by September Williams, MD
of Bioethics http://www.bioethics.net/2019/04/a-film-review-a-night-at-the-garden-conversation-on-moral-intuition-with-director-marshall-curry/ Posted on April 28, 2019, at 6:02 PM
I AM MARIS: Portrait of a Young Yogi Managing Anorexia Nervosa by Her Own Hand
This article was originally published on April 21, 2019, by Bioethics.net Where the World finds Bioethics
“You are only as sick as the secrets you keep.” It’s a saying used in a wide variety of mental health self-help communities. The phrase is also the apt tag line for Laura VanZee Taylor’s profoundly emotive feature length 2018 documentary film, I AM MARIS (IAM). Taylor along with producer Ariana Garfinkel and— most importantly— the film’s artist-writer-protagonist Maris Degener, document the perpetual state of recovery required to quell manifestations of mental illness. The story copes with the myriad incognito fluctuations of minds burdened with the disease anorexia nervosa. This is a heartwarming optimistic story looking through the tunnel back toward mental health from a position of calm possibility.
In Maris’ case, allopathy could keep the adolescent anorexic alive but could not help her live a life truly worth living. The latter was the task of a broader approach. Before she started college—and after bouts of anorexic mortal danger—Maris was fortunate enough to find a Yoga practice and community. Compulsions for order were channeled to a healthy affinity allowing the young woman to reclaim her alienated self. She became proficient enough to teach, to become a Yogi, before she was seventeen.
Yoga has been shown helpful in other liminal spaces of mind-body transition like palliative and end of life care. Self-expression through art and movement is a tried and true approach to self-reflection, with or without, mental health concerns. The full therapeutic scope of art and movement therapy has not been fully explored, clinically documented or rationalized across diseases. It’s as if Art Therapy is considered a “no brainer category,” leaving it, like many other complementary therapies, underfunded, antidotally studied and often inaccessible.
I AM MARIS stands out in large part because it is created in Maris’ voice. Director Taylor has the capacity to let “the talent” take the lead. The protagonist's writings and drawings inform the process of documenting her illness and recovery. Art and writing often appear as self-expression but also as self-medication for those with mental illnesses. Maris’ artwork screamed alienation for years before her diagnosis was clarified. Her images and poetry reflect dire internal realities which caused others to look away from— or rationalize—the artist’s suffering. Good psychotherapy, occupational therapy, art, music, dance, and other movement therapists—given access and time—aid stability in many persons with mental trauma and other mind-body illnesses.
The viewer hears Maris read from her journals and sees the drawings which had been created during periods of crisis gone by. This is a past tense sensation. In a stroke of filmic genius, director Taylor also chose to animate aspects of Maris' inner thoughts gleaned from her writing and her on-camera interviews. Maris’ words and surrealistic artistic style are adapted for the animation sequences created by illustrator-animator Brandon Eversole. This unique collaboration results in a kind of participatory effect for the viewer— not hearing a flashback—but feeling it in real-time—particularly as the young woman blooms beyond her illness.
Maris’ mother’s on-screen interviews are an essential through-line in the film. Her mother knows things about her daughter that Maris herself does not know. These segments are profound for their honesty. The mother shares that subtle insidious signs of illness might have been apparent well before her daughter’s adolescence. The turmoil and fears of the girl’s parents are laid bare as well as the joy of this one kid to have found ‘a way’ . Like most thoughtful parents, Maris’ were loathed to slot their child into a “sick role.” The mother speaks of worries and feelings of guilt for not having ‘caught on’ faster. It draws tears from the audience who understand that the speaker on screen is among the strongest of the strong. She kept and still keeps the faith that her daughter will be safe while simultaneously terrified another shoe might drop.
Maris’ parents are in good company with their struggle to understand anorexia nervosa. Though awareness of eating disorders became prominent in the USA circa the 1970s, through star power of musicians and actors, such conditions have been documented for centuries. During the latter part of the last century, we thought these sicknesses were narrowly distributed to affluent young White women. Eating disorders are no longer thought confined by race, ethnicity, gender or class. It turns out these diseases are equal opportunity stalkers. Peer recognition of eating disorders’ signs and symptoms is low in college students—the same populations often affected with those diseases. Similarly, medical students show disproportionately high stigmatization of mental illness and suicide--afflictions for which they themselves carry significant burdens.
Latina incidences of anorexia nervosa and identification with eating disorders are as high or higher than White women. Race is defined here as science does—as a social construct. Though important in Maris’ story, her USA census grouping is not the focus of the film. But, race and ethnicity are worth mentioning here. Maris grew up in an affluent to middle-working class, smaller community in California. There were few people of color in her school. Maris’s family, like many, is blended multi-racial and multi-ethnic. Maris is visibly Latina as is her mother. On direct questioning, director, Taylor, explained that during filming Maris did exchange some thoughts touching race and ethnicity—or being ‘the other,’ especially in school. To be clear, race and ethnicity is not the focus of I AM MARIS. The exclusion of that dialog was one of many “good calls” which director Taylor made—opting to make mental illness and its management the peak of attention.
It is the universal qualities of mental illnesses, their manifestations, and the need for expanding tools of care for which IAM makes a clarion call. The point of the film is not how people are different but how we are the same, or at least on the same spectrum. But, IAM also underscores that the Yoga therapy saving Maris’ life is an alternative not often accessible to all because of cost and limits on therapeutic ingenuity. Despite them being cheaper than almost any psychoactive drug, as well as economic terrains.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act acknowledges state licensed clinicians' right to prescribe complementary therapies, but it only begins to lay a foundation for normalizing use of those strategies. Insurers still are not obligated by law to pay for non-allopathic therapies other than acupuncture. Even now, amid recognition of epidemic pain disparity, opioid addiction, mental and physical pain crisis, Traditional and Complimentary therapeutic management of these illnesses are being ignored. Maris was fortunate to be in a community which could absorb the cost of her most valued treatment—Yoga.
Maris Degener’s journey toward recovery is ultimately self-guided. There is magic in movement. During the buzz of the 2018 film awards season, magnificently heavy with works by and about women, a little film, I AM MARIS tiptoed onto the scene quietly. It challenges professional and societal sole allegiance to magic bullets and psychotherapy for managing mental illnesses, teaching that the compliments of the Arts and the wisdom of the ages may do better.
Production still compliments of Mill Valley Film Festival
Alfonso Cuaron with actress Yalitza Aparicio
It is difficult to describe the number of ways that writer-director Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-biographical ROMA represents an Ichthian leap in cinema. There are no special effects to speak of, no costumes except at a New Year’s Eve party cum fire. To compare the film with the level of change that Italian Neorealism presented in the middle of the last century seems strident, yet true. Equally valid is the sense that this film represents the 7th Art at its best in both the creative and technical expression of cinema. There is not a super hero among them — but a sense of magic at the level of Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle or Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. It is a universal film from the soul of a Spanish master.
Written by a man, ROMA is defined by the relationships between three women and their children. There is little or no chatter—The movements, expressions and geography are left to tell the tale. The women are of three generations one an elderly woman sharing a home with her daughter and grandchildren. The daughter is approaching middle age, brilliant in her own right, and a mother of three. The daughter is also a wife, left distraught by a middle class doctor-husband who has gone cad and ludicrous. Above all other characters rises their Indio maid/nannie, Cleo. Kept company by her roommate, Cleo transcends everything poverty and servitude. If the Virgin of Guadalupe had corporal form, Cuaron proves it would be that of the actress Yalitza Aparicio whilst playing Cleo, during the turmoil of change in the cross cultural class and gender politics of 1970s Mexico.
The writing of Roma itself leaps across any venial representations or stereotypes. Swaddled in black and white footage, in a giant 65 mm frame, with layered visual symbolism, ROMA is a breath taking journey. In a season competing with the best Marvel films yet made, and a year of the too close to call superior performances by women actors—What might have been a long shot, ROMA is brought by Netflix, sans color but luminous, decked with subtitles, and surpasses all as it flies over the moon.
Added to the visuals ROMA’s sound is extraordinary. Having seen the film at the Dolby Lab Screening Room (San Francisco) with echo-locating sound technology—the viewer becomes an adroit listener as though sharing a room with the characters. Voices move from the right, left or seemingly ahead of of the viewer. Fair warning, the subsequent screening of other movies may leave you pining for that sensation of being in the midst of the action. You will crave auditory immersion in other films, less technically adroit, long after seeing ROMA.
Twenty is the number of films I've seen since screening ROMA this past October, 2018. Images continue to drift back to me and make me sigh—when I see a bird fly, a dog bark, or a child cry. There is a purgatory of beauty whipped with pain which is the home where certain souls live. Like birth and death — ROMA closes a circle of which the viewer is unaware of being open until the break is sealed. That new poetic mobius loop, twisted between life and death, catapults ROMA into the realm of bioethics.
Cuaron, Alfonso ROMA https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6155172/?ref_=nv_sr_1
Miyazaki, Hayao HOWL’s MOVING CASTLE https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0347149/
Marie Colvin with Mike Wallace (CBS,60minutes) receiving the International Women in Journalism Award Media foundations in 2000.
Time Magazine designated “The Guardians of Truth,” as its 2018 person of the year. The Guardians of Truth are journalists who risk it all to assure that those who might force their governments to make change have the information with which to guide their quest. Marie Colvin, the protagonist of A PRIVATE WAR was a woman who notoriously defined the meaning of her life and journalistic profession by her capacity, and that of her colleagues, to actualized Article 19 of the UDHR. (cf: A MIGHTY HEART).
The United Nations is history’s best aim at the potential of human beings without the luxury of the naivety of a single generation’s overt success. Every document promoting human enlightenment, including the USA constitution, bears a statement supporting freedom of information. This is the result of the intuition that information is power and, without safeguards, it will always be coveted by the most powerful to the detriment of the least. In precaution, The UDHR specifically states, in article 19 (of its 30), that:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
It is a principle by which Colvin lived and for which she was prepared to die. Even with that, Colvin verbalized personal and professional responsibility on occasions when she missed the boat. She famously admonished her profession for not seeing the writing on the wall in Rwanda. One million Rwandan Tutsis were killed in only 100 days from April to July in 1994.Virtually no journalist understood and responded until too late. Whether or not the world would do something about the massacre of innocents if made aware— Colvin knew that they certainly would not have the choice if they knew nothing of the offending incidents. This is because sans information, informed decisions cannot be made by individuals or societies.
Shortly after in 1949 the Geneva Conventions were signed. Most of those atrocities were manifest using the technology which was created by scientist. In this way, the guardians of truth are not only journalist but those who understand science and its potential applications. The Syrian Journalists' Association (also members of the IFJ) has documented 153 journalists killed, in that country, since the uprisings of 2011 which lead to the defection of soldiers from the Syrian army in protest of the governments repressive regime. Among the journalist killed in Syria were American journalists Jim Sokol and James Foley in 2014, by beheading. In 2016, a United Nations official said 400,000 people had been killed in first five years of the Syrian civil war—the vast majority being noncombatants. At the time of this writing the president of the USA claims an unsubstantiated victory in Syria against ISIS and says he plans to pull US troops out of the country.
As of March 2018, Lyn Maalouf, the Middle East research director for Amnesty International has stated that the "International community's catastrophic failure to take concrete action to protect the people of Syria has allowed parties to the conflict most notably the Syrian government to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity with complete impunity, often with the assistance of outside powers."
Since 2012 when journalist Marie Colvin was intentionally targeted by the government of Syria, through transmissions from her satellite phone, the International Federation of journalist (IFJ) reports that more than 600 journalist have been killed around the world. Nine in 10 cases remain unpunished. Hundreds of journalist are imprisoned.
Daily journalist are attacked, beaten, detained, harassed and threatened. Among women journalist surveyed in the 600,000 member IFJ, 24% have suffered physical attacks while working. Before those us in the USA shake their heads at the state of suppression of the press abroad, we must note that the US Present Freedom Tracker, since its launch in 2017, has documented 220 press freedom violations involving journalist and reporters have taken place in the USA.
Mathew Heineman’s film pushes a new audience of viewers to experience the world through journalist Marie Colvin’s eyes, emotions and suffering. She is not depicted as a superhero but a woman with flaws and scars who believed she could make a difference if she could get people to listen. A PRIVATE WAR adds to Colvin’s enduring legacy and reached out to those free to recognize and commit to protection of the most vulnerable victims of war. For Bioethicist and those who try to understand it, A PRIVATE WAR is a “must see.” The film is not only about a woman, or journalist but about an idea that that protects innocent third parties.
A PRIVATE WAR had its USA premiere the opening night of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF42) October 4, 2018. The screening was prior to Time Magazine having designated “The Guardians of Truth,” as its 2018 person of the year— and before the targeted killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Turkish Saudi Arabian embassy. Acclaimed documentarian Director Mathew Heineman’s supposed biopic focuses on the life, career and death of US born war correspondent for the London Sunday Times, Marie Colvin. Surprisingly, Heineman has chosen to re-tool his award winning considerable documentary skills to create this, his first narrative film. A PRIVATE WAR is many things, a Hollywood mirror biopic not being among them. Instead, this screen work is a gift of reality wrapped in art.
Marie Colvin was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012— during the second year of the Syrian civil war. This war still continues at this writing and is key to the undeclared World War raging in the Middle East with players from multiple nations beyond the region. Dying along with Marie was the acclaimed French freelance photojournalist Rémi Ochlik. For nearly thirty years Colvin had covered the “Middle Eastern War beat.” Her reports uniquely defined the inhumanity of war while she herself role-modeled a hard boiled compassion, accuracy and truth. She focused on the rights of civilians trapped in the cross-fires of hell on earth. An autopsy conducted in Damascus by the Syrian government concluded Marie Colvin was killed by an “improvised explosive device filled with nails.” These are the facts but there is more to the film.
Heineman’s film begins with the image of a decimated house, in the demolished city of Homs where thousands and Colvin died. It is so haunting that the viewer should be forewarned that it will wrench you from your sleep months after the screening. You will scramble to play catch up. The film asks the viewer to choose… “What side are you on?” Weeks later you will try to understand the history of how the wars in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Iran Libya Sri Lanka, East Timor and Syria became part of the same war — the war were the most vulnerable, the noncombatants, are used as cannon fodder over near a century.
Photojournalist Paul Conroy was injured in the attack that took Marie and Remi. He survived to provide context to his colleagues’ final hours. Crazy with purpose, Colvin had used her satellite phone to speak—one last time—the truth of the devastation of the civilian population of Syria. Six years later, in 2018 a Syrian Forces defectors testimony was unsealed by a USA court. The document presented evidence that the forces of Assad, the president of Syria, locked into the slain Colvin’s phone transmission to target and kill her.
It is a visually gritty, granular polluted air Colvin breaths. Visually, A PRIVATE WAR ends with that same decimated ruin in Homs where it begins. So why is a film whose story begins and ends in the same place worth telling in yet another way? It is, after all, a story that has been told in documentary film, magazine articles and in books elsewhere. Importantly, much of the script is adapted from an interview by Marie Brenner with Marie in Vanity Fair magazine. That is-- the perspective of the film derives from the war journalist herself telling the world parts of her own story. Therein lay the value.
Screenwriter Arash Amel’s work was challenging because it is not from the perspective of an onlooker. We know what Colvin said —because she said it. But how do you show the vulnerability and sometimes confusion she felt? If the purpose of the film was to leave her feeling, not chronological data, the work has succeeded. Context takes a back seat to the main characters reflection of her times at a given moment.
“Biopic’ is a misnomer — A PRIVATE WAR is a memoir. You jump geography and timeframes. Strangers appear without announcement of names or titles — as they do in one’s own memory. If we can’t tell why the scene is there by Pikes performance — shame on us. The burden of Heineman’s complex film is absolutely carried by the power of Academy Award® nominee Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of Marie Colvin. Pike channels Kate Hepburn, in a role the silver screen actress never played. The performance is no less astounding for the uncanny likeness to miles of available film and sound footage of the slain reporter. Heineman allows Pike to express the pain and suffering in Colvin’s aging battered body, in her womanhood rattled love, and journalistic commitment to truth.
But all is not dour. Pike’s Colvin masterfully conveys the physical comedy of facial expression as an irascibility when the character jokes. This heightens the contrast when actor also brings an exquisite portrayal of a body and mind racked with tragedy. The accuracy of the performance even includes the slight imbalance of gait in the mono-optic, eye patch wearing Colvin—whose distant traumatic brain injury had resulted in a lost dominant eye. By allowing Pike to dive deeply into the body of the woman she portrays, Heineman delivers the character’s inner voice. You can’t write or tell this stuff in words.
A PRIVATE WAR is not a film for the faint, or even exhausted of heart. The actor’s task was to flip the character’s insides to the outside. Even laughing, Pike’s Colvin is always only a tear drop away from being left naked and exposed to the devastations of war, post traumatic stress, and survivor guilt. The audience receives the same, as if from a ricocheting bullet.
For more, see Part II of A PRIVATE WAR: Bioethics meets Guardians of Truth at http://www.bioethicsscreenreflections.com