I’m a 4th year medical student at Cardiff University. I’m currently taking time out from my course after being diagnosed with OCD.
In the third and fourth years of our medical degrees, we get a chance to do something outside the course. I didn’t want to be stuck in a lab or reading hundreds of research studies. So I thought of a way to combine my passions of psychiatry and filmmaking into an end of year project.
My friend, Natalie Ellis, and I submitted the project to the university. With a few tweaks and the adding of a few more ‘academic’ tasks, our short film project was approved, to make a documentary on the stigma of mental health.
The stigma of mental health particularly interested me as I had observed and heard from placements that for some patients the stigma of their condition was worse than the condition itself. With mental health conditions, it interested me that something that is often within our control can cause so much suffering.
While I was already invested in how the film turned out it has since gained an even greater significance for me. It was only a few months after making the film that I was diagnosed with OCD and then understood, first-hand, the stigma of mental health. I began to truly understand what the participants spoke of in the documentary.
To ensure the documentary’s success I decided that I would study other successful documentaries (and some unsuccessful ones). I read quotes and watched interviews of famous documentary filmmakers and other storytellers. I learnt a few things from people such as Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) and Asif Kapandya (Senna).
Something that was mentioned by various people was to treat a documentary in a similar fashion to a fiction film. While you are trying to educate your audience, you also need to capture their attention.
A documentary, like a fiction film, is a story, hence you should have an arc within your film and have characters that the audience care about and are invested in. In this way an audience will listen to and invest in what you are trying to say.
Another key element was to make sure that you end the film in a way that will make your audience feel an active emotion. While, making your audience sad will garner an emotional response, it will not inspire them to make a change. However, a feeling like happiness or anger are more active feelings and ending your documentary this way is more likely to provoke a proactive response in the audience where they will go back out into the world and make a change.
We only had three weeks in which to complete the film due to the way our university project was structured. This meant we had several months for pre-production, two weeks for production and one week for post-production.
Pre-production involved finding participants who were happy to tell their stories on camera. We did a few pre-interviews and eventually settled on three people each with their own stories of their conditions.
We wanted the documentary to be about people and how stigma has affected them.
We also found four psychiatrists who could talk about different aspects of mental health conditions and the stigma associated with them. This would allow us to give us contextual, factual information to base the patients’ stories around so that audiences without medical knowledge of the conditions could understand them.
Pre-production also involved finding a crew and locations for the film. The crew was made up of members of Diff Films, the filmmaking society at Cardiff University Students Union.
Each of the participants, who had lived experience of mental ill-health, were filmed in homely settings to show that they were real people with actual lives and so that they would not be defined by their illnesses. To contrast this, we filmed the psychiatrists in a clinical setting. This had the effect of distinguishing the personal, emotional stories from the clinical facts and information.
We had two weeks to film everything. When we filmed each of the patients, as well as the interviews we filmed cutaways of them doing activities they liked or enjoyed. This involved things like playing with their children, drawing, writing, and horse riding. The horse riding shoot in particular was difficult as we had to drive out for two and a half hours to west Wales, film all day and then drive back.
Fortunately the psychiatrists’ interviews were shorter. However, the challenge with them was that the clinical settings in which we filmed often had problems with lighting and sound, which the crew did their best to rectify. The rest would be fixed in post-production.
Altogether there was six to seven hours of footage which we had to condense down into ten minutes. This was my first documentary and by far the hardest edit I have ever had to do.
The film was then put into a survey for medical students who watched the video and filled in a survey to measure whether the film had changed their attitudes to mental health. The overall consensus was that the film had had a positive impact.
After the success of the film in the surveys, we decided to submit the film into a variety of festivals. With the festival screenings, the film has now been seen in five different countries on three different continents. The film continues to be selected for festivals and will next be shown at the Wales International Documentary Festival in Blackwood.
My hope is that the documentary is seen by many people and that it changes people’s opinions about mental health. Even if it only changes one person’s mind, even if it only helps one person, I will be happy with what we have achieved.