Jonathan Balazs and the Mars Project

This post was written by Jonathan Balazs who took “A History of Madness” and is the creator of the documentary The Mars Project.Jonathan Balazs holds a camera in  front of his left eye.

My foray into Mad culture has been brief, but illuminating.

It never felt right, questioning depression, schizophrenia or addiction, but I got a kick out of abnormal psychology, and the discovery of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (D.S.M.) with all it’s explanations for disorders I never knew existed. I took for granted that Mad Peoples’ stories were steeped in delusion, because crazy people talking was just crazy-talk and doctors had the answers.

During my final year of film school in the winter term of 2010 I enrolled in a course called “A History of Madness”, which came highly recommended from a number of my friends, probably because they knew about my second-year character profile documentary “The Mars Project” (you can watch the original 5-minute short here), which would later develop into a bigger film, Mars Project, playing on Saturday, October 11th at Mad in America’s International Film Festival.

I attribute, in large part, my association with Ryerson University’s School of Disability Studies to my awakening in Mad studies, analysis of mental health systems as well as rethinking psychiatry altogether. I began to recognize the importance of language in discourse on the subject, having never made the connection between oppressive terminology vs. lived experiences of Madness. I began to realize through my experiences with Khari [whose story Mars Project is based on], both off-camera and as director, that there were broader socioeconomic circumstances that underscored his story and were all too true for others sharing the same psych-labels. It seemed too easy to make presumptions and rely on conjecture when talking about “illness” especially when Khari ranted about “succubus emotional Vampires” on pre-Facebook hip hop message boards. A self-declared hedonist, Khari is a living expression of illicit drug culture. I think most people have assumed a crack and crystal meth addiction was the root cause of his extreme eccentricity, without considering that self-medication is common in people with these unpleasant experiences.

At times, it seems like a culture of sickness has become the predominant theme in medicine, of strange new illnesses and people wanting easily available “treatments” for ailments. From psychosurgery to gastric bypass, the medical system seems to have all the answers. Health abnormalities, including mental illness, are things to be probed and researched so that progressive new drug therapies can be developed and sold. If mental disorders present themselves differently across cultures all over the world, I can’t help but think that the “abnormalities” are edifices; artificial labels that don’t in fact bring us closer to understanding anything about ourselves.

I think in every screening of my film Mars Project somebody walks out within the first six minutes because of the often times harsh language of rap culture, but also because of Khari’s very unconventional beliefs that fly against any sort of mainstream sensibilities. I think that sometimes we’re so busy pushing negativity out, we forget that we can learn from our mistakes. Sadness, frustration, humiliation and anger can all be valuable tools to make change. The preoccupation with not being sad flies in the face of success framed by failures. As a filmmaker, I know that if we’d let lack of financing or backing of a network prevent us from producing this film, I would not be traveling to the U.K. or Boston to show Mars Project; nor would I be working on my next documentary which focuses on the turbulent nosology of schizophrenia.

Making films imbued with mental health themes has been inspiring, but difficult. There is a huge amount of competition for documentary funds that are continuously shrinking. Mad stories are becoming more accepted, but I think we have over-simplified concepts like stigma when it comes to people with challenges.

I’ve been inspired by the questions that swirl around psychiatry, and its D.S.M. designations of mental illness and schizophrenia. Through my research and personal journey into the topic of mental health, I’ve been gloriously humbled and find great value in learning how to think critically of everything, including the way I think.

Producing Mars Project has left an indelible mark on the way I perceive people and these issues. While it’s sparked intellectual antagonism, I’m excited by the prospects that lay ahead; of future research in medicine, but also in the way we see these mental health issues and explain them. I’m looking forward to showing the film on the east coast as well as meeting allies in the struggle.



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