A Conversation with Geoff Pevere on Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival

The scope of conversations on mental health and mental wellness is widening. I’m thankful for that. It’s hard to find an outlet where one can share their experiences safely and be met with understanding. A real understanding, not just an apologetic comment along the lines of ‘sorry you’re having a rough time right now. Understanding from people who have firsthand experiences to match your own.

The Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival is the first mental health film festival of its kind with the largest reach in the world. This is something Toronto can be proud of. We had the opportunity to chat with Geoff Pevere, the festival programmer, to get a glimpse of what to expect in this years line-up.

Kimberley Drapack: You are celebrating 25 years. What can we expect from this year’s festival?

Geoff Pevere: We’re sticking to the formula that has worked for us over the years which is presenting films from around the world that provide an opportunity for people to talk about their own experience or people that they know and to approach the subject of mental health, recovery and addiction from as many different angles as possible. It’s really important that the films are not just shown on their own but as an opportunity for people to discuss their own experience.

We have a number of different discussions and events taking place which hopefully will only enhance people’s appreciation of the films we’re showing.

K: Rendezvous is the first and largest mental health film festival in the world. Tell us more about that.

GP: The festival began 25 years ago and it was the iniative of Workman Arts, which is 30 years old. It was founded by two nurses two were working CAMH at the time. When they witnessed people, who had mental health issues, and when they had the opportunity to be as creative as they wanted to be and in the way they wanted to be, it was something that was meaningful and helpful to them. It helped them to express themselves. The idea came up to start the film festival and we gathered films across the world, documentaries, short film that document mental health issues. It was the first event of its kind. It is the oldest event of its kind.

It’s something that Toronto should be way prouder of, given the fact that the mental health conversation is wider as it’s ever been, you think they would credit that we were there first. Rendezvous is a terrific festival. Unlike any of the other film festivals that take place in Toronto because it has such a tight focus and it can have such a personal impact.

K: I think often people find it difficult to speak about mental illness. But I think we’re doing a lot better now in opening up conversations so that people can share their experiences.

GP: Almost all mental health issues share a feeling on the part of the person who is experience it that they are alone. That nobody understands them and that they are isolated. The most important thing you can do to open up conversation and make people feel comfortable talking about the films and to those who are close to them.

We show terrific films, but most importantly, we give people the opportunity of taking the experience of watching the film and applying it to their own lives. We hope they leave there with a stronger sense that there are other people going through what they are around the world, everyday.

K: It brings a community aspect to it that they wouldn’t necessarily find at most places.

GP: What a lot of film festivals do is focus on the films, which is understandable, but a lot of them are very specific in terms of their audience and their outreach. For example, you have indigenous film festivals, LGBT film festivals, etc. This is one that is different because the focus is on these conversations and the films are important because they provide the opportunity. These are films that are designed to stimulate conversation, and that is what gives Rendezvous its distinction.

It’s sometimes challenging to make your presence and your identity known in a city that is crowded with events and film festivals. Getting the message out about what we’re doing and why it’s different is hard. There are people who will roll their eyes or turn away, simply because of the words, “mental health.” They think it’s going to be heavy, they think it’s going to be dark, and yes, some are, but I would argue that they all provide a compelling experience that will allow people to reflect on their own and share it with people that are there.

K: How do you stay true to the story without over-sensationalizing the plot?

GP: We try to reflect as many perspectives as possible, but if I’m looking at something which I feel is simply taking advantage of someone’s mental health, either for the occasion of comedy, or horror, and people are not being treated in a way that helps us understand them, then we are looking at an over sensationalizing of the plot.

Our films do not exploit their subjects, but are curious about their subjects and they allow their subjects to be considered as objectively as possible. We try to steer clear of the sensationalizing because as great as these movies have been about opening up our understanding of mental health issues, in many cases, what they have done is reinforce a stigma. The idea that crazy people should be locked away, and psychotic people are all serial killers – all those things are absolutely incorrect and unfortunately, they are presumptions you see still a lot in film.

K: What criteria are you looking for when choosing a film for the festival?

GP: The process begins by going to the major festivals early in the year and seeing what they’re showing. Festivals like Sundance, Berlin, and South by Southwest, is usually where we begin to look for things. We also have contacts with a lot of distributors around the world who we have worked with, and we send out notifications to them that we are looking for things.

We also have an open submission policy. In the last two years, I’d say that we’ve had 250 films that were submitted from around the world. We try to watch as many as we can, but we don’t watch everything because if it is in the category of pure sensationalism, we’re not interested, or if it’s not something that looks like it will generate a terribly interesting conversation.

I’m looking for films that, when you put them all together in the context of a single festival, provide the most opportunity to see the way the world is thinking about mental health at the moment.

You will find films in our festival from Bulgaria, England, Turkey, Iran, Australia. I’m looking for a balanced program, something that is well represented, and films that people are going to react to and want to discuss afterwards.

K: You have a really wide scope. Is there a short time period in which you need to produce your line-up?

GP: We arrive at the first draft of the line-up in late July. From April to July I am mostly just looking at images of mental health issues. I’m laughing because people always ask me, “do you worry about what the effects of might be on you?”

The fact is, it’s a good question, but I can get so excited and stimulated by something I recognize as saying something that either hasn’t been said before or is being said in an interesting way. That to me is really thrilling to see. That, contributing to my own stability, which is precarious at the best of times, but mostly, I’m looking for things that are challenging and that are exciting.

The impact on me watching these films makes me think: maybe I’m crazy, but it makes me want to see more.

K: Tell us about the opening film, Mad to be Normal. Why was this given the top spot?

GP: I was curious when I saw Mad to be Normal because it is a portrait of a few years in the life of the guy who was known as the head of the “anti-psychiatry” movement in the 1960’s. His name was R.D. Lang, and was really well known. He was notorious in London for a facility he ran which was a combination of a psychiatric hospital and commune. He mostly kept patients there who were suffering from schizophrenia. He refused to medicate them and restrict what they were doing and encouraged them to practice art. As a result of this he became extremely controversial and shut out by the psychiatric community. The interesting thing is, that a lot of what R.D. Lang was trying to point out about schizophrenia, which is not a disease that is manifested the same way in any two patients, and that you simply can’t medicate people because in many cases it means that people are verging on catatonic.

R.D. Lang is played in the film by David Tennant, a Scottish actor known from Jessica Jones and Dr. Who. It’s interesting because it’s a portrait of psychiatric practice in the past that was considered radical that now looks extremely compelling and keys in with the ways people are thinking today about mental illnesses like schizophrenia.

It has some big movie stars, David Tennant and Elizabeth Moss, and for our opening night, it feels like the perfect opportunity. The film maker, Robert Mullen, who knew R.D. Lang, is going to be joining us for a conversation.

K: What is your criteria for what shows will open and close the festival? Is there a harder slot to fill?

GP: With both opening and closing night, you tend to get more people who are not normally going to the festival and seeing other films, not exclusively. These events tend to bring people out because they are opening and closing night events. We try to present films that are accessible and interesting to general audiences as possible.

The closing night film this year is a really touching personal movement by a film maker who knew a young man who committed suicide when he was in high school because he was suffering from schizophrenia. He felt alone and didn’t know what to do. Any attempts to integrate him or make him feel belonging in society we’re not something that worked for this child. The connection is with the film maker who knew him and the story will suggest to people a lot of their own personal experiences from the past.

The film, Holden On, stimulates discussion and conversation but is extremely compelling and is the kind of movie that doesn’t require a ton of preparation or experience to understand or enjoy it.

K: There is a strong presence of female filmmakers in the program. Is that important to you when you’re trying to diversify the lineup?

GP: We of course are looking for films that represent perspectives and points of view that are underrepresented. Having said that, it wasn’t a plan for the films to have as many women directors or as many women subjects as we found this particular year. It just seems to be that there is a surge in filmmaking activity made by women, dealing with mental health issues. This is really interesting and shows that the conversation is opening up. For years and years, a woman’s mental health experience was exclusively talked about largely by the psychiatric community by male doctors, and largely influenced by Sigmund Freud.

All of these things are now up for grabs and changing and it’s so exciting to see these films. I’m proud to say that it’s not something we went looking for, but there just happened to be so many that were so good.

K: What can we expect from the short films within the line-up?

GP: Either shorts will work as an introduction to features, or in some cases, you see a collection of short films all dealing with the same subject and you realize that if you put these films together, they themselves will make an interesting program.

We have a program that is called Women on the Verge, which is 5 different films about women and made by women that deal with mental health experience. There is another program called Frontiers, which are documentaries from different countries that are all exploring the idea of alternative treatments.

If the short films seem to lend themselves to a designated program, we will do so accordingly. Another thing we’re doing this year, before most of the films, is were going to be showing films made by the individuals of Workman Arts, which is an organization that consists of people with mental health experience creating art. We’re proud to show those short films throughout the festival as part of the 30th anniversary.

It’s frustrating, but it’s also a good problem to have, that the last 3 years I have been doing this, I have more films that I want to show then I have room to show. This is one of the most exciting areas of filmmaking right now.

K: Is there anything you’d like me to include that we haven’t touched on yet?

GP: I would encourage people to go to the website, www.rendezvouswithmadness.ca, take a look at the program and please come down to 651 Dufferin and take it in. If you are curious about any of this or are looking for good films, or if you suspect there is something in the film that pertains to your own experience, or trying to understand something, by all means, come down. We probably have something for you.