Canadian documentarian Kalina Bertin takes an unexpected journey into her family history of bipolar disorder in her HotDocs film Manic
Kalina Bertin’s thought-provoking documentary, Manic, took me on a unexpected journey. Bertin sets out to find out the secrets of her father’s past in order to see if his actions and erratic — manic — behaviour, in the past, foretold her family’s present day trials with mental illness.
As Bertin begins to uncover her father’s past, she discovers that he was a cult leader in the 1970s in Hawaii who believed he was the second coming of Christ. Bertin wondered if she could find an explanation for his performance and whether it was all linked to bipolar disorder.
Cut to present day: Bertin films her bipolar siblings having manic episodes, which her siblings gave her permission to do. The film provides insight into what it is like to live with someone who experiences mania and psychotic episodes, as well as what it is like for someone with a mental illness to struggle through their daily lives. The past and present come together seamlessly in order to build the missing pieces of Bertin’s life as well as her family’s.
Manic is having its international premiere at the HotDocs Festival, and it is a must see. I talked to Bertin about the hereditary nature of mental illness and how she made this documentary nearly entirely on her own with little financial assistance.
The Seventh Row (7R): What did you set out to do by making this documentary about your father and his past?
Kalina Bertin (KB): Everything kind of goes back to my childhood. I had a very close relationship to my father, and he was in and out of my life. We grew up on a very small Caribbean island called Montserrat, which is quite isolated. In a lot of ways, it’s like a lost paradise. Then suddenly, when I was around five years old, my mother just kind of grabbed her children, and we moved to Montreal, which is where she was originally from.
We all had questions. Why is Dad no longer in our lives? Who was he? Where is he from? My mother would not answer these questions. She was just like, “One day, I’ll tell you about it. But for now, if people ask you, you say you have no father.” In the schoolyard, when people would ask me, “Hey why don’t you have a father?” I would just say, “My father passed away.” That was just easier for me. I had no words.
When I was about 15, I thought there were so many missing pieces to have the tools to build myself. I look like my father a lot — way more than I look like my mother. I went up to my mother’s study at home, and I started going through documents. I starting finding these [long and detailed] articles describing my father as a cult leader in the ‘70s, in Hawaii. I was shocked, but I wasn’t surprised. I said, “Someday, I will have to go on a journey and understand who my father was: put all these pieces together.”
At that point, I started hearing more about mental illness and about bipolar disorder. I remembered certain traits of my father’s personality from growing up. I thought maybe Dad has a mental illness. I went to university for film school, and I thought maybe I could do a film about my father. Maybe my father’s story holds the key to understanding what’s happening to us.
7R: What sort of behaviour, as a five-year-old, did you witness in your father that led you to the conclusion he had a mental illness?
KB: Often, people are surprised: “You were so young! How could you remember?” I think it was because we were so in touch with nature. Everything was so vivid.People are surprised: 'You were so young! How could you remember?' Everything was so vivid. Click To Tweet
I remember I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, and I would go to the bathroom, and my father would be up in the living room, just doing stuff, [like] writing frantically. He would work out in the middle of the night and often would not sleep.
He also had very irregular eating habits. Sometimes, he would not eat at all. Sometimes, he would eat a lot. He’d get happy and high, and then, we wouldn’t see him for two weeks because he was sleeping.
There were also times where there were these fits of rage. He would get into these very, very intense fights with my mom. Then, he’d go into the kitchen and break everything. Some of the strongest memories I had was hearing this shattered glass coming from the kitchen. Then, the next few days, he would be the extremely loving and charismatic father that I knew he was. It’s almost like he had these two personas: the light and the darkness.It’s almost like he had these two personas: the light and the darkness.Click To Tweet
7R: Were you working with a director of photography (DOP) or were you strictly filming everything on your own?
KB: It was a four year process. I had to do everything on my own because I didn’t have any money to bring anyone along with me. In university, I decided to specialize in cinematography, so that when I came out of film school, I would have the tools to make the film on my own.
That really helped my access. I didn’t have a lot of time with the characters I was meeting, so I put them at ease. It could create a little bubble that would be for us, [so they could] go back to the past, to be able to tell their stories. Also, [I was able to] capture my brother and sister cycling through the different phases of psychosis: hypomania, mania, and depression. I can’t image telling my DOP, “Oh, my sister’s in mania. Come over!”
When I got a little bit more money, I was able to hire a DOP for when I went to visit Margaret. She was like my father’s Bonnie [from Bonnie and Clyde]. Building that relationship with her was extremely difficult and challenging for me. I needed somebody [else] behind the camera, especially for that interview.I had to do everything on my own because I didn’t have any money to bring anyone along with me.Click To Tweet
7R: How did you find the archival footage? How did you decide when to show the footage?
KB: In the film, there are three categories of archives. There are the home videos that were shot by my father. There’s the news footage that I was able to gather through research. And there’s photographs that I gathered through meeting with different characters. They were extremely generous, either giving me originals or copies. I was able to build a richer catalogue of archives through their collaboration.
When I met Karrie Davis ,who was one of my father’s former followers, and [his former] lover, she had a picture of me as a baby that I didn’t even know existed. I’m discovering pieces of my father, and I was discovering pieces of my own story that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
For the news footage, I did a lot of research online. When I had a little bit more money, I was able to work with EyeSteel films, this production company that I teamed up with. [They] did an amazing job finding the court footage of my father that we show in the middle of the film, when they talk about my father being arrested. That was a great find. All of the Thai news footage, [they] found that as well.
7R: Which filmmakers have inspired you?
KB: When I saw Tarnation, in high school, that was like an epiphany. Film can be cathartic. You can put your most vulnerable side of yourself, expose it to the world, and share that.
Crumb by Terry Zwigoff, a film about a famous cartoonist, but those scenes where he goes out and meets his brother. Those brothers are clearly struggling with mental illness, especially Charles, who was either bipolar or schizophrenic. I really connected with those raw images. It really reminded me of my own family and my own brother. That film was also shot by Maryse Alberti, a great cinematographer.
All the films of Herzog, especially Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Just the way that it was shot and the really intimate relationship with the character and also using dream sequences. I thought, “Yeah, I can do this. I am a woman. I can tell my own personal stories.”
7R: Throughout the film, you included some shots of yourself —in front of the mirror, pouring water on your face, and resting silently in the frame — as a way to reflect on how the mental health of your siblings was affecting you. Why did you include that perspective in the film?
KB: [I needed to] establish my presence at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the film, so people understand my arc a little bit. That was one of the hardest things. I wanted to focus on what was interesting, [which] was my siblings’ struggle and my father’s story. Making this film was so hard. I almost gave up a couple of times. In the end, it was extremely healing. I thought, “People don’t want to know about my struggles.” I [didn’t] want to be a narcissistic.
As I was putting the film together, I was doing test screenings along the way. People had so many questions about me: “I want to know how you feel. I want to know what it’s like for you to go through this process.” I had filmed myself along the way, but I never was planning on using that. I had to pull out those little shots that I had filmed of myself, what I was going through.
I have no words to express how hard this process was. I wanted it to be something that felt real and candid. The only way was through silence, just being myself and being silent in front of the camera. [It was] the only way to convey some of the hardship. By me being mostly behind the camera, people were seeing the film through my eyes.
7R: Can you discuss the hereditary nature of mental illness, which you illuminate in this film?
KB: I remembered my father’s behaviour being high energy, and then violent energy, and then low energy. When my brother and my sister were cycling through the different phases of mania, psychosis, and depression, I could see that echo back to my father.
I went out and started learning about his cult, people believing he was the reincarnation of Christ. My father would tell me he would have hallucinations. He would see things. He would hear things. I thought, “Oh my God. This resembles the hallucinations of my sister, Felicia!”
My sister was completely convinced that she was Joan of Arc and she was going to save humanity. My father’s group thought they were going to save humanity. When my brother was a teen, he had a psychotic episode. When he was going through mania and psychosis, I could recognize symptoms of my father’s [from] when we were growing up. I could see a connection between my father, his secrets, and this mental illness. There is this legacy of mental illness in the family: 50% of us are now struggling with mental illness.
I met my father’s sister, Nancy, and that opens up all of my father’s family heritage, building the missing pieces of my father’s life. She told me my father had actually been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That’s a very important part of the film. Everything starts to come full circle. Not only was he diagnosed with bipolar disorder, his father was diagnosed with manic depression, which is kind of the old term for bipolar disorder. Because of his illness, my father and his siblings grew up in a home filled with instability.
In my family, I wanted to break all of those secrets. I thought, “Maybe this veil of secrecy is enabling this mental illness, this trauma, to continue.” I wanted to break this spell. Let’s acknowledge what is happening to us.Maybe this veil of secrecy is enabling this mental illness, this trauma, to continue. I wanted to break this spell.Click To Tweet
It’s really hard to acknowledge “I have a mental disorder, and I will be struggling with this for the rest of my life”. The first step to finding balance, and to healing, is to acknowledge there’s something wrong and we have to find a solution.
I wanted to find a way to help my siblings. That’s really hard when you’re outside of their world. The camera really gave me access into their world. I was able to capture their vulnerability. When the film was close to being done, I showed it to my siblings. We all cried throughout the film. It really kickstarted their recovery. They said, “Oh my God, we cannot continue like this. This is havoc for us. But this is havoc for our loved ones.”The camera really gave me access into their world. I was able to capture their vulnerability. Click To Tweet
People ask me, “What’s the message of the film?” That’s always hard because you don’t want to impose a message. Everybody can come out of the theatre with their own special take. The goal was to show what it was like to live with mental illness and what happens if you don’t treat it. My father lived his whole [life] without a treatment plan. Ultimately, his children are left to deal with this legacy. We’re trying to be as equipped as we can to deal with it. The first step is to talk about it.
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