Betti Franceschi
Source: Betti Franceschi

Sigmund Freud adopted the term “talking cure” from his colleague Josef Breuer to describe the use of verbal therapy, which he saw as fundamental to psychoanalysis. Over the next century the field expanded to include the “writing cure” and other talking therapies. It now seems that we should entertain the idea of the movie cure. At least award-winning filmmaker Michel Negroponte makes a good case for it by his work that has left an unforgettable mark in the field of feature length documentaries.

Jupiter’s Wife (1995), a portrait of a homeless woman named Maggie, won prizes at Sundance, Vancouver and Santa Barbara Film Festivals and was awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Documentary. An Autobiography of Michelle Maren (2015) was made after Maren contacted the director offering herself as his next subject after repeatedly viewing Jupiter’s Wife. We watch as Maren tries to unravel her life, creating a self-portrait that Geoff Pevere of the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival has called “one of the most revealing self-portraits of living with mental illness ever made.”

In this interview, Michel Negroponte speaks about his creative instincts, his organic process and the challenges of making these movies.

GN  You’ve spent 30 years working on films about mental illness and drug addiction. What drew you to these subjects?

MN  I’m unofficially an ethnographic filmmaker at heart, and I’m fascinated by subcultures because they reveal so much about the mainstream. Outsiders can be more expressive than insiders. They’re like free radicals, a group of atoms that are less stable, but highly reactive. Their lives have a raw intensity that gives them a sense of urgency to tell their stories.

GN  In Jupiter’s Wife, you befriended and unraveled the mythologies of a homeless and potentially schizophrenic woman in a documentary that won the Jury’s Prize at the Sundance festival. What made this portrait so compelling?

MN  The subject of the film, Maggie, was strong, smart and inventive, a survivor living in and around Central Park with her pack of dogs. She was also a complete enigma. Maggie spoke in riddles providing only small, cryptic clues about her life. There were references to Greek mythology, Hollywood legends, and a puzzling husband named Jupiter. I became obsessed with deciphering her language, and embarked on a long, surreal odyssey to uncover her story. I discovered startling revelations, but I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen the film. I think audiences liked the underlying suspense because the narrative unfolds like a whodunit.

GN  In Jupiter’s Wife, Maggie says at the beginning that she was expecting you. There was a certain amount of trust and familiarity from the very start. As a person who grew up spending significant time in Central Park, do you think there’s any chance your paths had crossed before that moment?

MN  I did hang out as a teenager at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain, celebrating flower power. I am a child of the Sixties. Maggie is half a generation older than me, so my hunch is that we were in parallel worlds, but I don’t think we ever intersected. I do remember there were three things about me that she found intriguing, and that may have helped forge a bond: I’m an identical twin; my mother was raised in Athens and she read Greek myths to me and my brother; and maybe most importantly, I had just become a father for the first time. Maggie had lost contact with her own children years earlier, and I think she was particularly responsive to stories about my new family.

GN  Michelle Maren contacted you due to her enthusiastic reaction to Jupiter’s Wife. Do you see any similarities between the two women?

MN  I see many similarities. Maggie and Michelle are innately memoirists; they need to self-examine in order to give meaning to their lives. They both have a large supporting cast of characters inside their own heads - an inner chatter - that they’re continually grappling with. They’re both haunted by past traumatic events and the psychic struggle of telling their own stories provides a degree of clarity - I hope. Lastly, they’re both charismatic, with huge personalities that fill the entire silver screen.

GN  The documentary storylines of both films seem to be driven by the logic of the subjects, which at some points appear frustrating. How did you negotiate the delicate nature of these relationships?

MN  It’s pretty clear to me that I didn’t always negotiate these delicate collaborations very well. Sometimes I got frustrated. Michelle once said to me, “I have a long history of mental illness, what did you expect?” Both portraits are intimate and up-close, so I think a degree of turbulence was unavoidable. When I’m making a film, my aim is to remain as empathetic and non-judgmental as possible, and I’m generous with my time. But I’m human, and I know that sometimes I’m not as patient as I would like to be. Both films took about five years to make, and that takes tremendous persistence and faith. My years of experience have given me a degree of confidence and steadiness, but it can still be damn hard. Occasionally in the editing room I felt like I was scaling Mount Everest with a broken leg.

GN  Do you remember why you wanted to make An Autobiography of Michelle Maren? What were your hopes for both the process and the final product?

MN  Michelle had been a model, go-go dancer, night club star and porn actress; that’s rich, raw material for a story. But when I start a film project, I never have any idea where it will take me. This type of filmmaking is fundamentally improvisational and present tense, and I have to allow the process of making the film guide me. I shoot and edit as I go along, and the faint outlines of a final product emerge gradually. For instance, at some point in the course of making An Autobiography of Michelle Maren, the idea of exposure therapy became a guiding theme. Bringing childhood trauma back to life is gut wrenching, which explains why parts of the film are so hard to watch. Did I anticipate the film would be so raw? No. Did I eventually accept that the rawness had to be included in the final product? Obviously, yes. Still, I want audiences to identify with her.

GN  I understand the film on Michelle took five years to make; why such a long time frame?

MN  An Autobiography of Michelle Maren was the most difficult film I have ever made. Our working relationship became strained and there were several times I thought we would never complete the film. Furthermore, Michelle’s mother and father died during the course of making the film; she was estranged from both of them, which made it even more emotionally draining for her. So there were several long breaks from filming during those five years. As you know, Michelle was the one who initiated the film project - she sought me out after seeing Jupiter’s Wife 80 times! But no matter how ready you are to tell your story, no matter how cathartic you hope the process will be, it can be an emotional ordeal.

GN  You confronted some very difficult issues with Michelle; how are you at handling the suffering of others?

MN   Not as good as I thought I was. I’m a seasoned filmmaker and I’ve tackled some very tough subjects; I made two feature length films about drug users, Methadonia and I’m Dangerous with Love. So I went into the Michelle Maren project thinking I could handle just about anything. But while making the film, I discovered I knew nothing about Borderline Personality Disorder, which is complex and unpredictable. At times I felt as if I was in a hall of mirrors in an amusement park; the infinite maze of reflections created a disorienting conflict between reality and illusion.

I found it exhausting. A friend once warned me that mental illness can be contagious. The warning was not meant to be taken literally, but spending a great deal of time with someone who is mentally ill takes a special kind of patience.

Maggie spent many years being homeless, which is a tough, solitary existence. Michelle also describes feeling isolated and alone because of her anxieties and panic attacks, so trusting other people may take more time and effort for both of them. I don't want to imply that individuals who have psychiatric disorders are doomed to a life of loneliness. They're not. But they have special needs or sensitivities that require extra attention, and it may take more of an effort to maintain a working relationship or bond.  

GN  I understand you went into the making of this film with no training in interacting with people with challenging mental or emotional issues, and that you did not know how to set boundaries. I know you teach - what do you advise young documentarians on such matters?

MN  I have a former student who is making a film about Dissociative Identity Disorder. I’ve talked to her about the project at length and looked at some of the material she’s filmed. I urged her to start working with a therapist immediately and to pay attention to her own emotional health. We may be well-intentioned filmmakers, but we’re not trained therapists. Keeping an equilibrium throughout the process may take guidance. But here is the irony: if I had researched Borderline Personality Disorder rigorously, and had a real sense of what I was getting myself into, I may have never made the film. I think what makes An Autobiography of Michelle Maren unique is that it subtly chronicles my own evolving awareness about Borderline.

GN  I can see how Michelle Maren would have wanted to do this to help her make sense of her life. How did this process help her? 

MN  Michelle says the process was a healing journey. You may need to see the film first in order to understand this, but I think Michelle wanted another substantive role in a film, even if her other parts had been in pornographic films. In this project, she was essentially cast in the role of playing herself. Michelle was born into the world with the genetic chemistry of an actor. She studied acting, she’s been a performer and cabaret singer, and she loves movies. She’s a natural on stage and on camera. It took me a long time to understand how acting has been a critical component to her long healing journey. It has been a way for her to cope with anxiety, uncertainty, anger and loneliness. Maybe most importantly it’s been cathartic and therapeutic.

GN  There seems to be some pattern to the stories of people you want to tell. Something about the varied paths we take to find meaning, positive change and life purpose. What are the big philosophical questions you grapple with?

MN  I think we live in a country that needs a hell of a lot more tolerance because most people severely underestimate the hardship of living with mental illness, poverty or addiction. It can be a very tough and lonely place. The power of film is that it can take you into worlds that you may never see or experience otherwise. If a film is effective, it’s fundamentally a dissociative experience: you get inside the subject’s head and get a visceral feeling for what makes them tick; you are being given the opportunity to identify with a complete stranger. If that interaction promotes empathy, that’s more than enough for me.

GN  How has it been to have such an intimate relationship become a public experience? How did it deepen your understanding of the human condition?

MN  It’s a difficult film and there are still scenes that make me uncomfortable, even after seeing them hundreds and hundreds of times. Michelle describes several terrifying childhood memories: she witnessed her father punch her mother in the face and knock out all her teeth; she also remembers watching her mother beat her older half-sister on many occasions. So the film is raw and I would not recommend it to the faint of heart. Sometimes I wonder if I could have made the film less intense and abrasive. But that’s like asking a punk band to sing a ballad, it may not work, so I went for what I felt was authentic and necessary. I choose to be tough, and that’s not always easy for me. Now I have to “own” the film. That’s been a more complicated process than I anticipated.

GN  Is the take-a-way story one of the Sisyphean condition of life, that we can tweak but can’t change, or is it to convey painful experiences many of us would never know otherwise - or do we all live with painful experiences? Do we all find our gift of empathy for the people who live there?

MN  I think it’s all of the above! We all live with painful memories, and we are all searching for our gifts. The human psyche is hardwired to feel empathy, otherwise we would have obliterated ourselves ages ago. I know this sounds cliched, but most of us want to derive meaning from lived experience. The Greek philosophers said, “Know thyself!” It can feel like an illusory, impossible mission, but isn’t that what drives most of us?

GN  How are these two films, Jupiter’s Wife and An Autobiography of Michelle Marin furthering the dialogue on mental health and issues of identity?

MN  I just screened An Autobiography of Michelle Maren at the 4th International Congress on Borderline Personality Disorder in Vienna, Austria. For me, it was one of the most memorable screenings in my life. I have not presented films that often to audiences which consist entirely of mental health professionals. In any case, what followed was a long, fascinating Q&A. My sense is that they appreciated the creative storytelling as well as the brutal honesty of the film. I know Jupiter’s Wife gets used in classrooms, and I’m certain An Autobiography of Michelle Maren will too. But frankly I don’t know exactly what kind of impact the films are having because I’m not always included in the dialogue. I make the films, but they have to forge a life their own without me.

GN  What kind of impact did making these films have on you?

MN  After I finished An Autobiography of Michelle Maren, I felt as if I was suffering from PTSD. Maybe I’ve been looking at dark stories about addiction and mental illness for too long? I gave myself an assignment to make short, comedic films. I call them “Existential Selfies.” Perhaps I’m trying to reinvent myself as a filmmaker? In any case, I knew I had to take a break and do something entirely different.

GN Is the message that one’s story is the most important way of connecting with others?

MN  I think humans are hardwired to tell stories. In a primal way, storytelling connects us, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The writer Mary Karr said telling your story is like “knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right.” I am in awe of Michelle and Maggie for sharing their psychological dramas with me. They provided the raw material, and I used the few cinematic skills I’ve learned over the years to shape it. I hope I did them right.

GN  Do you think the history of talk therapy extends to your work in a sort of “movie cure." Do these two movies enable a life narrative to be a mechanism of healing for these individuals? How do you think the story telling format of a movie changes this mechanism? 

MN  I would love to believe that there is such a thing as a "movie cure", but that might be going a little too far. I do think filming can be immensely helpful, and even life affirming. It's a creative process and I think there is an art to telling your own story well. You need to sharpen your meditation skills in order to look deeply inside yourself. If it's done rigorously, it can be both enlightening, and scary as hell. Then finding the words to share those stories is no easy task; you need to be expressive in order to make the stories resonate. But maybe most importantly, Michelle and Maggie had a genuine urge to tell their stories and to be understood because they often felt misunderstood in the past. In that sense, they were committed to the process as if it were talk therapy.  

The film An Autobiography of Michelle Maren is now available through Documentary Educational Resources:

© 2016 Gayil Nalls, All rights reserved.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is published online and in print, most recently with her essay "TOXIC: Coming to Our Senses" in Elodie Pong, Paradise Paradoxe (Zurich, Edition Patrick Frey, 2016).

Follow her @olfacticinkblot and @themassinglab

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