on the journey with the characters. The theme, the atmosphere, and the people will stay with you long after watching it.
Saving Minds, written, directed and produced by Catherine Mullins