Last weekend I watched director Brendan Fletcher’s Aboriginal drama Mad Bastards and decided to do something different to writing a straight-up review. Below I explain what I see as a striking (and completely unnoticed) correlation between the federal government’s mental health initiatives and the dominant theme in Australian films so far in 2011. The article below combines film journalism with my experiences working in the mental health and suicide prevention sector.

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After months of speculation the federal government announced in May a substantial boost in spending on mental health initiatives for the 2011-2012 budget, with a total of $2.2 billion dollars to be distributed to various projects across the country.

It is disheartening — though certainly not surprising, given the mainstream media’s propensity for shock and sensationalism — to see public attention for mental health measures diverted by conversations about set-top boxes for old people and speculation about whether Julia and Tim will ever get hitched.

But powerful community sentiment can be found elsewhere, such as in our oft-beleaguered local film industry. Whether by coincidence or calculation, this year the Australian film industry has tapped into the political and cultural zeitgeist, with mental health emerging as a dominant theme in local productions in 2011.

Just five days before Wayne Swan delivered his budget address, writer/director Brendan Fletcher’s Aboriginal drama Mad Bastards opened in Australian cinemas. It is one in a group of challenging new films that explore mental illness and associated risk factors such as social disconnection, domestic violence, bullying and drug and alcohol addiction.

Inspired by real life stories from people in the Kimberley region in Western Australia, Mad Bastards follows a poor and angry father as he travels from Perth to the small Kimberly town Five River to meet his estranged 13-year-old son. The town is a place rife with neighborhood disputes, domestic violence and drugs and alcohol.

Two mental health initiatives depicted in the film are not the stuff of fiction. In trouble with the law after being caught burning down a building, a young boy is sent on a one-week trip to the country with a group of Aboriginal youth. There they are intended to reconnect with the land and embrace traditional Aboriginal values through resilience building activities including fishing, storytelling and dancing.

Funded by the Federal Department of Health and Ageing as part of its National Suicide Prevention Strategy (NSPS), the Yiriman Project, situated in the south central and west of Kimberley, is one real life initiative very much like the kind depicted in Mad Bastards.

The project offers a culturally specific alternative to avoid, or delay, young people being sent to correctional facilities. Created in 2001 by concerned community elders, the Yiriman Project runs intensive ‘back to country’ trips with troubled youth who have been in contact with the justice system. Many of them have substance addictions. Many re-offend. Some do not.

Another mental health initiative depicted in Mad Bastards is a men’s group created by a policeman who starts a weekly event in which a group of blokes eat snags and talk about issues in their lives. The film depicts only the first couple of meetings, in which the men sit around glumly, cautiously and mostly silently, but the insinuation is that trust among them will grow.

These scenes are inspired by an organization called Dads in Distress Support Services (DIDSS) – formerly known as simply Dads in Distress – which has managed and inspired the creation of male support groups around the country since 1999.

Now largely funded by the federal government, DIDSS has around 60 volunteers who run social gatherings like those depicted in Mad Bastards. The men who gather at DIDSS meetings are often desperate and jaded, bitter from broken marriages and bad decisions. They do simple things, like hold a ‘conversation rock’ and pass it between them. DIDSS claims they have saved countless lives simply by providing an environment in which men feel comfortable to talk.

Risk factors for mental illness vary between demographics. Social isolation, for example, tends to be prevalent in older people and in rural and remote communities while young people in metropolitan areas more commonly face problems such as bullying and cyber bullying. Given cyber bullying is a relatively new phenomenon, organizations struggle to approach the issue with clarity and sector parlance like “best practice” at this point in time mean little.

The most powerful Australian film yet to explore cyber bullying was released in late February and disappeared from cinemas shortly after.

Wasted on the Young depicts the horrific experiences of a bright teenage girl who attends a house party and is drugged and raped. When she returns to school she is relentlessly bullied, much of it occurring online. Driven to desperation, she brings a gun to school and entertains thoughts of “getting even.”

Employees of youth-focused mental health organizations such as Headspace, which received an additional $197.3 million in this year’s budget to fund 30 new centres across Australia, will be challenged by Lucas’s hard-hitting film. Headspace currently provide literature addressing cyber bullying and arrange counseling sessions for victims.

Other 2011 Australian features provide equally powerful and sophisticated portrayals of mental illness and/or mental illness risk factors. In Snowtown, a frighteningly realistic account of the events that lead up to the infamous ‘bodies in barrels’ murders in the 90’s, the 16-year-old protagonist is raped, exposed to domestic violence and embroiled in a horrendous chain of events.

Griff the Invisible, about a social recluse who is the victim of workplace bullying, begins as a quirky superhero movie then ambitiously evolves into a study of delusion and personality disorders.

Haunted by alcohol addiction and memories of violence he experienced as a child, ex-con Danny Jones plays a version of himself in the semi-autobiographical, yet to be released Hail. “If I told you what was in my head, you’d run a thousand miles,” his character says.

Combine the box office revenue for all these films and the figure will form a tiny fraction of the opening weekend receipts for any mass-marketed Hollywood movie. Mental health has become a dominant theme in Australian films at a significant time for the sector and the wider political landscape, but getting bums on seats is another story, and no commentators appeared to notice the correlation between on screen content and the federal government’s budget announcements.

That is not the only correlation. Just as discussions of mental health initiatives were quickly lost in the 24 media cycle — will Jules and Tim tie the knot? Do pensioners deserve free TV appliances? — so too were the Australian film industry’s timely explorations.


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