I first met filmmakers Lisa Klein and Doug Blush six years ago when they brought Of Two Minds, a powerful and honest look into bipolar disorder, to the 2012 CIFF. Many films and a couple of Oscars later (last month Doug and his team won for Icarus) the talented and on-pulse documentary duo returns to this year’s CIFF with The S Word.
Also a film about mental illness, The S Word focuses its lens on suicide. More importantly, it’s about the human struggle, starting the dialog and, potentially, about the healing process.
In addition to the two screenings, on Thu 4/5 @ 4:15pm (with FilmForum) and on Fri 4/6 @ 1:45pm, The S Word is also nominated in two awards categories: ReelWomenDirect Award for Excellence in Directing by a Woman and the Global Health Competition.
The project has multiple Cleveland connections, which makes the CIFF screenings truly special. Doug grew up in the Rust Belt, just a couple hours away in Detroit and as a kid spent time at the Cedar Park Amusement Park. “…I now realize that Cleveland and Detroit share a lot of common bonds. Two great cities that have shared the rise, fall and rebirth of the upper industrial Midwest. I feel very at home there!”
And CIFF feels very at home with both Lisa and Doug. Doug and I first spoke about Lisa’s vision and dedication to The S Word back in late 2014, when he was shooting their collaborative narrative Beyond Laughter and Tears: A Journey of Hope in Canton. That project screened at the 2016 CIFF and was also a nominee for the Global Health Competition.
Finally, my dear friend and creative collaborator, and Cleveland’s own improv queen and mental health advocate, Deena Nyer Mendlovitz, got involved with The S Word early in the film’s process. She will be hosting a special Mental Illness and Friends Says The S Word event on Thu 5/5 after the film’s first CIFF screening/panel discussion. Lisa will be the featured guest.
I had the opportunity to interview Lisa, Doug and Deena about the significance of The S Word, for them and for the film’s audience. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Alex Sukhoy: How did you first begin work/get involved with The S Word and why this specific — and heavy — topic?
Lisa Klein: When I was in college, both my father and brother died by suicide. I remember talking to my best friend and my boyfriend — a little, but that’s it. I felt like I was the only one going through this — and I had neither the vocabulary nor the emotional capacity to handle this — or talk about it. I was shrouded in the shame, fear, silence — all of the things we’re trying to change.
Over the years, I realized that I needed to talk about this for me [but] also to help other people feel comfortable with this topic as well.
After film school, I began to realize that I had a voice that could tackle these topics, and after doing Of Two Minds, our 2013 documentary that looked at the personal stories of those dealing with bipolar disorder, I thought that I had dealt with suicide as there was a family who lost their daughter to suicide. But I soon realized that there was much more to explore — more stories to share.
Deena Nyer Mendlowitz: I first heard about the movie The S Word through Dese’Rae L. Stage, whom I follow on social media. I backed the film through Kickstarter and continued following its development because this movie does something that hasn’t been done before which is really openly talk about suicide through the words of suicide attempt survivors and those who have lost someone to suicide. I survived a suicide attempt in my twenties and over the years I’ve realized how there wasn’t much of a voice of suicide attempt survivors out there, and for the last 6 years are so I have been very open about my experience in surviving my suicide attempt, and living with suicidal ideation, and about mental illness in general. I have shared about all this through writing on social media and in my own blog and through the creation of my one-woman show Funnel Cakes Not Included and now Mental Illness and Friends!
2. AS: You brought your first film to the CIFF in 2012 for Of Two Minds, also about mental illness. What did that screening mean to you and what makes the CIFF so unique?
LK: We were so embraced by the CIFF community as they invited various members of local mental health organizations to participate in panels and tour us around their facilities to see the work they were doing with people struggling with mental illness. The screenings and the Q&As were incredibly thoughtful and open [and] we felt like we learned so much about how to approach people with this topic while affecting them and motivating them to see the humanity of people dealing with bipolar.
Doug Blush: I am proud to say that I’ve had films (and have) been involved with for years at CIFF, stretching back over a decade. But our film Of Two Minds, co-directed by Lisa and myself in 2012, truly introduced me to the wonders of CIFF, and now I’m proud to know the staff there as great friends and champions of independent cinema all over the U.S. and around the world. We are incredibly proud to bring The S Word this year, with Lisa as director and myself as producer.
3. AS: Who should come to see The S Word?
LK: Everyone. Okay — that was easy.
Alright, so here’s what I think. Those who have ideated and/or attempted to take their lives, and those people who love them, should see the film and hopefully feel less alone. They will see other people who continue to struggle with this as they figure out what their coping mechanisms are. From that, there is hope. Many people are not only surviving; they are thriving. And survival alone is not enough. It’s about finding a life worth living.
We want people who have lost loved ones to suicide to see the film — to see that there is no shame in talking about this — there could be healing. And they can take as long as they need, but hopefully will never feel alone or that they have no one to talk to.
The mental health community — therapists, psychiatrists — perhaps they will see a humanity that they don’t see every day in their practices.
Everyone else — we want people to feel empowered to listen to their friends, family, to understand that everyone can be an advocate. Everyone knows somebody who has struggled with this and we can all be part of prevention.
We have just started screening the film at high schools, another extremely important audience. The response has been staggering. A couple of examples: one young man raised his hand and said, “This film needs to be shown at every high school.” The kid next to him raised his hand and said, “This is so necessary because so many of us are struggling.” A young woman said, “This film is a gift — thank you so much. I’ve had no experience with this and now I know how to talk to my friends.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg. At our last screening, a young woman spoke for the first time about her two attempts and hospitalizations.
So, to circle back to my original answer. Everyone can be an advocate. Everyone can listen and be there for someone. Everyone can write/call their legislators and demand mental health parity. Everyone can be a voice in their community to bring mental health/suicide prevention to schools around the country. Everyone can fight and march and work toward a reduction of lethal means, starting with gun control.
4. AS: There’s a planned panel discussion after Thursday’s screening of The S Word and then a special Mental Illness and Friends Says the S Word performance Thursday night. What can your audience expect from these additional events?
LK: Open conversations with no judgment. We want people to talk, be heard and share stories if they want to, and learn about the local resources in your community. These events along with our Q&As at screenings are perhaps our favorite part of taking a film like this all over the country.
DNM: Mental Illness and Friends is a live comedy talk show about mental health. In this show, like every show I will deliver an opening monologue like you would see on a late-night talk show, yet the topic is about living with mental illness. I also have other guests who will share their stories, interactive bits with some friends, and the evening ends with an improv set.
The highlight of the show will of course be an interview with the director of the film, Lisa Klein. The show combines storytelling, improv, interviews, all with the underlying focus of mental illness. People who attend the show feel less alone and whatever they’re struggling with it in their own life and it is a comedy show that happens in the most supportive environment you could imagine.
5. AS: What’s next for each of you?
LK: I will continue to gather stories and encourage people to advocate for suicide prevention and voices through our website, social media and film screenings.
And I plan to go through my list of topics I am passionate about and begin research and development on a couple of other projects. I am not trying to be vague, but I honestly don’t know what’s next because every day I realize more and more that I am not done with The S Word and what it represents.
DB: I’ve got a number of projects in the works, including films premiering on HBO, Netflix, at Tribeca, HotDocs and more. And some very cool things down the road, including a film I’ll probably be directing over the next year or two!
DNM: In addition to the show I host a monthly moth-style storytelling show called Story Club Cleveland at Bottlehouse on Lee Road, which was created by Dana Norris. I also performed monthly at Happy Dog East at another show I created called This Improvised Life, which is a storytelling improv mashup. I continue to write about mental illness and I’m taking the show to Pittsburgh in May and hope to take it to other cities and comedy festivals too. After going into the psych hospital while struggling with suicidal thoughts in May of 2016, I came out with a motto I do my best to live by: ‘When life is rough, create new stuff.’ Those words became the impetus of me creating mental illness and Friends and even when I’m struggling, I host my show, make people laugh, and ultimately I get to win cause even if I’m not doing great, getting out there and performing always winds up feeling a lot better than sitting home alone.
Additional documentaries Doug is bringing to this year’s CIFF:
1. On Her Shoulders – The beautiful and heartbreaking story of Yahzidi survivor and leader Nadia Murad, from my friend Alexandria Bombach, Sundance Best Director winner this year!
2. Pick of the Litter – An incredibly delightful and uplifting doc about, yes, PUPPIES, from my friends Dana Nachman and Don Hardy.
3. Rising Light – A compelling story of three giant leaps of forgiveness in the face of horrific violence and oppression.
4. Dark Money – A crucial look at how local and national politics are being corrupted from the shadows.
5. Freedom for the Wolf – A truly global adventure exposing anti-democracy forces in a number of nations, including here at home.
6. Period. End of Sentence. – (A) fantastic new short documentary that will leave the audience cheering a unique story of female empowerment!
Alexsandra (Alex) Sukhoy. I’m a writer, marketer and career coach at Creative Cadence LLC, and teach business students at CSU. You can find my first business book, Date Your Career: The Longest Relationship of Your Life, on Amazon. I’m currently writing a film noir screenplay called Cleveland City.
Twitter: @creativecadence. #letstalk