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An exploration of how film and TV portray mental health

New symposium brings industry leaders and scholars to Northwestern for three-day event

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University’s Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab for the Promotion of Mental Health via Cinematic Arts is hosting an inaugural symposium “Media and Mental Health: Exploring Contemporary Representations of Madness, Melancholy, and Trauma in Film and Television” May 25 to May 27 on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses.

Travon Free, three-time Emmy and Peabody Award-winning actor, writer and comedian, will screen his Academy Award-winning film, “Two Distant Strangers,” which examines the deaths of Black Americans during encounters with police through the eyes of a character trapped in a time loop. Free will join international scholars and artists to discuss, debate and critically analyze media portrayals of mental distress in the 21st century.

The three-day event includes film screenings and three panels: “Uneasy Living: Climate Anxiety in Contemporary Cinema"; “The Trauma Trope”; and “Madness and Melancholy in Film and Television.”

Founded in 2022 with a $1 million grant from the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation and Jessy Pucker ’19, The Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab (PPSL) serves as an incubator dedicated to flipping the script on mental health portrayals in movies, television and media. Its mission is to create, support and examine original narrative screenwriting, television writing and media making centered around mental health.

“Media portrayals of mental illness significantly influence popular discourses, public health policies and embodied experiences,” says Dave Tolchinsky, founder and director of PPSL. “We want to help young filmmakers create narratives that are disruptive, thoughtful and empathetic.”

The symposium, hosted in partnership with a Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs’ research group exploring similar issues with a global focus, is free and open to the public.  Registration is required.

Schedule of events

Thursday, May 25, 2023
Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston

12 p.m.
Keynote: “Searching for Trauma: Narratives and Politics of Loss and Suffering in Eastern Europe” by Ana Antic, author and University of Copenhagen professor
The talk explores different ways in which the trauma paradigm informs our understanding of the conflict-ridden history of 20th-century Eastern Europe, and interrogates the relationship between cultural context, political ideology and expressions of psychological suffering and distress with a focus on socialist and post-socialist Yugoslavia.

3 p.m.
Panel: “The Trauma Trope” 
Participants: Robin Means Coleman, Miriam Petty, Ana Antiç, Peter Locke
Trauma has become a defining feature of contemporary storytelling across all mediums and genres. Film and television, in particular, use trauma as a framework for explicating a protagonist’s motivations, as well as to reach towards a preconceived audience of survivors. This panel brings together scholars to discuss, analyze and debate the entanglements of trauma and visual culture. What does it mean to expand our cultural idea of trauma to include such a diverse array of experiences? Is the empathy evoked by traumatic narratives always ethical? Does imagery of trauma cultivate voyeuristic desire?

6 p.m.
Film Screenings:
“No Go Backs”
Synopsis: This 2020 film follows two teenagers as they escape from L.A. into the natural environments surrounding the city, driven to seek a world without adults.  Stanya Kahn, an award-winning multidisciplinary artist, films her subjects in found environments across the Southland, sites which double as idyllic and apocalyptic spaces, reflecting the reality that the climate crisis is already upon us – if not always easy to see.

"A Thousand Years Ago"
Synopsis: In this 2022 film, Edgar Jorge Baralt explores the landscape of Southern California, overlaying contemporary footage of the region with speculative narration that imagines how our present might look from the year 2049, on the other side of an unnamed disaster.

7 p.m.
Panel: “Uneasy Living: Climate Anxiety in Contemporary Cinema”
Co-Sponsored with Buffett Working Group, Climate Crisis + Media Arts
Participants: Michael Metzger, Zayd Dohrn, Jake Smith, Edgar Jorge Baralt
This panel brings together two films that reflect the acute anxiety of living in a prelude to dystopian future. While formally distinct, the two films both reveal how climate anxiety shapes our perception of our environments, as we envision a catastrophic future without the outlines of a troubled present. Panelists will also discuss how television and film capture climate grief and the mood of crisis. What are common tropes and trends found in popular climate change narratives? How do we fold these often future-oriented narratives into the current historical moment, keeping in mind for whom life is already catastrophic?

Friday, May 26, 2023
Abbott Hall, Room 203, 710 North Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

12 p.m.
Keynote “From Medicalization to Metamodernism: Reflections on Recent Popular Portrayals of Mental Distress” by Stephen Harper
This talk will consider recent trends in film and television representations of mental distress. The presentation will attempt to assess the current state of mainstream cultural images of madness vis-à-vis the themes addressed in Harper’s 2009 book “Madness, Power and the Media,” the problematic search for ‘accuracy’ in cultural portrayals of distress, the question of how to respond to images of violent or anti-social madness, and the potential for stories of distress to serve as vehicles of social and political critique.

3 p.m.
Panel: “Madness and Melancholy in Twenty-First Century Visual Culture” 
Participants: Rebecca Seligman, Stephen Harper, Richard Reinhardt, Kate Erskine
In a global landscape that is reshaped daily by the coronavirus, climate change, refugee crises and economic polarization, mental illness, particularly depression, is an escalating public health concern. In a moment when crisis is ordinary, how do filmmakers portray its psychological toll? What are the aesthetics of depression and melancholia in film and television in the last decade? How do we translate cultural trauma through representations of mental illness?  

7 p.m.
Film Screening: “Two Distant Strangers” with filmmaker Travon Free, in conversation with Harvey Young
Synopsis: This 2020 short film written by Travon Free follows Black graphic designer Carter James as he tries to get home to his dog  the morning after a first date, only to find himself in a time loop in which he is repeatedly confronted in the street by a white NYPD police officer. The film examines the deaths of Black Americans during encounters with police.  The film won the award for Best Live Action Short Film at the 93th Annual Academy Awards.

Saturday, May 27, 2023
Abbott Hall, Room 203, 710 North Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

12 p.m.
Film screenings: Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab Student Screenings 

1:30 p.m.
Mental Health and Industry panel
Participants: AJ Christian, Dave Tolchinsky, and other industry guests to be announced.
What can the industry do better? How do we turn out a generation of mental health-savvy media makers?

3 p.m.
Reading and discussion: “Sick” by playwright/podcast host Zayd Dohrn, directed by Susan Bowen