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Jonathan Balazs

Mars Project is a documentary directed by filmmaker, Jonathan Balazs, that looks at the life of rapper, Khari “Conspiracy” Stewart, his struggle with the diagnosis of schizophrenia and what the mental health system in Canada may be lacking.

Khari hears two voices, one male, and one female. He calls them “Anacron” and “Anacrona.” Although he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Khari rejects this diagnosis and believes instead that the voices are demons that communicate with him from another planet. He believes he is cursed by “devil magic,” and searches for a spiritual solution.

The Mars Project documents the impact that Khari has on the people in his life, including his twin brother, Addi. Although they are identical twins, only Khari has been affected by schizophrenia, raising questions about the condition’s genetic causal factor.

Throughout the film, a variety of psychiatrists discuss schizophrenia and the mental health system, in an attempt to identify flaws in psychiatry today.

Dr. Kwame McKenzie, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto, as well as equity researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, focuses his research on improving mental health services for minorities. In Mars Project, he talks about the difficulty and problematic nature of classifying mental illness, and more specifically, of classifying schizophrenia:

“ …because we haven’t got the pathology, we can’t say what’s going on in the brain or the mind or whatever, we try and find the symptoms and cluster symptoms together and we say ‘we’ve got this diagnosis or that diagnosis. …and ‘schizophrenia’ is a number of symptoms that have been put together to say that this is ‘an illness’ …and that’s an idea: it’s not a thing”

Mars Project examines the limitations and efficacy of psychiatry, medication and the mental health care system, while intimately getting to know Khari and the dynamic effects schizophrenia has had on his life. In our interview with filmmaker Jonathan Balazs, he talked to us more about what he hoped to achieve with his film.

What inspired you to make the documentary film, Mars Project? Do you have a personal connection to schizophrenia?

This film started as a five-minute mini-documentary I had to produce for a film production class. After completing the assignment, I knew I had only just begun to explore all the issues associated with mental health disorders, psychiatry and ultimately the story of rapper Khari “Conspiracy” Stewart. I have no personal connection to schizophrenia except through the experiences of the main character – Khari – who is also a friend.

What messages do you hope your film, Mars Project, will share with viewers?

Well, first of all, I think it’s important to listen to and empathize with Khari’s psycho-spiritual experiences. He may say things that are unorthodox or that we might not believe in, but that doesn’t mean we, as a society, have the right to dismiss and drug a fellow because he says and acts in ways that are very unconventional. Psycho-pharmacology is just one path to deal with people deemed to have a psychological disorder, but I think it’s become the default mode of treatment in many cases. There is a thread that maybe we can’t answer the question of emotional distress through medical science, maybe it’s not solely levels of serotonin and dopamine. What are the limits to this knowledge?

Addi and Khari are identical twins but only one of them developed schizophrenia. Why did you choose to do your documentary on Khari and his family? Is there a reason why you chose twins?

I chose Khari’s story initially because it was a more interesting film idea than the one I had planned to pitch in the fall semester 2007. I think the fact they’re twins is coincidental, though I would say that this is a major reason why I was so struck by the circumstances: how do two people with the same genetic makeup end up – one with a psychological disorder and one without. This seems like a major challenge for a genetic disposition to a diagnostic label like Schizophrenia.

Your film talks a lot about the harm that stigma attached to mental illness can cause. How do you think we can reduce this stigma in our society?

It won’t be easy and I feel pessimistic about it these days, especially in light of the tragedy in Newtown, CT, the attitudes toward mental illness (or whatever you want to call it) seem to be polarizing toward a pharmacological solution. I don’t know what the solution is to end stigma for psychological disturbed people vs. non-violent individuals deemed to be diseased; all I can do is promote understanding and perhaps illustrate the “real world” effects of psychological disorders. Stigmas seem to come from stereotypes which in turn, come from the omission of information and propagation of myths. Let’s try and present the whole picture and maybe people would be less inclined to make sweeping generalizations with regard to mental health.

In your film, there seems to be a main message about psychiatry – that there is a humanistic aspect missing from treatment and that science fails to capture the uniqueness of individuals when they label them with medical terms such as schizophrenia. Do you think there is something psychiatrists or the medical system could be doing differently or better? What would you like to see changed in our mental health care system?

I don’t think that anything I say could or would change anything, but I do agree that medicine has no business in existential problems. At the same time, there are legitimate medical issues that can have a psychiatric impact, but it’s important to not lump all of these issues in a disease-cure paradigm, rather it’s a matter of personal and social responsibility combined with individual management. I guess the bottom line is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to these issues.

What was the biggest challenge while documenting Khari’s turbulent emotional life and while making this film?

I think it’s translating Khari’s dialogue into a scripted cinematic product. He’s talking about the alien consciousness Anacron candidly, while I’m trying to present this in a way so that my audience doesn’t totally switch-off and dismiss both of us. He wants me to present the information in his way (and I do so respectfully), but I need to make a film that people will want to watch. There have been many pitfalls, but they’ve made our bond stronger and I think we’ve both learned to cope with each other.

Have you followed up with Khari since the documentary was made? How’s he doing?

I see him regularly, we talk music mostly. Our relationship is more entwined than a simple director-subject, since we were friends before we started Mars Project. He’s stable in his duress; still distracted, still being broadcast to and definitely still opinionated. He sent me a text message yesterday telling me that he moved apartments and he’s been in good spirits otherwise.

In your film, both Khari and his twin brother Addi, talk openly about the use of marijuana as a coping mechanism. But we know statistically, that marijuana can actually trigger psychosis in someone who is predisposed to it biologically and be quite harmful. Do you hope to see the use of marijuana change in our society? Do you think education has a bigger role to play?

It’s true that studies have shown correlations to Marijuana use and “predisposed” psychosis, but it’s also true that many users of it do not experience a psychological break – to my knowledge, there is no way to test for it. Isn’t it possible Khari could have been diagnosed had he not touched Marijuana or any of the illicit drugs he’s been a user of? Is there a reliable method to predict this? I tend to think there’s a whole myriad of reasons why some people “snap” and go Mad.

It’s also true that education has a bigger role to play in attitudes about drugs and mental health issues. We need to stop relying on superstition (e.g. dispelling myths like Excited Delirium) to determine outcomes for the way we govern and police individuals under distress, while quantifiable medical problems need to be supported by evidence.

Do you have any words to live by?

Maybe something along the lines of: let outside negativity fuel your ambition.

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Photo captured from YouTube video Mars Project - Trailer