MAKING ‘WHITE MONKEY’

I have suffered – or perhaps more meaningfully, I have been fighting – depression for most of my life. I am seventy-five years old at the time of writing and I would say that I have been experiencing this condition for some sixty-seven years. It has affected me in different ways at different times, sometimes in a way that is at least manageable, at other times causing me horrific anguish. But it is always there to some degree, even when my circumstances have been good and any reasonable person would expect to be content.
At this point, I should be going on to describe what chronic depression is, so that my readers have some idea of what I’m talking about. I suppose I could try, but I have found that writing about the kinds of pain that depression causes is itself a cause of pain, and starting to write about it doesn’t necessarily mean I can go on to a reasonable finish.
I know that doesn’t make much sense to those who haven’t experienced this illness, but of course it wouldn’t. True understanding can only come through hard experience.
So how do I come to be writing this?
Because any proper understanding of depression – or mental illness generally – is severely limited in our largely unsympathetic society, with profound misconceptions standing in its place.
And these misconceptions tend to lead towards prejudice, this prejudice in its turn leaning towards bigotry, joining racism, anti-Semitism, and all the other forms of discrimination which seek to punish people who do no harm solely for being who they are, for being ‘different’ or ‘inferior’.
Which is why I decided a while ago that however much pain it caused me, I would try to find some way that might be effective in communicating the sensation of being depressed to those who have no personal knowledge of it.
There is, thankfully, an increasing, though still insufficient, public willingness now to discuss ‘mental health issues’ (a neat catch-all phrase) and to debate exactly what those issues are and how they should be dealt with; and I wanted to be part of that very necessary discussion. I asked myself how could I, with my particular experiences and talents best achieve that.
So I sought the help of my friend Darren Washington, who is a film-maker with whom I had already done some work. I wrote a short book which I asked Darren to have a look at and see if he couldn’t use it as a ‘treatment’ for a film.
(I called it ‘White Monkey’ after a character who appeared to me in a vivid dream I had in my twenties when I was having severe struggles with life, and who in that dream, which has been animated for the film, asked me a question in a way I have never been able to forget, since it was a crucial question for which, as naively simple as it is, I have yet to find a complete and satisfying answer: ‘who are you?’)
We have worked hard to turn the ‘treatment’ into reality, and I am proud of what we have produced so far.
I say ‘so far’: this film is taking a lot longer than we would like to complete. The pandemic, and especially the lockdown, has limited our progress in a number of ways: we struggled to find occasions when we could film safely, our choice of locations was desperately limited, our ability to involve other people was severely hampered, and of course, funding was very hard to come by.
However, we have been able to progress, albeit slowly, because of the nature of the film itself. It is not a single narrative telling a story in consecutive scenes with a beginning, a middle and an end. I could not handle my theme in that way, and filming it would have been logistically very hard.
So what we have done is try to encapsulate as best we can the different moods that typify depression each in a distinctive way, building up a series of short films, all inter-related but each using its own characteristic cinematic idiom.
Which is fair enough, as depression has many aspects to it, and all the various occasions of life prompt very differing responses and many contrasting moods.
The result is a compendium of short films which work together to make a complete film, but can also each be shown separately as a meaningful film in its own right.
Thus it is hard to tell when ‘White Monkey’ will be complete, but it will be completed, that much we have promised ourselves. Then, we hope, we will have produced something of value to those who are dealing with depression, both as sufferers and as the people, professional or otherwise, who wish to help them and can use this film to extend their understanding.
That will help me feel a whole lot better about myself at least. I will have made something worthwhile out of my life, and given how hard it is for me and for most depressives to feel that their lives have any kind of value to themselves, never mind to any-one else, that will make whatever years remain to me on this earth a little more bearable.

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