The ‘Light and Dark’ of Mental Illness (UNAFF 2014)

ff_lightMental illness is, in many cases, an uncomfortable topic. Any mention of it brings up a sort of painful awareness, a desire to move on to a different subject. It’s that ugly vase your aunt gave you for Christmas, the one you hide in the back of your closet and bring out only for family visits. Not many argue against eliminating the stigma of mental illness, or helping those in need before it’s too late. Few do much about this ugly vase–we just keep shoving it back in the closet.

Filmmaker Veronica Lopez chose instead to act, putting her very own vase on display in her 10-minute short documentary Light and Dark. Ten minutes isn’t a lot of time to impact an audience, yet that’s exactly what Lopez accomplishes in showing us her 21-year old nephew Nathaniel, Natty for short, who suffered a psychotic break last fall. Lopez startles us from the start with her confession that in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, she couldn’t help but compare 20-year old gunman Adam Lanza to her own nephew. This sets the raw tone for the film—Lopez is showing mental illness as it is, refusing to sugarcoat even her own views about it.

Lopez is familiar with the inner workings of the brain, having received a BA in psychology from UC Berkeley and a PhD in behavioral neuroscience from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She’s also a Stanford alum, graduated from the MFA Documentary Film and Video Program in 2014. With her education and and her interest in documentary filmmaking, Lopez created a film about how we view those with mental illnesses, and how wrong we are in characterizing them so quickly. She reveals to us that the world of her nephew and others who live with mental illness is not so different from everyone else’s after all. It was only fitting that Light and Dark was screened at the 2014 United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF), whose theme this year was “Bridging the Gap.” UNAFF received over 600 submissions internationally, and Lopez’s film was one of only 70 that were chosen to be screened.

The filmmaking itself reflects a down-to-earth, realistic view on mental illness. Lopez doesn’t edit the occasionally shaky footage or unclear audio. We hear Natty in real-time, describing how he saw “a drone flying overhead,” or had made a chemical suit from his robe to protect against the Wi-Fi router. Lopez then puts her own spin on “a day in the life of,” leaving her camera in Natty’s hands over a period of several days. What we see is a normal boy, one who claims he “needs a girlfriend,” and, upon seeing his face in the camera, initially comments only on his acne. Lopez realizes that Natty is not just a ticking time bomb, but simply a teenager going through life, and we experience this realization alongside her.

Lopez is candid with Natty about her initial thoughts. After the Sandy Hook shooting, Lopez drew a connection between her nephew and Lanza. She hadn’t seen her nephew often, and turned to Facebook (what else?) to see what he’d been up to. Natty’s cover photo showed him holding an AR-15, a small arms rifle–an image that scared Lopez. She shares these thoughts with Natty, eliciting a small and disappointed “oh” upon hearing his likeness, in Lopez’s eyes, to Lanza. It’s moments like these that bother our conscience as an audience, even more so when Natty admits that the comparison hurts his feelings, but he understands. We’re forced to take a step back and evaluate our own habit of jumping to conclusions when it comes to mental illness, forced to examine our own ugly vases. How can we judge people like Natty so quickly and thoughtlessly? Lopez acknowledges that the cover photo, a source of her concern, may have more to do with Natty’s love for attention than with his troubled mental state. The cover photo wouldn’t ring warning bells for a “normal” person, so why is it that we can take tragic events like Sandy Hook and let them to color our perception of all those suffering mental illnesses?

After his psychotic break, Natty was moved to a boarding care facility temporarily, until his younger sister graduated high school. He was the youngest person at the facility, isolating him even more in a world that already doesn’t welcome him. The film ends on a transformative note as Lopez reflects on Natty, her introspective nephew who, at the end of the day, poses no threat. We, too, have gone from viewing Natty as a potential danger to a young guy simply trying to fit in. Since the making of this film a year and a half ago, Natty has been able to move back home but still struggles; he has since been hospitalized twice and can’t completely work around his disease.

We are scared of what we don’t know, and mental illness, for many of us, certainly falls under the category of “the unknown.” In Light and Dark, the fear emerges from a lack of understanding. Lopez recognizes that the root of her fear of Natty stemmed from not knowing him well enough. But by the end of the film, after getting to know him better, she not only feels she understands Natty, but looks forward to spending time with him. With Light and Dark, Lopez has placed her ugly vase on view for all of us to see—and, the longer we look, perhaps it’s not so ugly after all.


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