Hot Docs Review: 'Out of Mind, Out of Sight'

Out of Mind, Out of Sight
(Canada, 88 min.)
Written and directed by John Kastner
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)
Carole in Out of Mind, Out of Sight. Photo courtesy the NFB.

“There are two victims in this story,” says John Stewart, brother Michael Stewart, one of the subjects of John Kastner’s Out of Mind, Out of Sight, “and one of happens to still be suffering.” John delivers this line towards the end of the documentary when asked whether his family can ever forgive Michael for killing their mother, June, several years before. The family, John says, faces the difficult, but not impossible, fact of reconciling the death of their mother. John explains that a hardship of the healing process was realizing that Michael himself is not responsible for June’s death. Schizophrenia is responsible and it claimed two members of the Stewart family.

John Kastner returns to Hot Docs with another no-holds-barred exploration of mental illness after last year’s provocative festival hit NCR: Not Criminally Responsible. Out of Mind, Out of Sight revisits the Brockville Mental Health Centre that housed Sean Clifton in NCR, but Kastner tackles the subject from a slightly different angle. Both films are powerful for their unexpected tales of forgiveness, but Out of Mind, Out of Sight looks more at the process that rehabilitates the patients of the Brockville Mental Health Centre and allows them to return to society.

The film follows four patients—Michael, Carole, Sal, and Justine—and documents both their suffering and their treatment. Out of Mind, Out of Sight, which Kastner shot simultaneously with NCR, offers more of the director’s notable objectivity and humanism as the subjects—patients, hospital staff, and family members of the patients/victims—open up and reveal themselves with astonishing frankness. The openness of the interviews Kastner receives, as well as the overall transparency the BMHC provides, could further NCR’s ability to change the way viewers perceive mental illness.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind certainly has images of the patients that could confirm to ignorant stereotypes, for early scenes of the film depict patients yelling and screaming, while others highlight incidents of aggression and detail stories of past self-abuse. “I imagine it would be like a really frightening visit to the circus,” says Charlie, a BMHC nurse, as he describes what a visit to the Centre might be like for a person without a mental illness or any experience in treating it. Kastner and the BMHC team, however, carefully outline the conditions underlying the potential circus and they portray the patients not as freaks, but as people, for there is a complicated psychology that underlies their behaviour and an even more difficult process involved in engaging with the patients to diffuse their potential for violence.

The interviews with the patients themselves, for example, offer moments of unexpected clarity. The four patients—a quartet out of the forty-six patients involved in the project—explain the impulses that drive their behaviour. The ever-fidgeting Justine, for example, explains how self-abuse offers a kind of high. Carole, on the other hand, offers Kastner a play-by-play of an incident in which she destroyed a hospital wall by driving her fist through the drywall despite her small frame. Michael perhaps offers the most advanced and intelligent analysis of his behaviour and illness, and his story echoes that of his family members who detail a difficult journey of grief and reconciliation. The lucidity with which patients describe their illnesses is remarkable; moreover, the clarity of their thoughts and their ability to articulate their feelings shows the possibility of rehabilitation.

Out of Mind, Out of Sight, like NCR, deserves to be seen simply for the access Kastner receives to the patients and staff of Brockville Mental Health Centre and especially for the remarkable objectivity and sobriety with which Kastner tackles the subject. The director says little on his own—scant titles cards simply reiterate facts that the onscreen subjects say throughout the film—and he allows the patients and health care professionals to explain their perspectives. Both the patients and the caregivers detail the hardship of the rehabilitation process, noting the physical and emotional tolls it takes, and describe fluctuations in the process between men and women, as well as personal toils and stigmas patients face outside the BMHC walls.

There isn’t much especially different between Out of Mind, Out of Sight and NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, although none of the four stories within the former quite matches the power of Sean’s story in the latter. The director’s impressive confrontation for the ways in which people perceive mental illness is equally similar, as well as the central component of each film that argues that mentally ill patients are not actually a danger to the general public, but mostly to their immediately family members or, more likely, themselves. Sean’s story might deliver the point somewhat more powerfully in its simplicity, yet the quartet of stories on Out of Mind, Out of Sight brings several perspectives together in a unified argument. It’s a fine work of documentary sociology on Kastner’s part. Out of Mind, Out of Sight is more of the same, but that's not a bad thing.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Out of Mind, Out of Sight screens:
-Sun, Apr. 27 at 6:30 PM at the Isabel Bader
-Wed, Apr. 30 at 1:30 PM at the Isabel Bader
-Sun, May 4 at 1:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information on this year’s festival.