Across some of the best work in Open City Documentary Festival's shorts programmes, one connecting thread could be drawn. Many of the selected films explored ways of documenting the workings (or failures) of the mind, batches of short films that look at mental health and cognitive failures, or acts of remembering and forgetting, learning anew. These films often used experimental forms to express psychological states, or mixed found and recorded materials to cross timelines and connect generations. The best of them evoked the sensation of being inside the heads of those involved, without exploiting the difficulties that entails.
Hoping to better understand his own challenges, in Alexithymia, Duncan Cowles speaks with a man with a peculiar condition which means he can’t recognise or describe emotion in his own mind. As their Skype session continues, the filmmaker experiences connection issues of his own, the video call drifting in and out of intelligibility, words getting caught, thoughts lost, and the screen stuttering with the distinctly uneasy image-sound delay of broadband lag. What seems primarily like an aesthetic exercise quickly becomes an emotional one, as the subject increasingly struggles to understand himself and his behaviours whilst the filmmaker simultaneously battles to get ahold of them for the purpose of portraiture. A complex, challenging work from a talented new documentarian with an preoccupation with the complexities of repressive male emotional states, Cowles’ film hits with an expected psychological impact - finding profundity in disconnection, and resonance in dissonance.
Also concerned with disconnect is Esther Wellejus' You Are Still Somebody's Someone, a humble, affecting letter to the filmmaker's estranged father. Delving through her own history, Wellejus, narrating over a patchwork flicker of 8mm home movies, opens with “here I am with a time that’s all broken," immediately establishing a loose, dreamlike chronology that the imagery furthers. Mixing her own poetic musings in with cassette recordings, Wellejus delves into the subject of her father's disappearance, examining both the impact of his actions on her as well as the possible sources of his distance. Artful and careful, Wellejus' portrait is poetic and psychological, an examination into the wide reaching ruin of mental illness that is sensitive, touching and frequently beautiful.
"Sometimes I feel ecstasy and sometimes I feel deep sadness." Another film built from familial letters, Tom Jeffery's Inherent stages a reenactment of a pivotal moment in the lives of the filmmakers family's past, exploring how the ramifications of even the smallest of acts can reverberate through time and the generations. Beginning with readings from letters sent between the filmmaker's grandparents, Jeffery sensitively and evocatively mines this personal archive through conversations with his mother that explore her response to the newly discovered material, as well as the meanings behind a letter she wrote herself, long ago. Alongside this, a gently cycling series of carefully composed static 16mm images of the home and the body compliment the sense of mood established by the audio. through to a subtly impactful conclusion.
Also mixing memory and archive, Lucy Kaye's Memory Songs looks into the therapeutic effect of music on elderly dementia sufferers. An Oliver Sacks quote on the opening card states that those with dementia "still have a self to call on," and Kaye's doc explores how group music therapy can go some way into restoring this. As the organiser explains, music classes reactivate something in even the most distant and dispirited of individuals, letting the music "sing to the mind." Memory Songs' recorded footage and interview segments are affecting if a little inert, but Kaye employs one trick that elevates affairs. Cutting between portraits of the pensioners in their youth and footage of them singing jubilantly in the class, Kaye connects the newly awakened current selves with their more vital past ones, showing the glow seen in these pictures of youth returning in their elderly eyes.
A more exciting experiment in representing memory cinematically, Josh Yates' multi-format, polyrhythmic contemporary home movie montage This Is Yates. Cycling through periods in the filmmaker's own life that are scrambled together in a rapid, digressive montage, Yates' makes a energetic, multivariate portrait of the fragmentation of modern memory out of a barrage of cut and spliced self-taped material. Early sequences featuring teenage stunts, fights, skate sessions, hangouts, pranks and parties give way to more ruminative material, focusing on the experience of grief and the onset of adult life, making this more complicated than it first appears. The whole thing displays an ingenuity of editing that feels both random and calculated, connected micro-sequences from various life stages that piece together into an elusive whole, a large chunk of life compressed into a spastic, aestheticised slice.
Concerned with issues that link all of the above films, Edvard Karijord and Bendik Mondal's I'm Free explores a disquieting trio of memory, loss and mental illness. A family portrait made in the wake of the loss of a family member, the filmmakers' delve into the family's archive, probe them with questions, and stage reenactments to try to find answers to the questions that haunt them. The film seems to set itself up as a murder mystery, exploring the vanishing of a Norwegian family's adult son after a hike into the wilderness, but it quickly becomes something else. Plagued by mental health issues after a bright, bold childhood, Geir Karijord starts to slip away from his family and "into his own mind". After he disappears without trace, he leaves his parents and siblings in a state of limbo, wracked by guilt at their own inability to intervene in his private turmoil and confused by his disappearance. Mondal and Karijord, in their understated film, obviously cannot resolve this psychological toil, nor solve the mystery at the centre, but by making something of a tribute - a mix of insightful interviews, touching archive and cold, icy landscape cinematography - they record his memory well, as well as evoking sensitively the damage of unaddressed ill mental health.
This was originally posted on the Shooting People blog.