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In 1987, a psychiatric nurse named Lisa Brown observed that, after 5 p.m., her clients at Toronto’s Queen Street Mental Health Centre (now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) had little to occupy them. To fill the time, she began working on small-scale theatre projects with the group. Eventually, they became a company, to this day known as Workman Arts.

Workman Arts expanded its purview to include film after Brown and a colleague put together a list of 4,000 movies that touched on the subjects of mental health and addiction. Brown wondered about the possibility of a film festival with an emphasis on postscreening discussions. In 1993, Rendezvous With Madness – then the world’s only film festival with mental health as its theme, and still the largest – launched as an annual event that paired experimental titles with major studio films such as the 1995 Todd Haynes-directed drama Safe, starring Julianne Moore as a woman who checks into a New Age wellness retreat in the desert. The screenings took place at CAMH.

“It was a very exciting festival that deeply inspired me as a filmmaker and a festival worker,” says Scott Miller Berry, managing director of Workman Arts. “I couldn’t believe the level of discussion after these programs in terms of conflicting, passionate feelings and the fact that the festival took place within the hospital walls.” (Rendezvous With Madness will return to CAMH next year, after an expansion to the centre’s facilities.)

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Now entering its 27th year, Rendezvous With Madness, running Oct. 10 to 20, continues to widen its offerings with a visual-arts exhibition curated by Claudette Abrams, four live performance pieces and the introduction of a comedy showcase in addition to a roster of 14 films. (The festival will open with the Canadian documentary Conviction, which follows the lives of four incarcerated women who shot footage for the film on camcorders.)

The film festival will open with the Canadian documentary Conviction, which follows the lives of four incarcerated women who shot footage for the film via camcorder.

Rendezvous with Madness photo

Workman Arts’ executive artistic director Kelly Straughan says the festival’s approach to programming has evolved over the years as the amplification of mental-health issues in public discourse has grown. “People who come to this festival want to talk,” Straughan says, saying that for many, the discussion component is as integral to Rendezvous With Madness as the films and performances.

“People are eager to have these dialogues,” Miller Berry says. “At the same time, this festival still needs to exist because stigma still exists.

“Some of the films and performances are very difficult. They can be very challenging, very personal, very vulnerable. They can be upsetting. But there’s something about sitting in the dark together and having the shared experience of watching a story that gives people a window into also being vulnerable, and to sharing their personal response to what they’ve seen,” Miller Berry adds. “ … We can’t deny that some of the art comes out of a dark place. At the same time, I like to remind people that it’s not all depressing.”

As one example of the festival’s curatorial ethos, Bedlam, a film about the American healthcare system’s failure to support patients with mental health issues, is programmed alongside a comedy night headlined by Chanty Marostica. (Marostica was nominated for comedy album of the year at the 2019 Juno Awards, and in 2018 became the first out transgender person to win SiriusXM Canada’s Top Comic competition.)

“There is real power in being able to laugh at something,” Straughan says. “That can help people out of dark places.”

Choreographer Ronald Taylor, whose 60-minute piece “Psychosis,” based on his own experience, will be performed during the festival, says that the visibility of people who are thriving creatively while living with mental illness is a powerful step toward eliminating stigma.

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Psychosis is a 60-minute performance piece based on choreographer Ronald Taylor's own experience.

Rendezvous with Madness photo

“If I am a person with this lived experience, then I can say, ‘Hey, I have gone through it, I have been over it, and here I am, practising my craft.' … One of the things we didn’t want to do was take a bow at the end. Because what we want to say is that it is an ongoing process. It’s not ending. We want to leave it open-ended.”

The festival’s programming is not meant to be diagnostic or prescriptive, nor is it designed to collectively empower or to force a sombre take-away. “What we’re trying to do here is honour all the ways that people feel like they can enter into the conversation,” Straughan says.

“I don’t aim to give answers to psychoses,” Taylor says. “I aim, as a provocateur, to put it before an audience, and let the audience come up with their own interpretations of what it is they see …

“The bantering of conversation, the person-to-person vibration, that’s important."

Rendezvous with Madness runs Oct. 10-20 (workmanarts.com)

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