Singapore Mental Health Film Festival Short Film Youth Competition Spotlights 10 Films That Chart a Daring Course11 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
In recent years, Singapore’s fight for mental health has been increasingly proactive and prioritised. Along with those efforts, the nation’s first film festival surrounding mental health, Singapore Mental Health Film Festival (SMHFF) hosted its inaugural short film youth competition.
Organised by The Breathe Movement, SMHFF aims to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health through the medium of film, that tackles illnesses such as dementia and schizophrenia. In light of COVID-19, the top 10 short films made their debut online via a Facebook livestream on 30 May 2020.
The films focused on youth mental health, suicide & depression, caregivers, dementia and creative expressions. Of the 10 finalists, one film took the ultimate prize, with the first runner-up close behind. Here is a summary of the top two films and eight finalists.
WINNER: When Mirrors Had Meaning by Yuga J Vardhan
When Mirrors Had Meaning presents the searing experience of 70 year old Krishnan, as he sets off on a journey in search of a distant memory, leaving behind a letter to his family. Director Yuga J Vardhan was inspired by real life events, when both of his late grandfathers were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He endeavours to represent the various perspectives (patient, caretaker and ignorant masses) through his short film.
While dementia has been touched on by several other films in the competition, When Mirrors Had Meaning approaches the topic in a very delicate fashion. The film highlights the best part of being Singaporean – multiculturalism – where Krishnan, an Indian man, speaks Hokkien in a Hindu temple (you’ll have to watch to find out why). It sets up the characters well, luring the audience into the film, before revealing the gut-wrenching reality of dementia.
1ST RUNNER-UP: Emit by Gerard Heng & Yvonne Yen
The short opens at the doctor’s office where Emit is surrounded by cold and indifferent onlookers. He tries but fails to pay attention to the seemingly redundant questions being fired at him. Frustrated by this unsympathetic crowd, Emit seeks solace back home. Yet, this offers little respite as Emit’s mind and body continue to deteriorate. As daily life becomes increasingly dysfunctional, Emit finds himself struggling to reconcile the mismatch between his perception, and reality.
Emit is Gerard Heng’s brainchild, having written the screenplay himself. Heng is a third year medical student who was inspired by his work with dementia patients and by his grandmother who was afflicted by it. He approached Yvonne Yen to direct and edit the film after being inspired by her work.
The success of Emit comes from the juxtapositions shown on screen. Throughout the film, the very complex inner monologue of the character is contrasted with mundane day-to-day routines. This intuitive portrayal of dementia is one that is true to life without overplaying the dramatics and leaving the spotlight to the idiosyncrasies of the main character.
“PASTRY” by Prahalad Guru
“PASTRY” is a short film about a hard-working young mother who juggles between two jobs to make ends meet while taking care of her two children. Having dedicated her life to her children, she has little to no life outside of them, which propagates her diagnosis of dementia.
The film is driven by voiceover narration from the son’s perspective to make its point about dementia and its effects on parent-child relationships. While it is told from the son’s perspective, the mother’s battle with dementia is not trivialised. The film rests on a familiar premise that could have been elevated with slightly more nuance from the actors.
BLACK BOX by Kartik Anand
Created by Kartik Anand, BLACK BOX features himself, someone who has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as he opens up about his condition and shares his experience dealing with it. The short film gives viewers a raw simulation of how someone with OCD feels through this auto-biographical documentary.
Of all the films in SMHFF, BLACK BOX was the one that caught my attention the most and is one of my favourites. Its monologue style is extremely effective in conveying the character’s struggles with OCD. There are cuts into some graphic and disturbing scenes that take viewers aback occasionally. This is a necessary disturbance to jolt viewers into understanding the character’s disjointed thoughts and experiences. The music, graphics and narration are all impressively curated to make for a wholesome immersion into the character’s suffering.
But The Heart by Cheryl Ng Wan Ting & Wong Wen Hui
After the passing of her husband, an old woman diagnosed with dementia is left alone. When her teenage granddaughter is tasked to be her caretaker, tensions run high. But The Heart is the journey of how a granddaughter helps her grandmother with the recollection of the love of her life.
Similar to “PASTRY”, But The Heart has a predictable premise – the effects of dementia on familial relationships. It is a simple presentation of the ugly side of dementia, with the grandmother character defecating herself and throwing anger tantrums. This short film serves as an ode to all caretakers of dementia patients, regardless of race or age, and highlights how difficult it is to do so. While the majority of the film is slow, the comfortable pace allows the message to shine through – that is it okay to feel the bouts of frustration and love that comes with being a caregiver.
So Decide by Striking Vipers
So Decide is a reminder to viewers to look back at their lives at important moments and think about the people in their lives before committing suicide. It encourages people to reach out and speak up because help is everywhere.
Most of the film is built around a “what if” scenario which is a fairly powerful way to drive the message of the film which is to speak up and reach out. The suffering that someone’s loved ones go through after their demise is portrayed hauntingly, with a very real look into their pain. However, the voiceover dialogues during those scenes feel slightly heavy handed and borders on cliches. The ending sequence, which is a soulful rendition of the song “Memories”, is extremely moving and ends the film off well.
Special Jimmy by Cho Jun Ming
Inspired by a true event, this short film directed by Cho Jun Ming depicts the inner struggles faced by Jimmy, a troubled teenager who hears voices other people do not hear, believing others are plotting to harm him. He shares his thoughts with his father and Theresa, a trusted friend who stands by him. The boundaries between reality and imagination become blurred when Jimmy’s schoolmates show him a video recording of him speaking to himself.
The setting of Special Jimmy is surprisingly close to home, focusing on peers in a tertiary institute. It serves as a very important reminder that the “weird friend” that everyone makes fun of might be a victim of serious mental health issues. The ideal world portrayed in the film might not be very realistic but it is the goal that institutions should aim for. The inner turmoil of schizophrenia is brought out realistically by confusing viewers with real and imaginary scenes throughout the film.
THEO by Adhyaya Studios
THEO is a story about a young man struggling with schizophrenia and the series of events that he has to go through in his life with his peers. Created by a group of friends with mutual interests in filmmaking, this short would speak largely to the younger audience.
THEO has the potential to be a strong film showing the effects of schizophrenia on young adults and teenagers amongst their peers and its pressures. However, the film falls short with its somewhat cliched portrayal of scary and mocking “demons” around the main character – a stereotypical presentation of what schizophrenia is supposed to “look” like. While the film has decent performances, it would have been better off shattering the stereotypes without perpetuating it.
Two Birds Perched on the Branch Where Abbu Hanged Himself by Cowsomething Productions
The story of this short film is an introspective look at how suicide in the family leaves both a wife and a daughter heartbroken and grieving. They mourn the loss of their beloved husband/father in their own ways while navigating the minefield of a wounded family relationship.
What stood out to most to me in this short film is its crisp and artistic cinematography that is complemented by haunting music. There are several messages interwoven delicately in the short film which mainly points out the importance of mourning a loss without allowing it to manifest in other ways. Additionally, there is a poignant reminder that parents are not perfect beings and need to be mindful of their mental health too. Two Birds Perched on the Branch Where Abbu Hanged Himself is another favourite of mine from the competition because of how understated and subtly it handles messy issues such as loss and depression.
Yet; by Team Yet;
Yet; follows Ling, a 22 year old girl, who suffers from depression and is addicted to alcohol. She struggles to live her life, with her mental illness driving her further into the vicious cycle of alcohol and depression. She also struggles to communicate her suffering to her middle-aged parents.
This film and its message is a very necessary presentation, especially to the Singaporean or Asian audience. It addresses the generation gap between old school parents and their young adult children, in the topic of mental health. The dialogues of the dismissive parents are thoughtfully penned and are painfully accurate – perpetuating the gap that urgently needs to be bridged to ensure less cyberbullying and suicidal thoughts amongst young adults.
The winning short film will be screened on the opening night of the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival, once it announces its new dates after its postponement due to COVID-19. Additionally, it will be screened at the New York City Mental Health Film Festival and Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival in Toronto, Canada. With the bar set high in this first edition of the short film youth competition, we can anticipate bigger and better short films for future installments.
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