Doco of the month: Happy Sad Man
19 December 2019 at 9:09 am
How do men navigate the dance between happiness and sadness? Geneviève Bailey wanted to find out. Here she talks to Wendy Williams about her film Happy Sad Man, which explores how five men deal with mental health and find their recipe for happiness, as part of a series profiling powerful documentaries in partnership with Documentary Australia Foundation.
“If you were to say that you could reduce the amount of people suffering from cancer by just talking about it, what do you think would happen?
“Everyone would be talking about it, no matter what.”
But for some reason, says Grant, a Bondi-based surfer with a passion for talking about mental health, even though you could reduce the suicide rate by starting conversations, there are still hardly any people talking about it.
Grant is one of five Australian men who feature in the documentary Happy Sad Man.
The film offers an intimate look at the lives of five very different men, – a surfer, a war photographer, a farmer and outreach worker from rural Victoria, a musical nomad and a sensitive dog-loving artist – but whose lives have all been touched by mental illness.
We hear them talk about the weight of masculinity, a culture of shame that stops men expressing their emotions, how men typically take on the responsibility of making sure the car is right but they won’t do anything for themselves, and about how we all have a recipe for happiness.
It is a film about opening up and gaining insight into how we can better be there for ourselves, for our mates and our loved ones – and how we can have the conversations that can, as Grant says, save lives.
While the documentary – filmed over seven years – tackles issues of mental health and masculinity, it is overwhelmingly uplifting with opportunities to laugh as well as cry.
It is a testament to director and producer Geneviève Bailey that she is able to capture such honesty on the screen, and points to the fact that the men in front of the camera are her friends first and foremost.
For Bailey it was her friend John in particular that inspired her to ask how the men in her life “navigate the dance between happiness and sadness”, which forms the core of the film.
Bailey describes John as “the happiest and saddest man” she has ever met.
(He describes himself as an old hippy.)
“I’m described now as the first hippy on the south coast of New South Wales by the old hippies who have all gone back there to die,” John says directly into the camera.
“I am. I’m just me. Put that on the big screen. I’ve got a mental illness, and so have you.”
Bailey says she was interested in John’s ability to express his emotions and discuss his mental health in a way that was very candid.
She was also passionate about making films that give the audience an insight into someone’s world, and encourage more compassion and empathy.
“I feel like now more than ever we need to see more positive images of men, expressing their emotions and exploring vulnerability, not as a weakness,” she says.
But while the Australian filmmaker wanted to make a film about John – “because he is also an amazing storyteller” – she wanted to capture a diversity of characters, something she did to great effect in her last film, I Am Eleven.
Bailey believes what makes the film unique is also the breadth of experience and understanding that comes with filming the men over a number of years.
The audience sees them at different points on their journey, and gets glimpses of their friends, family and the people around them as well. It is not just a snapshot over a couple of weeks.
“That’s also a reminder that mental health struggles are a part of a person, sometimes a very big part of a person, but they are not the whole person. And there’s many other things going on with lives,” she says.
In the case of John, the audience follows him through his highs and lows, and at one point to the hospital – a moment when Bailey crosses over from being behind the camera to being in the film herself.
As well as the director, she is John’s friend, and is called on to look after him, to keep him busy, and to ensure he gets the right medical help.
When asked about the balance between being a filmmaker and a friend, and her responsibility to those in the film, Bailey is emphatic the priority was always the men.
“Even though I have known John for a long time and have seen him through high highs and low lows, I’ve never seen him that unwell before. It was a very different situation. And he was in a state of terror. And that was something that I was not experienced in. So, at that moment I put the camera down. I thought I can’t keep filming, I actually just need to look after him,” she recalls.
“I would say that my responsibility, whether people are friends of mine or people that I’ve met through making a film, is always to them as individuals first, not as someone in a film.”
Bailey acknowledges that thanks to the men being so honest and articulate about their inner world, she’s learnt a lot.
But she says while the dialogue and the conversation around mental health is more prevalent now than it has been in the past, there’s still a long way to go.
She points to a lot of self-stigma, where people themselves feel like they need to refrain from talking about mental health.
“And that’s understandable because when people do talk about their mental health needs, if they are met by a colleague or a friend or family member or a health official who’s not helpful and supportive, it makes them reluctant,” she says.
“I think that I’ve also been reminded that mental health, as Grant would say, doesn’t discriminate. No matter what your age group is or your background, how much money you earn, it affects so many people.”
The more society ignores how damaging some stereotypes of masculinity can be and continues to shove mental health under the carpet, she says, the more we are doing a disservice not only to our men, but to women and children as well.
“Because when those issues are ignored, our men suffer and as we know in Australia, we have very high rates of suicide and 75 per cent of them are men,” Bailey says.
“Men are less likely to tell anyone they are having a hard time, they’re less likely to seek professional help and they’re more likely to hurt themselves.
“I think for me as a female filmmaker…everyone can benefit from having more conversations about healthy wellbeing and mental health.”
Bailey says while it can sound a little naive as a filmmaker to say you are aiming at a really broad demographic – “because it’s like saying, I think everyone will like my film” – her hope is just that.
“What we are seeing is that we have audiences of different age groups, and backgrounds and interests coming together,” she says.
“And what I hope is that the film can raise awareness about how we can identify, in ourselves, our own needs and our own mental health recipe.”
Her motivation is also to help people to understand how to be kind to other people.
She points out that nearly all of us today are touched in some way by a friend, colleague or loved one who is living with mental health issues.
Yet, when someone is unwell, it can be difficult to know what to do. Which means we don’t do anything or we worry we have made things worse.
“And for me, that was a big goal, that I hoped we would feel a bit more empowered to know what to do,” Bailey says.
“I’m really proud that the film kind of opens up that conversation around being there for other people.”
The screenings of the film have also provided audiences an opportunity to share their own stories, with people hanging around for hours after the film ends to just talk.
Bailey recalls a man who came up to her after a screening in Brisbane who told her he had attempted to kill himself twice this year. What stopped him, was thinking of his 16 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, and imagining them saying “if only grandpa thought our love was enough”.
Another woman in her eighties said she wished the film had been made when she was younger so she wouldn’t have felt so alone.
A 21-year-old man, who in the past 15 months, had lost many family members and lost many friends over the years, said he was reminded that things can be two things at once.
“Terrifying and calm. Unstable and ok, like nothing fits and like everything is light and warm, happy and sad. Thank you for reminding me,” he said.
Bailey says she was blown away.
“It’s amazing as a filmmaker to create a work that you put out there and you hope it can achieve a certain thing and to have someone summarise it in such a specific way, was pretty special,” she says.
Having six weeks – night and day – of poignant and moving conversations such as those has encouraged Bailey to keep going with the film and make sure it reaches far more people.
“I think a lot of times filmmakers make a film and put it out and hope people will come and see it. And lots of great films get made, and don’t get seen, and the great thing about our relationship with Documentary Australia Foundation and Good Pitch is that we all see the value of social impact films reaching audiences far and wide,” she says.
“And we’re going to work really hard over the next year to take the film out to regional and remote areas, to farming communities, to mens sheds, in the city, to young people, older people, people working as first responders.”
She recalls at the film premiere John said he was a bit sad it’s all over now.
She told him: “It’s not over, it’s just begun.”
Happy Sad Man is playing in cinemas in November and December. Find out where you can watch it here.
People are also encouraged to start a conversation of their own and host a screening.
Each month Pro Bono Australia and Documentary Australia Foundation present a Doco of the Month, profiling powerful documentaries with social impact at their heart.
Documentary Australia Foundation is Australia’s only not-for-profit organisation that fosters social change through documentary storytelling.
If you or someone you know is experiencing issues with mental health, please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or headspace on 1800 650 890.