Jonathan Balazs is a Canadian filmmaker who highlights mental health and psychiatry issues in his films, which question our modern day medical models. We were happy to talk to him about his short film called Ludibrium, which focuses on one man’s struggle in a mental institution after he is committed on criminal charges – a domestic assault on his long-time spouse.
Randy is the hapless alcoholic who after his arrest, is sent to a mental hospital for observation where his every move is scrutinized by doctors, staff and even fellow patients.
Ludibrium was inspired by an experiment conducted in 1972 where eight “pseudo-patients” checked themselves into a number of asylums across America. All patients admitted were diagnosed with some form of mental disorder and were only released when their illnesses were in remission (usually achieved through patient compliance).
LUDIBRIUM is distributed by the Winnipeg Film Group.
***Note that this video may be triggering for some.
What made you want to go into filmmaking? What were you doing before you became a filmmaker?
I’ve been making silly videos at school since grade nine which turned into a something of a career pursuit. Additionally, photography was a hobby and at the same time, I was heavily involved in theatre, having studied as an actor and director. I see filmmaking as a hybrid of this visual and performance disciplines, so I suppose that is what attracted me to the practice.
Are there any filmmakers, or artists in general, who you look up to?
I’ve got loads of idols: Orson Welles, Milos Forman, Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, György Palfi and any of those other, more mainstream Hungarian film directors (if there is such a thing). More than a few selected film directors inspiration comes from current events, newspaper articles, books, music, talks, certain pieces of art, day-to-day social interaction, unpleasant experiences – it tends to strike when it’s least expected.
Do you find that your work tends to be stressful at times, or more cathartic and relieving?
Making independent films? Constantly stressful. Whether it’s budgetary or time constraints. No matter how prepared you are, some big obstacle will always get in your way and you have about thirty-seconds to fix something that should have been addressed like five-minutes ago. I find I’m most cathartic when principal shooting is complete and I’m watching rushes with a libation in-hand. Of course, there are those moments when presenting the work for the first time. It’s neat to observe people’s reactions, so when I do sit in on screenings, I’m listening to the person in front of me gasp (hopefully at the right moment) or that fellow laugh. I like to know whether the film’s hitting the right buttons (or if it’s not). I certainly don’t make films to relieve stress in my life.
Artists can be their own biggest critic sometimes, and as a result, a type of creative block happens. Have you ever experienced an obstacle like this, and if so, how did you get through it?
I think at one point or another individuals in the creative fields have some sort of creative block for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s helpful to try and objectify yourself and ask ‘why am I thinking this? How did I come to that conclusion?’ There’s a concept in improv called “blocking” which is a concept that refers to inhibiting narrative momentum. I find there’s always that voice in my head blocking me and sometimes disregarding that self-defeating naysayer and going ahead and trying something stimulates the creative process. Perhaps the key is reconciling that voice with what is possible for a project or task. I strive to make these creative thought patterns more fluid – but we all have bad days sometimes.
What do you do to try to stay positive, and keep calm while filming?
Well it depends on my role. If I am working the camera for a project I’m directing, there’s an element of dissociation that comes with that. Stress rides in the back of my head if I’m trying to solve a given problem. Ludi was different since I was working with a number of people each dedicated to their own aspect of production (cinematographer, gaffer, assistant directors, a producer etc.), so much of the production anxiety that comes was quelled because I had a really dedicated team putting this project together. Anxiety came with other elements of the production, the bigger questions that come with any project, such as: will this leave an impression on anyone? Maintaining a positive attitude is essential for cast and crew morale; I find that it leads to better outcomes.
Describe the process of making Ludibrium (which, by the way, was amazing). How long did it take you to write the script and film it?
It took a year from the time I started writing the project to its first screening (thank you for your kind words). I knew that I wanted to focus on mental health issues, especially in the setting of the hospital environment and I wanted to shoot on multiple formats (I had one idea where every scene would be shot with a different camera to symbolize a different diagnosis), but still necessitated some sort of story to hinge of these concepts on. I did a lot of reading on the patient experience in the asylum and discovered the Rosenhan experiment, which is largely what inspired the film.
Where do you find inspiration for your films? For Ludibrium, what exactly inspired you to write and direct it? What led you into choosing the topic of mental illness?
I find ideas in music, films, writings and every day life. This film was partly inspired by my own ludibrium (the definition is a trivial plaything or game), though definitely not modeled after it. I wanted to explore the issues of liberty, civil rights, gender inequality and psychiatry, especially with regard to forensic or “NCR” (Not Criminally Responsible) patients. What puts them in these institutions? How did they get there?
In Ludibrium, the topic of whether or not Randy, the protagonist, has psychosis is up to the audience. Why did you decide to leave this ambiguous?
If Randy is a protagonist, he’s not a very sympathetic one. His psychosis is a fabrication, exacerbated by a number of factors including ones in his control – but largely not. Any ambiguity is, in my mind, a type of narrative device used to create tension. I think the appeal of a good story in any context is the development of tension and the evolution of characters – a movie is pretty boring if nothing happens and the characters remain static. Part of it serves to reinforce the rhetorical points about psychiatric institutionalization; is Randy mad because he has a legitimate problem or are these issues being created by his circumstances? To sum it up plainly: the film is more interesting with that ambiguity in place.
mindyourmind has many readers who like to express the topic of mental illness through art. In the film, Randy is criticized for drawing. His doctor tells him that this aggravates his psychosis (that he may or may not have). In reality, drawing can be a source of comfort, healing and self-discovery. Why did you choose to portray drawing as a negative and stigmatized activity?
That was lifted directly from a case study I discovered during the course of my research and development where a patient was observed carrying around a journal of writings where ever he went and he would jot things down. These actions became pathology and doctors deemed this as a behavioural fault which needed to be corrected. I had the idea that this character Randy actually harbours some degree of humanity in his bones, but it only comes out when he’s not preoccupied with his alcoholism. To tell you the truth, it was an arbitrary decision used to reinforce and contextualize the character and his situation.
What sorts of issues in the psychiatric medical system do you question with your film Ludibrium?
The idea of coercion and compliance within the hospital environment – that you can only get better by taking medication and otherwise following doctor’s orders. In the Rosenhan experiment, pseudo-patients were only released because they were compliant, the symptoms of Schizophrenia apparently going into remission. There is also an element of dehumanization within the asylum; one patient in Rosenhan’s experiment noted how a nurse in the ward adjusted her bra, undoing her uniform, undisturbed about her privacy in the open surrounded by patients. One of the most prominent themes is that if anti-protagonist Randy had never volunteered information in his drunken stupor, his partner’s story couldn’t be substantiated by anything more than her word. If he didn’t admit guilt, his chances may have been more favourable…
What do you hope your audience will get out of watching your short film?
I just want to provoke some thought from the viewer. I like hearing the discussion of these issues outside the realms of public policy, legislation and the news media – which are essential crucial forums for debate, but I think reframing these issues through cinema is important. While facts are important, the way to sustain people’s attention is through the use of narrative; I think oratory tradition throughout human history supports this notion.
Do you have any advice for aspiring young filmmakers out there?
As an aspiring young filmmaker myself, I could use some advice too.