Film-fest aims to end stigma of mental illness


Dozens of people attended the annual Mental Health Film Festival in Greenwich Village this weekend to watch films selected with the aim of ending the stigma of mental illness.

Six films were shown to a packed Village East Cinema on Saturday, followed by question and answer segments in which e members of the audience were able to have an open discussion with some of the filmmakers.

The festival, in its 11th year, was hosted by Community Access, a program to expand opportunities for people living with mental health concerns by providing housing and healing-focused services, among many other services. It has screened over 50 films and has had over 5,000 audience members at the annual festivals.

Carla Rabinowitz, the festival organizer, welcomed the audience members in the morning and introduced the goal of the festival. “One in four people in the United States lives with mental illness, yet society continues to stigmatize mental health recipients as violent, weak or incapable, and in need of constant medication,” she said. “This film festival shines a light on how mental health consumers and their families employ humor, courage, and their natural gifts to make positive contributions, earn respect, and counter preconceived ideas about mental illness.”

Starting the day was the comedic musical film “Patient’s Rites, a Musical Documentary,” created by and staring Issa Ibrahim, who spent nearly 20 years in Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens after killing his mother during a psychotic episode. The catchy pop tunes featured in this film were all written and performed by Ibrahim, who uses art to heal his mind.

Also among the films was the world premiere of “No Letting Go,” based on an award-winning short, “Illness.” This movie depicted the life of a family whose middle son struggles with bipolar disorder. The open forum following the film included some of the people who worked on it, along with the young man on whom the story was based, his mother being a co-producer and co-writer.

The films mainly focused on trying to dismantle the stigma that surrounds mental illness. “How to Touch a Hot Stove” addressed thought and behavioral differences in a society of “norms.” It made the point that “stigma is made, not given. And if it can be made, it can be unmade.” This film also compared the fight for civil rights for the mentally ill to efforts based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.

The final film of the day was a documentary about the organization called Stand Up for Mental Illness. Created by comedian and trained therapist David Granirer, “Cracking Up” followed a group of people living with mental illness who took their pain and turned it into comedy.

Granirer leads the group and coaches its members to become stand up comedians. He set up shows for them, took them on a road trip, and showed them that even though they have a mental illness, they are more than that, and that there is hope for them yet.

By the end of the film, the group had sold out an auditorium in a “graduation” performance — and gained  the confidence  needed to overcome their mental illness and live their lives to the fullest despite it.

Photo:  Dr. Alice Maher, seated, left; Lois Oppenheim, actor John Turturro and Issa Ibrahim are interviewed at the Mental Health Film Festival about their work. (Kari Ford)

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