Mental Illness and Film

25th International Bremen Film Conference

For its anniversary, the film symposium commits itself to a long-time companion of the cinema: Mental illness has been accompanying cinema since its origins contributing to its topics and forms, widening its possibilities of expression and theory.

Medical disciplines determine mental illness by means of demarcation, pathologisation and heteronomy. Films are able to question these methods using an aesthetical perspective, they can get the psychic experience of being ill across and put it in manifold contexts. Mental illness defies physical representation thus confronting the filmmakers with a fundamental problem. Hence, it is not just the mind that can be seen as the central place where mental illness occurs and develops its effectiveness, but also the cinematic screen.

Within the conference, international experts and filmmakers explore in what way clinical and social illness discourses can be represented in films and in what way cinema can describe an aesthetic of mental illness. The focus is for one thing on the many ways of cinema to generate its own media-specific order of clinical patterns, and for the other on the relationship between the sick and the treatment person as a central setting, as well as the multi-dimensionality of depictions of diseases.

With international experts and filmmakers, the Symposium aims to explore how clinical and social discourses of mental illness are negotiated in film and how cinema can articulate the aesthetics of mental illness. Here the focus is on the means of cinema to generate its own, media-specific order of illness portrayals, further on the relationship between the sick and the therapists as a central medical setting, as well as on the multi-dimensionality of illness representations.

Filmsymposium Poster


Please note: In order to take part in the digital panel talks as well as the keynotes, registration is required, by e-mail to hoffmannprotect me ?!city46protect me ?!.de. The video conference takes place on the free Zoom platform which is licensed by the University of Bremen and securely encrypted. You can dial in via a browser without having to download the necessary software. It is possible to attend as an invisible guest and to participate in the discussions via chat. Find more about the data protection guidelines here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

10 am, panel 1: Cine-pathographies

What clinical pictures does film describe and how can they go beyond medical understanding as an independent cinematic form? In the panel, film-theoretical and psychological concepts are juxtaposed: through the lens of film animation technology, theories of auteur cinema, unclear boundaries to somatic syndromes and complex storytelling.

All-German panel

10 am: From Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly to Undone: The Trick Technique of the Rotoscopy as Visualisation of Mental Disorders?
   | Markus Kügle (Mannheim)
   | Film for panel: WALTZ WITH BASHIR

10:45 am: Drug Delirium – On the Cinematic Aesthetics of Psychosis in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) and eXistenZ (1999)
   | Lars Nowak (Changsha/Erlangen-Nürnberg/Berlin)

11:25 – 11:45 am: Break

11:45 am: Syndromes & a Century. Cinema’s Patho-genealogies
   | Daniel Eschkötter (Bielefeld)

12:30 pm: Hollywood’s Hallucinations: Iñárritus Birdman (2014) or the Unexpected Power of Complexity
   | Melanie Kreitler (Gießen)

2:30 pm, keynote 1

A Self in Flux
   | Robin Curtis (Freiburg)

Thursday, May 6, 2021

10 am, panel 2: Medical Encounters

Relationships between patients and doctors or therapists are central to dealing with mental illness, and its setting is of interest to medicine as well as to the humanities and cultural sciences. The panel questions autobiographical filmmaking as a self-therapeutic practice and its empowering and constitutional potential. In addition, the principle of weekly form of therapy is being examined with regard to its seriality and the relationship between sick people and their environment in medical educational films.

10 am: “As if Stepping out of Reality:” Filming as a Self-therapeutic Procedure for Mental Illness
   | Britta Hartmann / Janin Tscheschel (Bonn)
   | Talk in German
   | Film for panel: DIALOGUES WITH MADWOMEN

10:45 am: Salutogenesis through Film
   | Silke Hilgers (Berlin)
   | Talk in German

11:25 – 11:45 am: Break

DISPENSED! 11:45 am: “Where Is My Mind?” Therapy as Serial Negotiation of In/sanity in Mr. Robot
   | Melanie Mika (Frankfurt a.M./Tübingen)
   | Talk in German

STARTS AT 11:45! 12:30 pm: Personal Geographies and Social Registration of Psychiatric Patients: Institutional Medical Cinema’s Viewpoint (1970s–1980s)
   | Christian Bonah / Joël Danet (Strasbourg)

2:30 pm, keynote 2

“Warts and All:“ Film, Ethics and Human Frailty
   | Michele Aaron (Warwick)

6 pm: Live filmmaker talk on Psychosis in Stockholm with Maria Bäck

Friday, May 7, 2021

10 am, panel 3: Figuring Illness

Cinema plays a key role in shaping ideas about mental illness and forms figurations that determine their complexity and their historical and cultural depth. In this context, the panel bundles close readings on films that deal with mental illness on a figurative level, on the level of film production, on the border with disability studies and from a feminist perspective.

10 am: Kassandra on Psychiatric Drugs. On the Staging of a Mentally Ill Person in Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe
   | Sabrina Gärtner (Klagenfurt)
   | Talk in German
   | Film for panel: LITTLE JOE

10:45 am: A Good Dose of Promise of Salvation: Love & Other Drugs
   | Insa Härtel (Berlin)
   | Talk in German

11:25 – 11:45 am: Break

11:45 am: Going beyond the Evil? – Cinematic Portrayals of Mental Health
   | Petra Anders (Bamberg)

12:30 pm: "Crazy Cat Lady“ in Film and Series
   | Nataša Pivec (Ljubljana)

14:30 am, From Curatorial Practice

Moving Images: Family, Loss and First Person Documentary
   | Richard Warden (Glasgow)
   | Guest: Theresa Moerman-Ib (Glasgow)

6 pm, keynote 3

Cinemania: Madness and the Moving Image
   | W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago)
   | Guest: Carmen Elena Mitchell (L.A.)

FILM PROGRAMME (online May 3–9)

Please note: In order to stream films from the online programme on the conference platform, a one-time registration is required (user name & password). The films are available for 24 hours after purchase. You might want to check if any film is available in your region, as the films need to be geo-blocked for Germany-wide streaming solely.

Please be also aware of some newly added films to our programme.


   |  Live filmmaker talk with Maria Bäck on Thu 6 May, 6 pm
   | Psychosis in Stockholm, S 2020, director: Maria Bäck, 101 mins., OV with English + German subtitles
   | With a pre-recorded film talk with the director in German

Mother and daughter travel to the Swedish capital to celebrate the girl’s 14th birthday. On the train ride, the teenage girl notices conspicuous behaviour in her mother and already foresees that a new manic episode is imminent. The two stick to their plans but the mother’s episodes intensify until she is admitted to a psychiatric ward. Left to her own devices the girl explores the big city and her own independence.

In this film, Maria Bäck speaks of her own youth which has been shaped by her mother’s bipolar phases since childhood. She illuminated her own experiences with her mother already in her 2014 autobiographical short documentary Mother Is God, her graduation project at the National Film School of Denmark. Now she translates it into a fictionalised form, whose forays – episodically and openly told – stroll through the friendly, bright and shimmering city like the teenage girl herself. The unconventional narrative perspective in Psychosisin Stockholm explores how to combine distance and closeness when filming an extremely personal topic. She creates a sensitive coming-of-age drama about an incomparable and unconditional mother-daughter love.

The 2020 Gothenburg Film Festival’s opener, the film has been waiting for its international cinema release and will celebrate its German premiere at the Bremen Film Conference.

Psychosis in Stockholm


   |  Online streaming only
   | USA 1994, director: Deborah Hoffmann, 44 mins., OV
   | With introduction by Robin Curtis (requested) in German

Director Deborah Hoffmann explores her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and her own frustrations that arise from it. Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter follows two simultaneous developments: the various stages of the increasingly disoriented mother and the daughter’s attempts to understand and help her mother. Hoffmann’s sensitive, humorous and never disrespectful portrayal of the emergence of a new mother-daughter relationship provides an insight into the system of memory, meaning and identity.



   |Additional on-site screening planned for Wed 5 May, 5.30 pm
   | USA 2012, director: Alan Berliner, 78 mins., OV with German subtitles

In First Cousin Once Removed, Alan Berliner draws a portrait of the poet and professor Edwin Honig who in his last years was affected with Alzheimer’s disease. Honig is the director’s cousin once removed and has also been his role model and mentor for a long time. Berliner follows the course of the disease over the years, but does not assemble a chronology from the film recordings, but a poetic synopsis of most varied stages of the disease and aging process. In this kaleidoscope of pictures, Honig becomes visible as a complex and highly ambivalent person: as a successful intellectual, as a problematic family person and as an old man with no memory.


Film for panel 1: WALTZ WITH BASHIR

   |  Additional on-site screening planned for Fri 7 May, 8 pm
   | Vals im Bashir, ISR/F/D 2008, director: Ari Folman, 90 mins., Hebrew OV with German subtitles
   | With introduction by Markus Kügle (requested) in German

A former Israeli soldier dreams every night that he is being chased by a dog pack. When he confides in a friend, both men see a connection with their experiences in the First Lebanon War. The animated documentary approaches war trauma with fascinating images and powerful music. The episodically narrated film is based on interviews that Folman conducted with old war comrades. These were re-enacted and animated in order to approach the events of the past beyond supposedly factual objectivity.

Trigger warning: depiction of war crimes.

In his presentation, Markus Kügle asks to what extent the film animation technique can function as an aesthetic strategy for appropriating mental illness.



   |  Additional on-site screening planned for Thu 6 May, 6 pm
   | USA 1994, director: Allie Light, 90 mins., OV (online) / 16mm, OV with German subtitles (on site)
   | With introduction by Janin Tscheschel in German

Seven women from San Francisco, including the filmmaker, talk about their experiences with manic depression (bipolar disorder), multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder) and schizophrenia, about their creativity and their path of recovery. Open, humorous and with self-ironic distance, they portray their madness as an exit from a world that has become too threatening for them. The film exposes the brutality of family systems and psychiatric institutions and questions concepts of normality and illness. Using interview scenes, home videos, archive material and re-enactment, it paints a complex picture of “madness” as an alternative to stigmatising depictions of mental disorders.

The film received the Emmy Award “as an outstanding interview film of 1994.”

Trigger warning: discussions about sexual violence and child abuse.

In their lecture, Janin Tscheschel and Britta Hartmann discuss the aesthetic strategies of the documentary film to allow an experience of crazy inner states as an artistic and at the same time self-therapeutic, self-empowering process.


Film for panel 3: LITTLE JOE

   | Additional on-site screening planned for Thu 6 May, 8 pm
   | AT / UK / D 2019, director: Jessica Hausner, 105 mins., OV with German subtitle
   | With a pre-recorded film talk with the director and Sabrina Gärtner in German

The botanist Alice is working on a new flower breed with therapeutic effects that will make people happy. When Alice secretly brings such a flower home for her son, she ignores the warnings of her colleague Ella and firmly believes in the positive effects of her creation. But as people around them show behavioural changes, the signs increase that the deep red flower might not only bring luck. With intense colours and calm settings, Jessica Hausner stages a paranoia story with borrowings from the science fiction genre which she transfers into her own style.

In her presentation, Sabrina Gärtner analyses the film characters and questions the pursuit of mental health.

Little Joe

Film for panel 3: TARNATION

   | Online streaming only
   | USA 2003, director: Jonathan Caouette, 88 mins., OV

Both filmmaker and protagonist, Jonathan Caouette chronicles the crises of his family lasting for three generations. At the age of eleven, he already began to stage himself in front of the movie camera and to get in contact with his psychically destabilised mother. Processing his childhood traumata, he in an astoundingly inventive and effective manner arranges old pictures, home movies, voicemail messages and self-interviews. The result is a highly emotional collage somewhere between video diary and experimental film, a self-therapeutical attempt to come to terms with his past that is of bitter intensity and raw gracefulness.

Trigger warning: discussions about sexual violence, not-consented hospitalisation, child abuse, and suicide; sensory overload

Petra Anders‘s talk unfolds the ways of how cinematography, editing and use of music increase our awareness of watching mental crises.


Richard Warden presents: THE CLOSER WE GET

   | Online streaming only
   | UK 2015, director: Karen Guthrie, 87 mins., OV with English subtitles
   | National premiere

The wife’s stroke prompts Ian Guthrie to move back in with her, although they have been living apart for years. The four children, now grown up, including the filmmaker, also spend more time in the parents’ home on the Scottish west coast taking loving care of their mother. Mother and daughter resume the film idea they had before the stroke: working through what had broken up the family and what was caused by the father’s absence during his several years abroad in Djibouti and its consequences. The filming visibly revives the mother. However, the distance between father and daughter threatens to become greater “the closer they get” to each other.

This poetically compelling family portrait opens up the complexity of a family, its care-giving, its silence and its secrets in the context of neo-colonial negotiations of British-African relations.

The film – also a German premiere – is presented as part of Richard Warden’s curated film programme on family, loss and first person documentary storytelling.

“In a story told with unflinching honesty and written with poetic precision, this film exemplifies cinematic craft, and a generosity of approach resulting in admirable subtlety and nuance.” (Jury statement for Best International Documentary Feature at Hot Docs Festival Toronto)

“In the adroitly observed The Closer We Get, a family crisis turns into an autobiographical detective story when the film director Karen Guthrie returns home to care for her mother” (Kate Muir, The Sunday Times)

“Although her story is unusual, anyone with more everyday experience of separated or incapacitated parents will recognise the strange stresses, strains and areas of silence with which Guthrie wrestles.” (Mark Kermode, The Guardian)

The closer we get

Richard Warden presents: VIVIAN, VIVIAN

   | Online streaming only
   | In het hoofd van mijn zusje, NL 2016, director: Ingrid Kamerling, 54 mins, OV with English subtitles
   | National premiere

Filmmaker Ingrid Kamerling explores the question of what was going on in the mind of her sister Vivian, who unexpectedly ended her life at the age of 24. Vivian was a beautiful, energetic young woman and world explorer. She was, like many in her age, searching for who she was and what she could contribute to the world. A very personal story that blurs the lines between documentary, diary and dream.

The film – also a German premiere – is presented as part of Richard Warden’s curated film programme on family, loss and first person documentary storytelling.

“Vivian, Vivian uses innovative narrative tricks, managed to let the poignancy provoked by the tragic recount flow and to tell this story in a very clean way.” (La Repubblica)

“It journeys from clouded, mesmerising dreamscapes to the urban arena of nighttime Utrecht. In doing so it maps the previously untouched path laid by the suicide of Kamerling’s sister. At its core, this film is about a woman’s journey through grief.” (Kirsty Strang-Roy für SMHAF)

Vivian Vivian

Richard Warden presents: THE THIRD DAD + WATERFALL

The Third Dad

   | Online streaming only
   | UK 2015, director: Theresa Moerman Ib, 10 mins., English/German OV with English subtitles
   | In attendance of the filmmaker on Fri, 5 May, 2:30 pm
   | National premiere

Ten years after breaking all ties with her father, and seven years after his death, a daughter sets out not only to find his grave, but also redemption. Cees Moerman was a poet and photographer whose alcoholism hindered him from caring for his daughter. Winner of BAFTA Scotland New Talent Award, The Third Dad merges archive material, new footage and an immersive soundscape to a personal journey that interweaves memory, self-discovery and a desperate attempt at reconciliation.


   | Online streaming only
   | UK 2016, director: Tom Lock Griffiths, 19 mins., OV with English subtitles
   | National premiere

How can memories of trauma and loss become embedded in the landscape? In Waterfall, Tom Lock Griffiths adresses this question after his mother’s suicide. Starting from the scattering of ashes of a loved one at a Welsh waterfall, the film takes us on a journey inside our most painful thoughts and finally to a place of hope and recovery. Using the metapher of flux, the essay film seeks to fathom what it is that makes connection, resonances and both the ubiquity and invisibility of memory offering a poignant whirl as alternative to traditionally linear journeys through grief.

The short films – both also a German premiere – are presented as part of Richard Warden’s curated film programme on family, loss and first person documentary storytelling.

The third dad

Silent film with live music: A PAGE OF MADNESS

   | On-site screening only, planned for Sat 8 May, 8 pm
   | Kurutta Ippeiji, J 1926/72, director: Kinugasa Teinosuke, 60 mins.
   | With live music accompaniment by David Eßer
   | With introduction by Tobias Dietrich

An old seaman takes a concierge job in a rural mental hospital to take care of his interned wife. Their daughter’s engagement announcement triggers scraps of memories and a vortex of thoughts within the mother – and worries about the prejudices of the family of the groom within the father. In his unsuccessful attempts to free his wife, he has to face the chief doctor and other inmates. When he assumes to recognise the future son-in-law in one of them, he himself begins to doubt his perception.

“A work that has advanced a step ahead of Dr. Caligari,” the film critics read already in 1926. The film was made by the Japanese avant-garde group Shinkankaku-ha, the school of new perception, and masterfully combines the script of Kawabata Yasunari (1968 Nobel Prize for Literature) with innovative camera technology and Eiko Minami’s dance talent. Lost for a long time, the film has been rediscovered in 1972 and only survived as a fragment. Nonetheless, it impressively illustrates the artist’s claim to combine modern narration and innovative play of forms and light and to overcome the boundaries between reality and folly.

David Eßer from Hamburg has been active in various projects in Germany’s musical landscape for over ten years. By setting the film to music using the principle of sound synthesis, he enters into a dialogue with the synthesiser and develops his own vocabulary that crosses the possibilities of the linguistic and visual.


About the Film Conference

The Conference addresses a film-interested general audience and professional guests, closely interlinking public talks, film screenings and q&a discussions. It is a long-term cooperation between the CITY 46 / Kommunalkino Bremen e.V. and the workgroup Film Studies and Media Aesthetics / Dep. 9 Cultural Studies, part of ZeMKI, and is funded by nordmedia – Film- und Mediengesellschaft Niedersachsen/ Bremen mbH and the German Research Foundation DFG.

Originally planned for May 2020, the Conference can fortunately be offered as a remote event. All talks will take place digitally and a programme of selected films is being provided as streams to be found on the digital conference platform: https://city46.cinemalovers.de. The films will be available digitally from May 3–9, 2021 for 24 hours after purchase of ticket. You might want to check if it is available in your region, as the films need to be geo-blocked for Germany-wide streaming solely. In addition, the plan is to screen films on site at the cinema – subject to applicable infection protection measures (status: 03/2021). Please catch up on changes on that matter in advance.

Date and Venue

Remote conference:
May 5–7, 2021, Zoom

Online film streaming:
May 3–9, 2021

On-site screenings:
May 5–8, 2021
CITY 46 | Kommunalkino Bremen
(subject to applicable infection protection measures)

Information and Registration

Paula Hoffmann
Phone 0049 421 95799290
CITY46 / Kommunalkino Bremen e.V.
hoffmannprotect me ?!city46protect me ?!.de



Mental Health Resources

Emergency counselling:
0800 – 111 0 111 / 222

Helpline counselling:
116 123

Muslim counselling:
030 – 443 509 821

Hebrew counselling:
0211 – 46985 -20 / -21

Under age counselling:
0800 – 111 0 333

German depression aid:
0800 – 33 445 33

Free chat: www.telefonseelsorge.de