Theater / Film

At Reel Minds Miami film festival, a search for healing and answers

Written By Mike Hamersly
May 14, 2019 at 12:35 PM

An independent film festival is by nature a powerful force, as it allows artists to express their visions without interference or unwanted “creative direction” from major studios. Simply put, when people are free to tell the stories they were meant to tell, more often than not the results will be profoundly moving. Add a common theme such as mental illness, which hits home with almost everyone, and the result can be heart-wrenching.

The Reel Minds Miami Mental Health Film Festival will be presented by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) of Miami-Dade County on Sunday, May 19, at the Donna E. Shalala Center at the University of Miami. It will showcase six short films that address various mental-health challenges.

The festival, now in its fourth year, aims to raise awareness and dispel the myths behind mental illness through an artistic forum, with the ultimate goal of inspiring, empowering and even healing. Topics include depression, suicide, homelessness, OCD, bullying and schizophrenia.

“What we’re hoping to do here is change people’s perspectives and have them talk about it, understand and get help beforehand,” says Kathryn Coppola, executive director of NAMI Miami-Dade. 

Coppola’s family has been directly affected by mental illness: Her brother has had issues for many years, with a changing diagnosis that went from just being a “quiet guy” to bipolar disorder to schizoaffective disorder.

“Looking back at it, if we had seen something in high school or college, maybe things would have been different,” says Coppola, who moved to Miami from Boston and started with NAMI Miami-Dade as a volunteer four years ago. “Everybody’s story — whether it’s bipolar, schizophrenia, anxiety — is different.”

Coppola sees the film festival’s mission as similar to NAMI’s — education, support and advocacy. “We think that this is addressing a critical public health issue in Miami-Dade in a very unique way,” Coppola says, “especially with Miami having such a high rate of Hispanic-American and African-American communities. Both of those communities use mental-health services at half the rates of whites. So if you educate, you reduce the discrimination and the stigma that goes along with it.”

The six films in the festival were chosen from almost 200 submissions by a panel of about 40 judges, including college and high school students, filmmakers, actors, mental-health specialists, family members and people who have a mental-health condition themselves. The films include: “The Terms of Us,” by Roberto Sanchez, about mental health and homelessness; “Baby Steps,” by Eric Dyson, about suicide of a father and the suicidal ideation of a son; “Misdirection,” by Carly Usdin, about OCD; “Reverie,” by Nick Markham, about schizophrenia; “Saving Billy,” by Vickie Adams, about homelessness and substance use disorder; and “UkeLayla,” by a team of graduates from the University of Central Florida, about speech impairment and bullying.

Roberto Sanchez, a Cuban-born, Miami-raised Navy veteran, was inspired to make “The Terms of Us” when his best friend’s mother died in 2013. Her death stirred up latent emotions about Sanchez’s own mother.

“That really had me reflect a lot on my relationship with my mom, who I hadn’t seen in about 11 years for a variety of reasons — things that sometimes we go through as kids,” Sanchez says.

One chilling detail Sanchez reveals in the film is that as a child, he couldn’t remember what his mother had told him to do that day, and as punishment she made him stand up at the end of her bed through the night until he remembered. When Sanchez couldn’t remember, she made him do it again the next night.

“There are certain levels of abuse, certain arguments and certain things that are just hard to let go,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older, I started to realize that my mom suffered from depression and from being bipolar, and that as a kid these were things I didn’t know. And now, I’ve been able to reflect back on those moments, like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what that was, and what this is — perhaps that’s what caused her to treat me like that.’ And that’s basically what inspired me to look for her.”

During Sanchez’s search, along with his brother and cousin, several painful details came to light about what had been happening with his mother in those 11 lost years. “It turns out that at certain times she was homeless,” Sanchez says. “And there were times when I would drive by and see homeless people in the street, and for some reason it has always affected me differently than perhaps other people — other people might not even notice. But with me, I didn’t know why, but every time I saw homeless people, it just affected me. And I don’t know if there was a connection there.”

After the screening of each film at the Reel Minds festival, an individual will speak about the film’s topic to provide further insight on its message. Sanchez will talk about “The Terms of Us” for a few minutes. “Usually, people want to ask me technical questions,” he says. “But at this particular festival, it’s more about mental illness, and I’m sure that the questions will be about why I didn’t reach out to [my mother] over 11 years, and why I didn’t recognize the signs. And I just think that as a 15- or 16-year-old kid, back then, we didn’t know what being bipolar was. I don’t think we dealt too much with or spoke about depression.

“I think, for me, making this film, hopefully anybody that sees it will reevaluate relationships in their lives with people that they’re no longer talking to,” Sanchez continues. “I think that we can all relate to that to some degree. And if it doesn’t matter, fine: It’s not about fixing all these relationships. But if at least you think about it and you realize, you know, ‘What did we argue about? What was all that about?’ — maybe we can make peace and move forward. That’s what I hope, and I also hope that people are not embarrassed — especially men — to talk about depression and being bipolar and actually having feelings. Seeing how men are, sometimes we’re scared to open up, and I think that’s a stigma that we’ve got to help break.”

NAMI Miami-Dade’s Reel Minds Miami Mental Health Film Festival will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at the University of Miami’s Donna E. Shalala Center Grand Ballroom, 1330 Miller Drive, in Coral Gables. Tickets are free. Go to NAMIMiami.org.

Photo: Filmmaker Roberto Sanchez, left, and his director of photography, Wesley Rodriguez, during the making of “The Terms of Us.” Photo courtesy Roberto Sanchez.

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