Raising children is the most important job a parent will have. Feeding, clothing, protecting and inspiring them is an 18 year commitment. They depend on you every day for guidance and nurturing. They look up to you for answers and leadership. Now imagine that one of the parents or that single parent has a mental illness. How does it change the family dynamic and how does it impact the relationship? To find those answers documentary filmmaker, Megan Durnford went to the source, the families.
Megan Durnford’s latest documentary, I Am Still Your Child follows three families with children raised by a parent with mental illness. I had the luxury of watching the 44 minute film and it opened my eyes and touched my heart with what I learnt. This film will certainly move you and cause you to empathize with children that struggle for a normal life and an invested parent. I spoke with director Megan Durnford from Montreal to learn all about her motivation for this film.
“This was a moving documentary. How did the idea come to fruition?”
“I have a friend that organizes TED Talks for youth and they had asked if I’d be interested in attending an event in which a woman was talking about her experience of being raised by a parent with mental illness. My friend thought it could be an interesting topic for a documentary. After the event, she asked me what I thought about the potential of making a documentary on the subject. I thought it was very interesting but I’d need more information and research on the subject. I wanted to know how common it was, if it was typical, was it different in Canada compared to around the world. After some research I had discovered it was very common and there were no documentaries on the topic. The potential was looking very good. I began talking to my producer about this type of documentary. It could be helpful for the general public, mental health professionals, social services as well as appeal to an educational market. Another reason for making this documentary was to reach other children and teenagers around the world living in the same situation. They might feel alone in the world but after watching the film, they would realize there are other people out there that know what they’re going through. That alone can bring comfort.”
“Have you always been interested in making documentaries?”
“I actually had a 15 year career as a freelance journalist and have written two non fiction books before I became interested in making documentaries. ”
“Considering the subject matter, was it difficult to find families willing to participate and how did you seek them out?”
“One method was contacting organizations in Quebec that help friends and family dealing with a loved one living with mental illness. I had asked if there was anyone they were working with that might be interested in participating in the project. It was a long process. The mental health councilor thought it was a good idea but wanted to meet me first. I basically had to win over their confidence before they would discuss the idea with their participants. If they were interested, they would provide them with my contact info. I’d also reached out to an art therapist who specialized in working with children that had a parent living with mental illness. Another resource I reached out to was the Douglas Hospital, a mental health hospital in Montreal. In the development stage I had met some families to speak with them about living and raising children with a mental illness. Initially they were very comfortable talking and opening up about it but once I had mentioned the idea of putting them on camera, they would back off. It became very difficult to find subjects willing to allow cameras in. It took me two years to find the three families willing to allow cameras in to tell their stories.”
Those three families consisted of Von Allan, a man raised by a single mother with mental illness, Jessy Bokser, a young women raised in a two parent household. Her mother lives with mental illness and refused to be on camera. The third was Sarah Leavens, a young teenage girl living with her parents. Her dad is bipolar.
“In this documentary, I found it very interesting that all three children raised by a parent with mental illness have all embraced art in their lives. I wonder why that is.”
“It does seem that way but I think it was a way of coping with their environment. Von Allan’s story is very interesting because he was raised by a single mother living with a mental illness. His childhood was very lonely and isolated. He would get lost in his comic books as a way to escape. When he got older he managed a bookstore and was inspired to write a graphic novel after meeting many authors that would come in. He wanted to write the novel about his experience growing up with his mom but whenever he’d think about the story he’d see images in his head. He taught himself to draw and created a graphic novel in hopes that it would help others living with a mentally ill parent and knowing that you can come out the other side. I made a short film on him and his art for CBC Arts.”
“The young teen in the film discusses the possibility of inheriting the same gene her bipolar father has. Was she also diagnosed as bipolar?”
“Sarah had talked to her doctor about the possibilities of having the same genetic condition as her dad but because of her young age and hormones it wasn’t possible to determine at the moment. When her dad was in primary school, he knew something wasn’t right. He had talked to a school psychiatrist and they had told him that if he was an adult, he’d be diagnosed as bipolar but because he was a child he was told it was impossible because of his age. It was discounted but these days it is accepted that you can be diagnosed with the condition at any age. Many of his relatives have a history of mental illness. He’s never had proper parenting and went through a very rough time trying to deal with his depression. His doctor had dismissed the possibility that he could be bipolar because of the lack of information back then.”
“Was it a small camera crew following the families and do you feel like people acted different in front of the camera?”
“It was a very small crew that included myself, a camera operator and a sound recorder. All the subjects were very comfortable with the crew and forgot the camera was there after a few minutes. Jessy Bokser’s mom didn’t want her face or name to be on camera but did support her daughter’s reasons for participating. We found a way around it using some photos of her mom. Her dad was very supportive and agreed to be on camera to talk about his wife’s condition and their relationship.”
As difficult as it seems to be raised by a parent with a mental illness, in some cases it is extremely dangerous. Megan tells me about a case in Quebec where a mother living with mental illness threatened to kill her child. As a young child, it’s incredibly difficult to digest that your mom or dad would want to harm you that bad.
The camera crew followed the families for a year and the film was completed last spring. The editing was completed by Howard Goldberg a week later due to CBC’s deadline requirements. There was a private screening with the families in the film. Megan tells me it was an emotional experience. It was quite special for them to meet each other and they all exchanged contact info at the screening.
“How does it make you feel knowing that you were able to tell their stories on film?”
“It was a very gratifying feeling knowing that I could help the families tell their stories and that it can reach other families in similar situations. One of the subjects had told me that she was able to confide some things in the interview that she hadn’t been able to tell her friends. I was astounded that she trusted me that much.”
“How did you begin your career as a documentary filmmaker?”
“I had talked to other filmmakers about the path to take and they said I just need to go for it and make a documentary on my own. Once I did and it screened at festivals it gave me some credibility and allowed me to approach producers for future financing. I’ve made three documentaries prior to this one. The first one was about environmental activists in Quebec working toward a ban on cosmetic pesticides. My second film was about adults that build with lego. Their creations are based around architecture and robotics. It was an entertaining and lighthearted film. The third film I made was in French. It was about a therapeutic garden in Massachusetts that was specifically designed for children that have experienced trauma. The garden was more about the shape of the landscape than the flowers. Research had shown that certain landscape forms might elicit emotional reactions and conjure up bad memories.”
The national broadcast for this documentary was on March 31. There are also several community screenings being organized in Quebec and across Canada. The film will also be shown at a high profile mental health conference in Toronto in May followed by a panel discussion. She’s been asked if there’s going to be more films on mental illness. She tells me that her interests on other subjects vary quit widely. She says she doesn’t have a personal connection to mental illness but thought it would be unique to hear the POV from teenagers of what life is like when a parent has a mental illness. There were no other documentaries covering this subject, which she admits to being another motivating factor. When it comes to her next project, she says it really comes down to what gets funded.
As all films go, you can’t make them without a great competent crew. Her camera operator/DOP was Alex Margineanu, sound recorder was carried out by Stéphane Barsalou and Marco Fania. The producer was Katarina Soukup. It was financed through the Quebec regional CBC and the Telus Fund.
“Do you plan to keep making documentaries or would you like to make a feature film someday?”
“I do get inspired by other genres of films I’ve watched but my focus is specifically on documentaries.”
Megan Durnford says her next film idea is about volunteer search and rescue workers that work with dogs. If you’d like to learn more about her documentary, I Am Still Your Child, please go to www.iamstillyourchild.com. There is a trailer and more information on the subject of mental illness.