The continuing series of free, big-screen movies at the Eric Martin Pavilion Theatre does more than just entertain the popcorn set - it serves to educate the public about mental illness
"A whole lot more than free movies." The words printed on Bruce Saunders' black T-shirt say it all about one of the best-kept entertainment secrets in town: Movie Monday.
For the past 10 years, Saunders has been screening an eclectic array of films (comparable to those shown at the University of Victoria's Cinecenta theatre) in the auditorium of a local mental health facility. But even after a decade, the misconception still exists that only mental health patients and those who work with them attend the free Monday night flicks on the big screen at the Eric Martin Pavilion theatre on Fort Street - just steps from the Oak Bay border.
Bruce Saunders (left) serves his cake (and eats it too) at the recent 10th anniversary party for the Movie Monday program. Ellen Yeung/Oak Bay News
"Even some of the workers here in the building thought it was just for mental health patients," says the 53-year-old Oak Bay resident. However, the overwhelming majority of Movie Monday (MM) fans are members of the general public - running the gamut from serious film buffs to people merely drawn by the free movies and cheap popcorn. Toronto resident Nelson Wiseman was a part of MM's 10th anniversary audience, taking in Cannery Row (incidentally, the first-ever film screened at Movie Monday). He says he prefers to take in foreign and independent films and "not mainstream cinema - the junk that plays downtown."
Wiseman says it's great that mental health patients are also present. "They're part of the community," he says. Looking around the packed house in the 100-seat Eric Martin Pavilion theatre, it's hard to discern who is a mental health patient and who isn't. Everyone's in street clothes. No one's behaviour screams out, "Look at me! I'm a patient!"
This blurring of boundaries between folks who are deemed "normal" and those who fall on another part of the societal spectrum has become one of the more positive side-effects of Movie Monday. Victoria Schuckel, who used to work for the B.C. adult mental health division, says the weekly movie event helps reduce the stigma of mental illness.
"People who have a mental illness often report that the stigma can be as debilitating as the illness itself," she says. "Here, it's a cross-section of people (in the audience) and you don't know who's who or what brought people here."
Saunders hasn't deliberately set out to eliminate the marginalization of people who are mentally ill, though. When he was released from the hospital after suffering a serious bout of manic depression and attempting suicide for the second time, Saunders organized the film event for himself and the other people in his out-patient support group. But not too many people showed up initially.
"I realized that once you start inviting the public in, then it (offers) a whole other possibility of people mixing," he says. "It's comfortable and safe."
Schuckel says the experience of watching a film together helps the general public generate a greater understanding of mental health patients and their sometimes fragile conditions. Even if you choose to be just a passive audience member at a Movie Monday, you can't really leave without having been affected by the experience.
"You might think, 'Yeah, that guy sitting behind me was talking to himself, but that wasn't so bad.' "
Saunders adds that patients see him as a model of recovery. "They see just the guy who runs it is doing pretty well and keeps on showing up, and think maybe they can too," he says.
Brian McMillan, who is dealing with a bipolar affective disorder, says he attends Movie Monday for more than just the free movies.
"There's a supportive atmosphere; I'm among accepting people," he says, noting that he experiences his emotional ups and downs in three to four-year cycles.
While Saunders remains devoted to showing movies about mental health and recovery issues, he also likes to show a wide range of other films - from the artsy to the mainstream. Recent offerings have included Amélie, Monsoon Wedding, Obachan's Garden and waydowntown, as well as Oscar contenders My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Gosford Park. Last month Saunders showed Victoria filmmaker Sean White's film Into the Thunder Dragon, a quirky film about mountain unicycling in Bhutan.
"You'd think that people who have a mental illness are mentally challenged, but more often than not, it's the other way around," says Saunders. "They're sometimes a little too bright for their own good."
Saunders suggests that Movie Monday has evolved from an event that's just entertaining people "living outside the hospital but kind of busted financially and isolated socially" to a bonafide arts event. What you won't get after a movie at your local multiplex is a chance to hear the film's director talk about his work.
Saunders likes to pepper Movie Monday screenings with visits from the filmmakers themselves - as well as other guest speakers who'll host discussions after the credits roll.
After the funny yet poignant film Post-Concussion, for example, Saunders held a phone conference between filmmaker Daniel Yoon and audience members.
Yoon's film was based on his own experiences, when his fast-paced, high-flying life as a management consultant was dramatically altered after he was hit by a car while crossing the street. During the phone conversation, an audience member spoke up about how frustrating it was for him to deal with his own post-concussion situation.
When Saunders showed the film Dead Man Walking (about a prisoner awaiting execution on Death Row) he invited David Stewart - a street minister who manages the Upper Room (a soup kitchen in Victoria that serves street people) - to add depth to the story. Stewart talked about how people can learn to see the humanity in all people, rather than simply labelling them as good or bad. A woman in the audience then revealed that the murderer of her niece was released from jail after serving just six months. For those in the audience, the experience was riveting and very real - even better than the movie.
Saunders says he's still dealing with his own manic depression, but adds that Movie Monday has turned out to be a big part of the cure. "This is done as much for me as for everyone else," he says.