Beautiful minds

The ICA's Reel Madness festival aims to generate sympathy for mental illness - without sentimentality

When Anne de Marcken and Marilyn Freeman began to make their film Group, they had a carefully prepared script based on their experiences of group therapy. But the first few weeks of shooting were so unfruitful that they ditched it, brought in a real-life therapist, and improvised instead. The result charts eight characters' 21 weeks of therapy on a screen split six ways, and is a fascinating reflection on the intense relationship between cinema and mental illness.

Film has always been remarkably successful as a medium through which to communicate mental trauma (just think of Jack Nicholson, who has built an entire career out of portraying disturbed characters). This fertile relationship is celebrated by Reel Madness, a festival of film screenings and talks at the ICA, which includes, not only Group but classics such as Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, new features and documentaries from Europe and North America.

The season will unite film- makers and people who work in the field of mental health for the first time. "We had a panel of consultants who were a mixture of film producers, distributors, healthcare professionals, service users and survivors," explains festival programmer Rachel Bailey, of Mental Health Media. "We have tried to marry these things to create something that will not only draw people's attention and awareness to mental health, but also be a good festival in its own right."

With this in mind, the festival has shunned mainstream films in favour of European and indie fare less easily seen in this country. "Hollywood films that deal with mental health issues tend to be sentimental in order to win sympathy," says Bailey. "I think it's a good idea to show films that are more real, so there are a range of representations."

One of these will be Kira's Reason (right), by Danish director Ole Christian Madsen. The 21st Dogme film, it portrays a woman's struggle to keep her marriage alive while suffering from manic depression. In fact, European films dominate the foreign-language section: as well as Weingartner's The White Sound, an award-winning but controversial portrayal of schizophrenia, the festival presents films from Iceland, Finland, Holland and Poland. According to Bailey, it's no coincidence. "When you start trying to source films from different countries, you see the preoccupations of a particular part of the world. I couldn't find much in Africa about mental health - there were more films about Aids. But go to Northern Europe..."

Just over half the films on show are documentaries. These range from curiosities such as Completely Cuckoo's The Making of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, to psychological studies like My Friend Paul, in which Jonathan Berman is reunited with a schoolfriend whose mental illness has landed him in jail.

The festival also looks at how horrifying "treatment" can be, as in the 1976 Yorkshire TV documentary It's a Bit Frightening, a harrowing indictment of psychosurgery. This last will be followed by one of three debates at the festival. The other two, Madness and Film, and The Politics of Madness, will discuss health issues inspired by clips from the festival and from the archives.

Reel Madness, ICA, the Mall, London SW1 (020-7267 7722; www.reelmadness.co.uk) Thur to 22 Jun

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