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I’m a Montreal native, born and raised. I left the city to pursue liberal arts studies at the University of Toronto - I’m a U of T graduate.

I love the 3 R’s: Reading, Writing, and Running . For years, I’ve worked as a fitness trainer.

Three years ago, after an especially trying time in my life, I caught wind of the Au Contraire Film Festival and wanted to be involved. I volunteered as a film juror. Then 2 years ago I was given the honour of being their programming director and curator.

Interview by Rebeccah Love

What was your relationship with storytelling like as a kid? What kinds of creative activities did you gravitate towards? As a kid, I loved to play make-believe with my older brother. I loved the deep dive into the imagination. I could spend hours in my backyard building cities of stones, earth, and flowers, engaged in storylines of my own making replete with colourful characters. I also loved to entertain my family and friends with plays I’d create and put on for them. Words fascinated me. They felt like musical notes to me. And I liked experimenting with the feel of different words in the poems I’d write for my family and friends. Perhaps my first inspiration into this world of creative magic was my paternal grandfather. He was a great teller of ghost stories. He brought the story to life with content, affect, and effect. He loved killing the lights and placing a flashlight under his chin while weaving his web of haunted tales. I was truly transfixed and mesmerized by the experience. I remember hanging onto his every word as if they were rungs on a ladder to a different realm, which they were. We’d travel together in these lands of fright and beauty.

I gravitated towards writing poems, drawing, and dramatic arts. I loved auditioning and being part of school plays. I loved drawing. I was often called upon to do artwork for school projects. I also wrote for my CEGEP’s arts journal. What kinds of storytelling did you gravitate towards as a teenager? What books or movies did you love as a teenager? And what classes did you gravitate towards in high school? Did you have any standout teachers? As a teenager, I gravitated towards poetry, plays, literature, fiction, and nonfiction. I especially loved works by Gabriel García Márquez, Cormac McCarthy, Milan Kundera, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, Albert Camus, Romain Gary, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Blake, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Tom Robbins, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou. As a teen, I loved Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, Milan Kundera’s The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Albert Camus’s The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, Romain Gary’s The Life Before Us, William Blake’s “The Tyger”, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger and Different Seasons, Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Cat's Eye, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and his song “Hallelujah”, Langston Hughes's The Big Sea, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and “And Still I Rise”. So in high school, I naturally gravitated towards English, French, and drama classes. As a teen, I remember loving mostly older films such as James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Misfits (1961), Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959), Robert Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Mark Rydell’s On Golden Pond (1981), Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985), Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987), Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) and JFK (1991), Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family (1991), Joel and Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink (1991), and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). The teachers who had the greatest impact on me were the ones who were passionate about transmitting an unending thirst for knowledge, a deep curiosity, and a deep questioning of everything. The two standouts were my high school history teacher, professor Jean Filipovitch, and my CEGEP art history teacher, professor Rabinovitch. Can you tell me about the Au Contraire Film Festival? What is it all about? How did it start? How did you first get involved? The Au Contraire Film Festival uses the power of the medium of film to help destigmatize mental illness by dispelling myths and breaking taboos surrounding this issue. It promotes mental health awareness, initiatives, and community support. The festival’s films often deal with difficult mental health issues that have the ability to communicate to the audience viscerally and vividly the raw pain of the protagonist. But herein lies the power of the medium of film and art in general. In the words of Cesar A. Cruz, I believe that “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. Therein lies the catalyst for discussion, debate, and potential change, especially as it applies, in this case, to removing the stigma of mental illness. That being said, the festival does promote a hopeful message, and many of the films strike a delicate and brilliant balance between oppressive pain and healing humour. The Au Contraire Film Festival started 9 years ago as a much needed platform in the burgeoning mental health activism of the time. I started reviewing films as a juror for the festival 3 years ago. Philip Silverberg, the founder of the festival, and Marcel Pinchevsky, the executive director of the festival, saw my reviews as insightful and helpful in the film selection process. Philip then offered me further responsibilities as a member of the team. Being the ACFF programming director and curator is the culmination of that work and trust.

What makes a good film about mental health? I’m very sensitive to the quality of the script and the artistry of the film - the lyricism of word, image, and sound. So I vouch for films that are strong in these areas. I’m also very sensitive to the way in which the mental health issue in a given film is being portrayed. It’s very important to me that the films do justice to mental health awareness and initiatives as opposed to sensationalizing mental illness in an effort to promote ticket sales. The films should not further add to the misunderstanding and stigma of mental illness by either romanticizing the illness or glorifying the shock value of it. Also, I vouch for a film that does not naïvely or ignorantly depict the featured mental health issue. I do not want the film to further offend and alienate those suffering from mental illness and those who care for them. It’s important to me that the film rings true by resonating on some level with all members of the audience and offers hope. I consider it a win if the viewers get the chance to experience the incredible resilience of those featured in the films as well as the incredible healing power of love, family, and community and the sublimating power of art. I want the viewers to be moved, elevated, and entertained by the chosen films. What have been some standout films you’ve recalled while programming the festival? Some standout films I recall while being a juror and programming director for the festival are: Jérémy Clapin’s Skhizein (2008), Shawn Christensen’s Curfew (2012), Frank Stiefel’s Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (2016), Alison Snowden and David Fine’s Animal Behaviour (2018), Catherine LePage’s The Great Malaise (2019), Bruno Collet’s Mémorable (2019), Nate Milton’s Eli (2019), Regina Pessoa’s Uncle Thomas: Accounting for the Days (2019), Pedro Pires’s Alexander Odyssey (Alexandre le fou) (2019), Zach Woods’s David (2020), Amar Chebib’s Joe Buffalo (2021), Nikki Lynette and Roger Ellis’s Get Out Alive (2021), and, of course, last but not least, your film, Rebeccah, Parlour Palm (2020). What piece of advice would you give to a person struggling with their mental health? I have experienced the terrifying abyss of hopelessness. I never thought I would survive this ordeal to find solid footing in the light of life and joy again. But I did. Because as long as you hold on, the body and mind will prove themselves to be miracles of design, resilience, and healing. Magic and mystery reside in every cell of our being. The universe is within us, so if you cannot trust that the storm inside your mind will ever subside, trust in the inherent symmetry and beauty of the universe; in the billions of years of the grand cosmic dance. Do not suffer in silence and isolation. Reach out for help, whether it be help from a professional, family member, friend, or resources offered by the community. Even when you believe nothing can help; even when help offers no reprieve from your torment, still do not give up. It is truly darkest before the dawn. Even if you’re stuck in an abyss for years, again do not give up. Our society is, unfortunately, in a mad rush about everything, including healing, which cannot be rushed. So without your even fully being aware, ever so slowly and incrementally life will assert itself and make itself - you - whole again. As it is fundamentally designed to do. Let the magic happen even if you’ve lost faith in the magic. Life will stitch and weave itself back toward stability, health, and a stronger you. Solace can also be found in art. The Au Contraire films are empowering in that many people struggling with mental health issues will be able to find a common voice and language there. They will be able to relate to many of the protagonists’ gargantuan struggles with the Goliath of their illness. And because of this, they will feel less alone in their personal battles. It’s important to note that even those who are not struggling with mental health issues will be able to relate to and enjoy our films. After all, our films explore the human condition. What is Urban Pardes? What kind of programming does it offer? How does it relate to your festival? Urban Pardes, a registered Canadian charity, established Donald Berman UP House to help adults living with mental illness rebuild their confidence, purpose, and community. The Clubhouse Model is an evidence-based, award-winning recovery model subscribed to by over 320 mental health communities or “clubhouses” across the world. Donald Berman UP House was awarded the 2012 Douglas Utting Medal for excellence and innovation in the field of mental health in Canada. The 2014 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the world’s largest humanitarian prize, was awarded to Clubhouse International and its Clubhouse network for doing extraordinary worldwide work to alleviate human suffering. Donald Berman UP House serves more than 200 active members and is in its 11th year of operation. The net proceeds of the Au Contraire Film Festival support the operating of Donald Berman UP House. Urban Pardes searches for films around the world that deal with mental health issues and illness. Some of the many themes featured are OCD, depression, suicidal ideation, bipolar disorder, psychosis, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, burnout, addiction, gambling, and homelessness. We seek films that are thought-provoking, moving, and entertaining. We want to shed light on mental illness in order to bring it to the forefront, dispel the stigma, and spark conversation and change. We have now recently branched out with new collaborations in the fields of dementia and autism. And so the Au Contraire Film Festival is an ideal platform for bringing these themes and issues into the light of awareness and change while celebrating the power and fun of film! What are you looking forward to? I’m looking forward to now - to making this day count.

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