5 Lessons from Planning the Urban Dreams Mental Health Film Festival

Cinema has a unique power to shed light on personal struggles and heighten empathy and awareness. In NYC September 26–28!

Grant H Brenner
5 min readSep 19, 2023

Key points

  • Artistic experience provides the opportunity to empathize in ways that talk alone cannot accomplish.
  • Filmmakers bring creativity and compassion to struggles that are more common than we often credit.
  • Indie films on our common struggles serve as a fine antidote to the cynicism in the air.

Shawn’s panic attack sends him through unusual dimensions and, as it worsens, his girlfriend Ellie’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic.

A struggling young mother strives to bind her family together despite having an unstable husband, but everything changes when she realizes her four-year-old, under the eye of his absent-minded father, goes missing.

These are but two of the 50 stories about to be told in the Urban Dreams Mental Health Film Festival later this month in New York City. The films are a testament to the creativity and compassion artists bring to-in many cases their own-experiences of family dysfunction, disability, problems in living, mood disorders, societal problems, trauma, and other struggles. .

The film festival is a year in the making, a collaborative effort by myself, a psychiatrist, and filmmaker Geoff Guerrero, founder of Katra Films. “I was inspired to start a mental health film festival when I noticed how so many filmmakers were struggling with psychological issues during the pandemic,” Guerrero told me. “I thought what better way to talk about these issues than through the power of storytelling and cinema. I have lots of friends and colleagues that have dealt with mental health issues over the past few years, so my ultimate goal with the festival is to impact people in a positive way by seeing themselves in some of these stories and relating to some of the issues being addressed.”

A film festival felt like a good fit for professional, artistic, and advocacy motives. In the past, I’d run a film discussion group at the psychoanalytic institute where I trained and run an art show during psychiatry residency. In addition, my own interest in still images-in photography-had blossomed in recent years, and I never go anywhere anymore without a camera,

When we called for submissions on a popular independent film platform, we were quickly inundated with both short and feature-length candidate films.

Pausing to reflect as we make the final push, I’m genuinely moved by all the people I’ve met, everything I’ve learned researching for a film festival, and the differences that emerge between the representation of mental health in the media and among emerging voices, which often overlap with, and sometimes contrasts with, my professional experience.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned.

  1. We are all simply more human than otherwise. Through artistic experience, we are presented with the opportunity to empathize in ways that talk alone cannot accomplish. Visual media, sounds and music, acting and directing-the impact is powerful, almost as if what is on screen is happening to you. More often than not, the experience is shared. At the same time, within the commonality of shared suffering and joy, each person’s story and experience is unique and a world unto itself. This is something bedazzling we don’t often glimpse-every person we meet is literally their own universe, in full subjective depth and splendor. Cinema gives us a peek into those worlds.
  2. People really care. Making indie films is a labor of love. Whether up-and-coming young people hustling in a tough industry or more seasoned professionals working personally on a heartfelt project, creators want to help other people by presenting important stories in ways that are aesthetically excellent. They are motivated by passion and usually activism. It’s sometimes easy to be cynical; this is an antidote.
  3. Indie films are fresh! While I love giant productions done well, small art-house, shoestring budget films offer an immediacy that big productions rarely do. Screening one film about the last days of high school for kids growing up in NYC, I was struck by the poignant longing, the sense of being there with them, the wind blowing through hair on a highway-shoulder scene. It lives in my memory almost as if it captured my own final high school days.
  4. We deny the reality of mental illness more than we realize Yes, I already know this because I’m in the field and involved in mental health advocacy work already. And I know we hide illness away, as a society, in hospitals, offices and clinics, behind a veil of family secrecy, and in our professional lives-we hide it from ourselves. But seeing it in hundreds of films, each one hitting deep chords-and speaking with filmmakers who lived out their own experiences on film, often with therapeutic intent and actual benefit-has taught me new lessons beyond those learned in disaster and crisis mental health response, clinical practice, research and study, teaching and development of curricula, writing, and publishing. You have to see it to believe it-and you also have to believe it to see it. We can’t perceive what we can’t conceive of in the first place.
  5. People don’t have good mental healthcare yet. Yes, we also already know this, but so many people still ask “Why can’t I find a psychiatrist I can afford?” and “How come it is so hard to find a therapist who takes my insurance?” Despite having founded a clinical group that accepts insurance-and feeling that I’ve contributed to a solution-I recognize that it’s just a drop in the bucket,notwithstanding all the social media ads for a growing array of tech-powered mental healthcare groups. Every day, more stories surface about people who do have “good” health insurance but can’t get their plans to reimburse, or have to endure hours of phone calls, months of trying, to get what they are entitled to. It’s what in Yiddish is called a shanda-something we should be ashamed of, a disgrace.

The final lineup of films is remarkably diverse. Films address suicide, chronic mental health problems from individual and family perspectives, substance use, autism, depression and anxiety, trauma and transcendence, and a range of other subjects needing voice and visibility.

The Urban Dreams Mental Health Film Festival will be held in New York City on September 26 and 27.

Need assistance? 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

Originally published at https://www.psychologytoday.com.

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Grant H Brenner

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer