Melbourne director Genevieve Bailey (I Am Eleven, 2011) first heard of John* on a Yahoo email group hosted by her fellow aspiring filmmakers “in the days before social media,” while studying at the Victorian College of the Arts.
On the lookout for possible subjects, she was intrigued by this musician who had been so smitten by a classical Indian band while visiting Bombay that he had invited them to tour Australia with his group.
Soon afterwards Bailey met John in a bakery and was immediately taken by his upbeat personality and nomadic “bush carpenter” can-do attitude. “He’s an amazing storyteller,” says Bailey.
The tour became the focus of her honours year short From Bombay to Broken Hill (2005). It was the start of an enduring friendship with the man almost twice her age.
“It was a bit of a baptism by fire making my first personal documentary with someone like John,” says Bailey, recalling their time together. “But I always knew there was so much more to share about his story.”
And so there is. John, who has bipolar disorder, shines in Bailey’s sophomore feature documentary, Happy Sad Man. A deeply personal endeavour following several of Bailey’s close friendships, it folds in the mental health experiences of four more men aged 30-70. All told, it’s been a seven-year journey from kicking off with John to debuting at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year.
“As a female filmmaker, often when I was making this film [I’d think], ‘Well, women experience mental health issues too,’ but obviously in Australia we know the statistics are that 75 per cent of suicides are men,” she says. “Why are men not seeking help? Why are they not telling their mates about it?
“I feel like when damaging stereotypes around masculinity are shoved under the carpet and ignored, not only do our men suffer, but our women and children are affected heavily too.”
Happy Sad Man follows I am Eleven’s model of a theatrical run bolstered by community events and school showings across Australia, with a long life planned. The former, looking at the very different experiences of children globally, notched up a record-breaking 26-week run at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova. Bailey hopes the latter starts some important conversations.
It also features charismatic Bondi-based New Zealander Grant, who also has bipolar disorder. He founded global surfing community OneWave, which raises awareness about mental health through events like Fluro Friday.
“Grant was amazing,” Bailey says. “I think it comes down to the fact that the first time he shared his story, he saw such an amazing impact that inspired him to do more.”
Western Sydney artist David lives with anxiety, which he addresses in his work, often accompanied by his dog Teena. “When people say snap out of it, they don’t realise the impact those words can have on someone living with anxiety,” Bailey says. “With David being such a good communicator and creative person, and a storyteller himself in his work, he has a very playful way of explaining it that’s very accessible.”
Then there’s soulful photographer Jake. Born in Malaysia, raised in Melbourne, but spending most of his time in places like Afghanistan, Turkey and Syria. Inspired by the humanitarian work of his mum, he lives with the effects of PTSD.
Ivan, a mental health rural outreach worker from country Victoria who works with many men struggling with the impact of drought.
“Each of the guys has such a unique story, and I could have made a whole film about any one of them, but I felt like combining them can speak to audiences in different ways,” Bailey says. “It’s been incredibly moving going to Cinema Nova every day and seeing people come out and just weep.”
When John became quite unwell during filming, Bailey’s duty of care was put to the test. “That was an extremely stressful time,” she says. “I put the camera down and had no intentions of filming that, because my priority was him.”
John insisted she start filming again, with ongoing support from Sane Australia, a national partner of the film, determined that his story could help others.
“My intention was always to talk to John afterwards when he was in a better place and had time to think about that and seek advice. So that’s what we did,” Bailey says of the decision to include some of this material. All five men had the final say on what they were comfortable including.
“We didn’t rush into any of those processes, because we understood that like the film shows that things can change over time. It was really important to me as a filmmaker that nothing was released that any of the guys were not actively consenting to, and we had people involved who could talk them through the process.”
It’s powerful stuff, focused on positive change. “I’m a very optimistic and hopeful person and tend to view the glass as half full, thinking that there must be a way,” Bailey says.
But acknowledging pain is important too. “Grant has an amazing ability to express things in very straightforward terms,” she agrees. “He says the worst thing you can say to someone who is in a funk, as he calls it, is, ‘Think about the things you should be grateful for, there are people worse off than you’. Because you’d never say, ‘Why are you so happy? There are people who are better off than you’. I thought that was a really powerful way of putting it.”
The response post-screenings has been incredible, Bailey says, and it’s not just men who have opened their hearts. “The film is also about understanding not just ourselves, but our brothers, our father or our sons. We’ve had a lot of women saying they are raising young boys and they want to understand more, so that has been super inspiring for me.”
If you need immediate assistance or support contact Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au. For further information about suicide contact SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263) www.sane.org or talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.
Happy Sad Man is in cinemas now, for more information on screenings, click here.
*Only first names are used by request
Watch a trailer of the film: