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After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, filmmaker Gabriel Mitchell joins forces with his sister, Carmen, to make a documentary about mental illness. When Gabe dies by suicide, Carmen attempts to understand his illness and his death by resurrecting and re-imaging his creative work.
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In the fall of 2009, my brother Gabriel and I decided to make a film together. It would be a documentary exploring the subject of mental illness and would examine both the experience of living with a mental illness and the stigma and misconceptions surrounding it (as fed by societal ignorance, the media and even the medical establishment itself). We felt we were in a unique position to talk about the subject; Gabriel had been living with the diagnosis of schizophrenia for nearly two decades, and as a brother and sister filmmaking team we thought we could give both an insider’s and outsider’s perspective on the subject.
Then on June 24th of 2012, I received a call from my mother that Gabriel had leapt from his 59th floor balcony to his death. He left his glasses, wallet and cigarettes on the table. He did not leave a note. “No words” everyone said to us.
Since Gabriel left us, I have struggled to find the words. To put the pieces together. I did relentless Google searches on schizophrenia, read first person accounts and scoured the DSM5 learning only what I knew before -that there is no explanation, there is no cure, and that 20% of people diagnosed with the disease attempt suicide. But it wasn’t until I began to delve into Gabriel’s creative work, that I began to see his life and his world from his unique perspective. Reading his scripts and watching his films, a narrative began to emerge: the story of his life as he saw it, his “hero’s journey.” I have since come to appreciate how this narrative kept him going as long as it did, how in fact we all have narratives that help make sense of our lives. That we may all be, to some degree, on the spectrum of mental illness and delusion.
The structure of the film is guided by Gabriel’s own telling of his life story, alongside interviews with the people closest to him: our parents, his friends, mental health providers, as well as the people with whom he was fascinated (many of whom became characters in his fictional world).
Our story breaks down into seven chapters:
Prelude: Introduces Gabriel as a character and illustrates our initial collaboration on the project. This section ends with his suicide and my revelation that there is bigger story to tell.
Origin Story: Explores Gabriel’s childhood and teenage years on the south side of Chicago. We meet his eccentric family and learn about the inciting incident he believes caused his illness.
Onset: During his first year at college, symptoms manifest (grandiosity, paranoia, delusion, and hallucinations). The tension increases between his own understanding of his behavior and the way others perceive it.
Homecoming: Forced home, Gabriel’s confrontations with his parents result in a violent episode, which leads to hospitalization and a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Stamped with the label “mentally ill,” Gabriel reluctantly accepts treatment and moves into a half-way house. He begins to write his own story in the form of screenplays, a graphic novel, songs, and drawings.
Rebirth: Gabriel commits to sobriety and medication. He gets a part-time job at grocery store and enrolls in film classes, continuing to explore his life experiences through evolving creative work. One of these projects is this very documentary. Just as he seems to have beaten schizophrenia, he leaps to his death, leaving friends and family devastated.
Inheritance: In struggling to make sense out of my brother’s death, I come to appreciate the gifts he left for all of us. The artist Antony Gormley creates sculpture based on a design of his, our father writes a memoir about him, my mother composes a piece based on his favorite quote, and I take up the mantle of the project we started together. I explore the idea that his legacy lives on, not just through his own work but through the people he inspired.
Throughout the film I find ways for him to tell his story posthumously, bringing the viewer along on my own detective’s journey through his art, writings and films. My aim is not only to honor the original vision for our film by exploring mental illness “from the inside and the outside,” but also to discover what his life can teach us about storytelling as a key to survival.
- in post-production
- Running time
- 120 minutes
- Carmen Elena Mitchell ... Director/Producer
- Prod. Co.
- Butcher Bird Studios
- United States
- Years of Production
- Chicago, New York, Los Angeles
- Prod. Partners
- Luis Reyes, Steven Calcote
- Release year
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