Opening the `Doors'

Novice moviemakers' entry in inaugural film fest chronicles women's struggles in mental institutions

October 10, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

Laura Cain was a lawyer advocating for emotionally and physically disabled people - especially those further traumatized by the very treatments that were supposed to help. She had a story to tell.

Diana Gross was a visual arts teacher looking to break into documentary filmmaking. She wanted to tell a story.

Two years ago, the former neighbors, who met while both were living in Ednor Gardens, decided to collaborate. They focused their work on four women who had weathered some of the most demanding and demeaning treatments modern mental health facilities have to offer: forced medication, physical restraints, isolation.

The resulting 20-minute testament to human resilience, titled Behind Closed Doors, was named Best Documentary at February's All-American Film Festival in Durham, N.C. This weekend, it will be shown as part of the inaugural Baltimore Women's Film Festival, set for Saturday at Red Emma's 2640 coffeehouse, and Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"I needed to find a medium to get the message out," says Cain, 45, an attorney working with the adult mental health unit of the federally funded Maryland Disability Law Center. She advocates for patients often dismissed as needing simply a course of anti-depressants or a stint in a straitjacket. Her job has put her in contact with any number of women like those detailed in the movie - women she and her organization insist are ill-served by a system focusing on a short-term fix instead of the long-term cure. "I want to use the film as a tool for social enlightenment," she says, "to promote social activism."

Behind Closed Doors eschews cinematic trickery in favor of simply letting the four women tell their stories. There's no narration, no context offered by experts, no extensive back story. There's just four women, all in their 30s, all of them recent mothers, all of them with mental-health issues dating to their teens, all of them sent repeatedly to mental facilities for treatment. At the time of the interviews, in the fall of 2005, all were out of treatment centers and struggling to reclaim their lives, demanding the right to forge their own futures.

Valerie Garrett-Miller, at 13, was sent to a psychiatric hospital by her mother. Tonier Cain, first placed in foster care at age 12, was married young - to a man, she says, who paid her mother for the privilege. Sandy Heuisler, introduced to the juvenile justice system at age 16, was raped at age 12 by one of her father's friends. Bettina Johnson entered a state mental-health facility at 16, shortly after her dad was beaten to death with a baseball bat.

Their stories beg to be heard.

"I found myself standing behind the camera, crying," says Gross, 37, who teaches media literacy and digital media production at Garrison Forest School. "I was really unprepared for their stories. What they had to say blew me away."

One woman, remembering how the repeated hospital stays broke her spirit, described feeling like "wilted lettuce." Another recalled how being strapped down brought back memories of being raped. The women talk about being ignored, about having no one to confide in, about convincing themselves that, maybe, if they just quietly took their medicine, they'd be left alone and everything would be OK.

Festival co-founder Deanna Shapiro says a film like Behind Closed Doors is perfect for this year's inaugural event. Organizers have pledged to donate half the proceeds to the Johns Hopkins Avon Breast Foundation Center.

"The film festival is bringing together women's health care and women's cinematic artistry," Shapiro says. "This film exemplifies that - a documentary by women, about women in the mental health care system."

Gross, who grew up in northern New Jersey and came here about six years ago for an educational reform job at the Johns Hopkins University, had dabbled in still photography for years. But a workshop she attended in Maine piqued her interest in filmmaking. Once here, she found plenty of kindred spirits at Highlandtown's Creative Alliance, an arts cooperative that, among numerous aims, helps budding artists network.

"I grew up near New York City," she says, "but I think it would have been much more difficult as a beginning filmmaker there. The arts community is just much more accessible here."

Meanwhile, Cain, using money from a federal Health and Human Services grant, had come up with the idea of making a film that would state the law center's case faster and more effectively than any lecture she could give. "This was a way to get their direct experiences to a wider audience," she says, "without using me or somebody else as a filter."

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