It’s been a tough go so far with the theatrical release here in Germany. With lovely summer weather and the soccer World Cup, FORGETTING DAD has had some stiff competition. Compared to the hundreds of people I grew used to seeing in the crowds at film festivals around the world, it’s been a bit disappointing to stand before only a handful of people in movie theaters here. But sometimes small crowds are a blessing. Such was the case last night at the Brotfabrik in Berlin.
I decided pretty last-minute to drop by for the last screening of the two-week run at the Brotfabrik so there wasn’t much time to publicize my appearance. Still, it was a bit jolting to see only three people in the crowd: a filmmaker, a doctor, and a psychotherapist. But we hung out together for hours afterward, discussing the film in great detail. Even though Matt and I did a fair amount of medical research while making the film, I always resisted learning too much about amnesia. I didn’t want to approach the story from above and know a lot more than everyone else in my family. Instead, I wanted to put viewers in our shoes so they could experience all the ups and downs of not knowing what’s going on with my father. It’s the emotional ride that interested me, not medical jargon.
All three people last night reacted very strongly to the film, but it was the assessment of the doctor and psychotherapist which left the strongest impression on me. Both were really impressed by our filmmaking, by the dramatic curve and the mood the film creates. They also felt that FORGETTING DAD is an excellent portrait of how a personality can become disturbed and what happens to families in such situations. In fact, the psychotherapist could imagine using the film in the training of psychotherapists precisely because of all the issues involving family dynamics which the film raises.
During the course of the evening, we got to talking about the rapid increase in the number of people going to some form of psychotherapy or another and the shortage of therapists here in Berlin. What does all this say about the culture we live in now? Too much pressure to succeed leading to an increase in the number of people suffering from depression? Definitely. That’s what the doctors had to say. But they were also quick to add that studies have shown that psychotheraphy is a more cost-effective way of treating many patients who spend years running from one specialist to another for various ailments which are caused by a mental disturbance. The psychotherapist spoke about how these visits to specialists decrease during the course of therapy as the physical symptoms go away.
This all led to speculation about the physical ailments which still plague my father: his equilibrium problems and ongoing complaints about pain in his brain stem, especially since his heart attack four years ago. Both experts were convinced by the ‘dissociative disorder’ diagnosis we discovered in the doctors’ reports while making the film. Physical ailments are simply part of the illness.
The psychotherapist considered my father’s illness much too severe to ‘heal’ in the 2-3 years that the doctors said it would take back then, and suggested that such unrealistic assessments are often arrived at through pressure from insurance companies that don’t want to pay for their sick patients any longer than they deem necessary. All this financial stuff was such a mess back then that I still don’t really know what to make of it all. The point is, according to the psychotherapist, if my father had wanted to get better, he could have. But something really deep inside him resisted and continues to repress unwanted memories. A lot of us think all the efforts my father (unconsciously) expends upon keeping ‘Old Richard’ at bay is what led to his heart attack and rapid aging.
Mental illness remains a tabu topic, but things are changing in this regard. There is definitely more public dialogue about the matter than twenty years ago, when my father’s amnesia began. I hope this trend continues, and that other families which find themselves in a similar situation as mine are better able to talk about it and help their loved one than we were. Maybe FORGETTING DAD can play some kind of role in instigating more dialogue. This has been my hope all along. Mental illness is horrifying enough, and even worse when you’re left alone as either the sick one or a family member and don’t know where to turn for help.