Montreal filmmaker confronts mental illness in her family

By Jason Santerre

Imagine for a moment your older siblings, a brother and a sister whom you’ve looked up to and adored your entire life, become barely recognizable before your very eyes. Imagine the answer to your siblings’ manic behaviour is linked to your estranged father, a man rumoured to be everything from cult leader and scam artist to bigamist and prophet.

“I used to think every other family was normal,” says Montreal filmmaker, Kalina Bertin. “I realize now just how many people have family members who struggle with bipolar disorder. I’ve learned from their struggles. Every family offers the gift of insight with its own story to tell.”

Ms. Bertin offers many insights in her film, Manic. From behind the camera, she invites viewers into her family’s incredibly complex web of mental illness, drama, and mystery.

After completing her degree in film production and specializing in cinematography, she says she felt as though if she didn’t set out to understand the mental illness in her family, it would probably destroy her.

Not only does Manic follow the trail of bipolar disorder in her family, it shows detailed empathy toward the complex condition. “I was like an investigator putting all of the pieces together over the course of four years. At times, I did have to step back from the personal side of things just to give it a bit of distance in order to have a journalistic view. But each character led me to the next one, and each revelation gave more meaning to my quest.”

Part of that quest was filming interactions and interviews with her sister, Felicia, and her brother, François. Ms. Bertin manages to capture full-blown manic episodes, pulling back the curtain on a mental disorder so few of us get to witness let alone fully understand. “The camera was a sort of shield,” she says. “It provided a window into the world of my siblings and enabled me to ask questions I never had the guts to ask.”

Questions brought about more questions about her early childhood, growing up on the Caribbean isle of Montserrat with a father she only knew through old photos and rumour.

“There were so many taboos regarding my father and his mental illness. The question of nature versus nurture is a good one to raise,” she says. “Whether it’s genetic or not, there’s always a possibility of it becoming a vicious circle within a family. It’s so important to know what your parents went through in order to get answers.”

Ms. Bertin says making the film forced her family to talk about mental illness, to process it, and come together. “To see the film together at Hot Docs in Toronto was an amazing experience. Their reaction was great, but we couldn’t pretend we were normal anymore. And that’s okay. I always wanted a real relationship with my family.”


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