Starting May 5 at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital will be a film series showing one movie a week each Tuesday night at 6:30 for three months. It is open to the entire institution as well as the public.
But there is more; there is a story behind it, one of affirmation, one of hope.
On the day I arrived to teach my first class almost two years ago, St. Elizabeth’s rose before me, a juggernaut draped in darkness. Entering, I roamed its halls, a maze that surrounds a central section, the heart – but still, silent it sat as I walked and walked. Having seen the inside of psychiatric units and treatment centers before, witnessing their leather couches, their cushiony chairs, I felt imposed upon by the looming structure around me, a remnant of a past age in the American mental health care system.
Deinstitutionalization, which commenced in the 60s, spilling patients into community centers for their treatment, had tried to scrub away what I was feeling – a sense of futility, of foreboding. As I meandered to my classroom, I saw that I was actually lost, both literally and metaphorically. Scripted to teach them writing and film, I thought of those intellectual pursuits, their challenges. Would it be too arduous? How would I reach them? Without knowing it, I was of the belief that the blank walls of this megalithic building were somehow akin to the minds of the mentally ill held within.
How wrong I was.
When I decided to show them a film, just for enjoyment, they chimed, “No, play ‘City Lights.’” “Rudy,” the other choice I was suggesting, a solid film, was universally panned by them. In the end, they wanted “City Lights”: Charlie Chaplin and the expressions of a silent art long gone. I wasn’t just impressed by their sensibilities; I was embarrassed to have pigeonholed them with stigma.
When Emily Monahan presented me with the opportunity to lead the film series, I foresaw a sea of intent eyes watching films and in the collective verve that I could nurture and develop through cinema, a sense of prejudice against the mentally ill in our country might be quelled. Film was perfect for this endeavor.
The patients could appropriate the language of cinema to give themselves voice when, ironically, entertainment can be a prevalent vehicle of stigma against them. It would, in fact, not be a call to arms, to go out and use the lenses of their eyes for capturing injustices, the sound of their voices for protest, but an attempt to harness that which might be foreign to them: the world and its lilting song. Between them and this song is distance, estrangement, and I set about finding a way, by my method and content, to show them how to close the gap. I chose films that shine, shine enough to lead them down a road I have travelled in my own struggles, an avenue leading, no matter the shadows, to the light of acceptance. In essence, this series could be their way of learning to sing in their own unique, beautiful voices, and, should they choose, bring their fortitude and wisdom to the world to participate in humanity’s greatest show: the show of life.
So here is the focal point of the first month of the series, science fiction: what we are, what we could be, and of course, that which we should cease being entirely. Starting with “Gravity,” the tether of the film will tie us all together in our mission. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, connected by a long cord in orbit, float around each other, jockeying for position as they fix a deteriorating shuttle, almost brushing each other at the shoulder, but never quite touching. There is always the astronaut’s cord between them, though, signaling the attempt, the possibility of them meeting. At that point the film makes a subtle statement: With the promise of technology comes a limiting of the space between us, a coming together. But the sweeping pans of the camera suddenly add a feeling of disconnection, as the shuttle is found to be unrepairable, despite Clooney and Bullock’s best efforts. Without it, the astronauts have no way home to their friends, their loved ones; they face nothing but a sea of darkness between them, and eventually their last hope, the straining cord between them, is cut by a rogue piece of space debris. Technology’s promise of connection is left to keen softly in its failure as they drift, alone, victims of man’s hubris.
Victims of disenfranchisement can relate.
Like “Gravity,” metaphor is used in “The Brother from Another Planet,” “The Truman Show,” and “Oblivion,” exploring questions vastly and probing intellectually with, at times, a single notion or iconic image – the “2001: A Space Odyssey” monolith, for example. Yet it is science fiction, and, in my opinion, there is a bit of distance inherent to it for its casting into the future. Its revelations are poignant in a cerebral sense, but the heart is left relatively unfulfilled by its stories. However, the patients will slowly be fed; lighting the way will be the beating drum in their chests, triggered by the idea that film can comment on important ideas relevant to the world. They will learn cinema, too, has a voice. That a movie can add depth and life to a topic in a creative, artful manner will be their first step at shrinking the space between them and the rest of society. It’s their first step in fighting stigma, by singing with their own songs, loudly and with pride. Intertwining will be the chords of their own voices, fortifying through each other, as we launch into love stories, then films of adversity.
And in preparation for this event, I think back to how they sang during the very last class I taught – “our class,” I dub it. I can remember their chatter ringing throughout the halls of St. Elizabeth’s, welcoming me when I had been so estranged, standing at its darkened entrance.
From their vivacity, my own stigma against them has been stoutly rebutted. I am grateful for this. Walking down those byzantine corridors back to the metro, I could not help but feel blessed that I had just spent the past hour and a half with their eager faces, showing them how I stay sane in a crazy world.
I can say the word “crazy,” so don’t fret. If you come to the series, you will find out how and why I take the power of it.