The theme for the 30th annual Rendezvous with Madness Festival is #MoreThanRebellion. It’s an appropriate tone for the Toronto festival devoted to stories of mental health and addiction. A few years after inspiring audiences to #GetMad, Rendezvous with Madness wants viewers to take the next steps after two years of rolling lockdowns and Twitter outrage wore everybody out. Instead, festival director Scott Miller Berry explains thatRWM 2022 encourages audiences to consider what happens after the outrage. Although stories of mental wellness remain the focus of RWM, this year’s festival goes further by offering portraits of groups coming together or artists inspiring us to reframe our perspectives.
This year’s festival opens with How to Save a Dead Friend, directed by Marusya Syroechkovskaya. The documentary is a vérité self-portrait, fuelled by raw images and punk music, of a destructive relationship in which the filmmaker found herself. As Syroechkovskaya navigates the pressures of growing up under Putin’s shadow in Russia, she confronts the coping mechanisms to which young people face resort in an oppressive society.
Rendezvous with Madness, which returns as a hybrid event with screenings happening online and in-person at its new digs at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, should remind audiences of the therapeutic benefit of shared experiences. For example, the festival selection Bigger than Trauma considers the power of collective catharsis. The film directed by Vedrana Pribačić features a group survivors of sexual violence endured during the Croatian War of Independence. The film observes how they form a support circle to share their experiences while seeking justice. Although it’s a difficult film, Bigger than Trauma is one of the festival’s stronger entries. It matter-of-factly observes the healing process without fixating on trauma.
“The success of Bigger than Trauma is in its ability to call out the injustice done to these women by not just their assailants, but also by their own government and justice system,” wrote Rachel Ho while reviewing the film at Hot Docs. “Not only were these women ignored, they were actively suppressed in sharing their stories. Pribačić does well to avoid painstakingly rehash the assaults and abuse, but focus on the aftermath and what can and should be done to help these individuals.”
While Bigger than Trauma deals with conversations of wellness explicitly, RWM looks beyond the expected. It offers an expansive view to illustrate the intersections of mental health with diverse social and political factors. Many of the films in this year’s festival, at first glance, might not seem like the usual RWM fare. Toronto filmmaker Luke Galati, for example, tackles issues of police brutality and systemic racism in When We Reach Out, Who Should Respond?. While these conversations have been top of mind since the racial reckoning of 2020, few films have looked to ways in which reallocation of services can ensure that first responders are trained to react empathetically when working with people experiencing incidents related to mental health. Galati draws upon his own encounter with a bipolar episode to ask how police services can address issues of mental health via alternative crisis response.
Expanding the Conversation
Other personal explorations come in the Toronto encore of Reid Davenport’s groundbreaking doc I Didn’t See You There. The film, which won the U.S. directing prize at Sundance, offers an experimental portrait of city life from the p.o.v. of a camera affixed to Davenport’s wheelchair. On one hand, I Didn’t See You There brings a productive first-person account of living with disabilities as it reinvents the city symphony film by documenting Davenport’s travels. On the other hand, it asks viewers to consider the invisible mental health toll that is intimately linked to factors that are more visible, like physical disability and barriers to accessibility.
“I think that really came about from ingesting so much material around disability studies and believing the tenet that disability is not an individual medical condition, but rather a politic identity claimed by people who are marginalized as others,” Davenport told POV in an interview during Sundance. “That made a lot more sense to me, seeing the inaccessibility that was rampant throughout society and the attitude throughout society. I came to the realization that this is not my caused by me; this was caused by society.”
Similarly, films like Mis dos voces / My Two Voices consider the relationship between migration and mental health. The doc by Lina Rodriguez offers a poetic triptych in which Latin America women articulate their experiences as immigrants in Canada. Positioning the speakers outside the frame, Rodriguez’s film situates viewers within the politics of displacement. “As Mis dos voces creates a disconnect between the words spoken in voiceover and the images displayed on screen, the film evokes the reality that Canadians too rarely pay attention to immigrant experiences, particularly those by women and/or people of colour,” I wrote while reviewing the film upon its premiere at Berlin. “What the film does in creating this contrast, however, is invite one to listen.”
Inspiration and Laughter
Rendezvous with Madness tackles issues of environmentalism and the weight of climate change in Bigger than Us. Executive produced by Marion Cotillard, the documentary directed by Flore Vasseur offers a portrait of youth activists. They fight for a greener future, rather than be overwhelmed by the forecast. Perhaps more than any doc at the festival, Bigger than Us harnesses the theme of rebellion with a positive spin. “[I]ts intention [is] to inspire more than to deeply inform, opening the door for those to do the heavy lifting and at least light a spark in those that may genuinely may wish to make whatever corner of the world they wish to address a better place,” noted Jason Gorber while reviewing the film for POV during Cannes. “This is a film free of cynicism.”
While the film programming might sound heavy, Rendezvous with Madness also affords its audience a little levity. The theatre side, for example, features Public Speaking through Comedy. The play by Stephan Dyer and Juan Cajiao riffs on the popularity of TED Talks ad online speaking gigs that exploded during the virtual shift. But the show also highlights the value of getting out and enjoying the show with an audience. Laughter sounds much different with a group than it does alone.