Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

Ahead of Scotland’s first Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, Kirstin Innes spoke to organiser Lee Knifton about dialogues, drama and positive mental action

Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Ian Curtis, Andy Warhol, Andy Kaufman, Daniel Johnson, Sarah Kane, Kurt Cobain. I could go on. There’s a litany of high-profile creative figures known to have suffered from some form of mental illness, glamorised and iconified throughout history and on bedroom walls. Hollywood loves its ‘tortured geniuses’ too, churning out glossy, tragic biopics almost annually.

Six months ago, Lee Knifton, who works for the NHS tackling mental health stigma in Scotland, began plans for a two-day cinema festival of more realistic films that celebrated and highlighted the links between mental health and creativity. The programme has grown since: Knifton is now the director of a two-week long, 40-event multi-art form festival, about to take over 16 venues across Glasgow and Lanarkshire, and while palpably excited about the programme, he’s also hugely aware of public preconceptions.

‘This isn’t a campaign – it’s an arts festival. We’re not trying to deliver any sort of message; we’re not putting out any sort of negative instruction like ‘don’t discriminate’. We’re just trying to increase awareness of the positive contributions people with mental health issues can and have made.’

As the programme expanded, increasingly well-known Scottish musicians, artists, filmmakers and comedians have come on board, but Knifton is clear that this isn’t just another issue-driven opportunity for stars to make themselves look worthy.

‘I’m really wary of this attitude we seem to be getting a lot of recently: ‘Hey, you’ve got an issue! Let’s have a concert for it that bears no relation to anything!’ We’re not just using the arts as a vehicle to hitch a cause on – mental health is for many artists a source of huge inspiration, and there are so many proven links between mental illness and creativity. Being able to explore this, with the public, in a more sophisticated way, is what we’re hoping to get from this programme.’

The festival is divided into loose strands: exhibitions and theatre examine the history of mental health awareness (a play at the Citizen’s Theatre about the pioneering anti-psychiatry psychiatrist RD Laing has already sold out), a DIY film competition offers members of the public a chance to ineract with the images presented, and a series of smaller events will use cinema, art and discussion forums to explore what mental health means to various marginalised Scottish communities. The cinema and music line-ups are thoroughly impressive – Billy Boyd, Emma Pollock, Cosmic Rough Riders, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and the BMX Bandits were all confirmed at the time of going to press, alongside screenings of Control and The Devil and Daniel Johnson.

‘Well, there’s no point being worthy if the events aren’t any good,’ says Knifton, reasonably enough. ‘The one single thing we want to do is spark off dialogues about the issues we’re raising.’
To get people talking and actively engaging with mental health issues? ‘Yeah, and arguing, you know!’

The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, Glasgow, Thu 4–Fri 19 Oct. See for full listings.


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