First Fortnight starts year with positive outlook

Arts festival dedicated to encouraging discussion of mental health, says Richard Fitzpatrick

THE start of January is an odd time to stage a festival, but First Fortnight, which tackles “mental health prejudice through creative arts”, has expanded since its inception in 2009. Last year, it sold 2,500 tickets. This year, it will sell more, given its exciting line-ups in music, theatre, street art, and spoken word.

The actor Joe Pantoliano will join British artist Stuart Semple for a discussion, ‘Please can you make some noise for mental health’, chaired by Colm O’Gorman, head of Amnesty International in Ireland!. The session will be streamed by other mental health organisations around the world.

Pantoliano played Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos, and was one of four actors from the landmark HBO show to win an Emmy award. First Fortnight will screen Pantoliano’s film, No Kidding, Me Too!

Last year, First Fortnight opened at six venues, based around Temple Bar, and covered seven arts disciplines. This year, it has funding for two full-time art therapists on two-year contracts.

The festival is organised by seven volunteers. It was conceived by Dave Keegan, an arts promoter, and JP Swaine, a psychotherapist and social worker. The two were sharing a house in their home town, Tallaght.

“JP approached me and said he wanted to raise awareness about mental illness at the beginning of the year,” says Keegan, “because he knew that, statistically, his workload would shoot up after Christmas and through the first quarter of the year. We wanted to challenge the stigma around mental health. We chose the arts as a medium, because it reflects us as a society. “The focus of events is on mental health and generating positivity for the coming year to start that conversation, and, hopefully, it will have a ripple effect and encourage people to discuss their feelings, just to talk, basically, about how they are mentally.

“There’s a taboo around mental health in Ireland. Our mission is to make it easier for people to talk about mental health. We’re never slow to tell people about our ailments, if it’s a gamy knee or a rugby injury that’s flared up because of the cold, but the idea that you’re feeling a bit low at the moment, to talk to somebody about that, here, can be difficult.”

There is a disturbing moment in the Anne-Marie Kelly documentary Wally, which is about a Portlaoise rapper who is feeling suicidal after years of drug-taking and a troubled childhood in Hungry Hill, a neighbourhood in Portlaoise where he spent his time running around “alleyways escaping from manhunts”.

When Wally approaches a doctor about his state of mind, he’s stonewalled. “What have you to be depressed about?” the doctor says. It’s a crushing response, although the film is about the redemption Wally finds through making music.

First Fortnight will also screen Tarnation, surely one of the most remarkable of home movies. For 20 years, Jonathan Caouette filmed himself and his mother, Renee Le Blanc, both of whom suffered from mental illness, using a Super 8 camera. Famously, the film he finally cobbled together cost $218 to produce, but hit the big time once it was picked up by Gus Van Sant.

Le Blanc grew up in a small Texas town in the 1950s. By age 11, courtesy of her incredible beauty, she had become a model and a star on TV commercials. By 12, “her life became sad”. Her parents — naively, says Caouette: “they were prone to the power of suggestion” — had her committed for electric-shock treatment, two sessions a week for two years. Her life thereafter was in freefall. In one 30-year stretch, she was treated in more than 100 psychiatric hospitals, even though records show there was nothing initially wrong with her.

Le Blanc had a brief marriage, but her husband left her before Caouette was born. During one psychotic episode, Le Blanc spirited Caouette away to Chicago, Illinois, where she was raped in front of her four-year-old son. Caouette spent time in foster care, where he was tied up and beaten. He also suffered molestation, and a dissociate disorder provoked by prepubescent drug abuse, which left him in a dream-like state.

Salvation came in the form of the film camera bought for the 11-year-old Caouette by his grandfather.

After seeing Tarnation, you’ll understand why it received a 10-minute standing ovation at a screening at the Cannes Film Festival several years ago.

* First Fortnight runs in venues across Dublin city, Wednesday, Jan 2-Saturday, Jan 12.


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