Interview

With Brian Lindstorm 

What are some tangible, everyday things folks can do and say to advocate for individuals with mental illnesses?

I was recently at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India with my wife, Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, Tiny Beautiful Things, and Torch. We had the pleasure of seeing Gloria Steinem. She talked of her early political organizing in India in the ’50s. She would go into villages and sit down and talk with “everyday people” about women’s rights. This experience re-enforced for her the Ghandian principle that true change starts at the bottom. We can’t wait for our leaders to lead. We must lead. So I think the first thing to do is to risk a simple “hello” the next time you encounter a person with mental illness. Even that little effort can help reduce mental illness’ stigma. And then I suggest joining and supporting the Mental Health Association of Portland, which advocates tirelessly for people with mental illness and has an excellent newsletter about challenges facing people with mental illness in Oregon, and opportunities to help.

What are some societal misconceptions about schizophrenia?

The unfounded fear that a person with schizophrenia is likely to be violent. The fact is that schizophrenics are less likely than the general public to act violently.

Since the release of Alien Boy what, if any, changes have you seen in the way police interact with individuals with mental illnesses? (Referencing the DOJ report on Portland Police Bureau use of excessive force when interacting with folks who have mental illnesses.) Do you have any comments on the implementation of the settlement agreement and the success (or lack thereof) of it’s terms?

A lot of people, myself included, thought that the DOJ coming on the scene would quickly and substantially change Portland Police Bureau practices for the better. That hasn’t been the case. And as Alien Boy makes clear, the incredible power of the Portland Police Union is an impediment to meaningful change.

In the past, you’ve done  participatory video projects. Can you elaborate on these and how they empower the folks you work with?

I’ve done several projects that put a camera in the hands of hard-hit folks: Kids in juvenile detention for Measure 11 crimes, Long term addicts in clean & sober housing, residents at the Blanchet House, a homeless shelter in Portland, Middle School students in one of the poorest sections of the South Bronx, immigrant teens in Hermiston, Oregon, People dealing with “Dual Diagnosis” (mental health and addiction issues) in supportive housing in Old Town,  and many others. I’ve found over and over again that the collaborative nature of filmmaking is a powerful antidote to the isolation that so many of these people feel. And the opportunity to share their visions of themselves and their world with a large audience can be transformative both for the filmmakers and the audience. These projects offer a bridge from “the other” to “us”, starting meaningful conversations that otherwise might never take place.

You visited Coffee Creek Prison recently and mentioned you were interested in making a short documentary with the women in the program. What was your experience like and how did it reveal misconceptions folks have about those in prison? Have there been any developments with the project?

I recently showed my film Finding Normal to 150 inmates at Coffee Creek. After the film, one of the women asked me: “Who can I trust? I’ve trusted the wrong people and it ended me up here. I don’t know how to trust or who to trust. Who can I trust?”  You can imagine the self-knowledge and confidence it takes to ask such a question in a group setting. And it seems to me that incarceration ideally is about this kind of self-reflection and soul searching.

The Family Preservation Program at Coffee Creek works with inmate mothers to examine their lives and identify what forces led to their incarceration. The women make “geneagrams”–visual representations of the major forces in their lives– a sort of life map. I was present the day several of the women presented their geneagrams to the group and it was enlightening. Mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, poverty, incarcerated parents, major illnesses, deaths of parents and siblings were all represented in personal symbologies that vividly illustrated the major forces that contributed to the choices that led to incarceration. This exercise was very freeing to the participants because it took some of the shame away so that they could evaluate their life not with the outlook of “I’m a bad person because I did these things and I’m now in prison” but with the outlook of “I’m aware of the roles that say drug addiction or family dysfunction for example have played in my decisions that led me here, and I can now make changes that will empower me to make better choices.”

I’m happy to report that the Regional Arts & Culture Council awarded me a grant to make a film with the women of the Family Preservation Program at Coffee Creek. We plan to start shooting in March.

Your films have been featured at international film festivals, screened in penitentiaries and correctional facilities, and appeared on public television. What role has higher education, especially at a liberal arts institution, played in helping you reach your achievements?

I transferred into LC as a junior after attending the University of Oregon and Rutgers University. I was looking for a more personalized college experience. I was incredibly fortunate to take Communications classes from Prof. Stuart Kaplan. He showed me that there was a documentary tradition that “spoke truth to power”. He showed Harvest of Shame and I remember feeling that I was in the right place with the exact teacher/mentor that I needed. He challenged me and inspired me. After I had taken all the video classes that LC offered, Stuart gave me a gift certificate to take a class at the Northwest Film Center which enabled me to make my first documentary. Flash forward all these years later, and when LC alum/Alien Boy editor Andrew Saunderson and I finished the last edit of Alien Boy, the first person we showed it to was Stuart and he made a suggestion that greatly improved the film.

As the first person in your family to go to college, what surprised you most about your time at Lewis & Clark?

The incredible kindness and support of people like Prof. Stuart Kaplan, Mary Potter, Louise Hankenson and Kurt Armstrong. And the overall ethos of the place which was if you have a goal and are willing to work hard, the college will be there to guide and support you.

Provide two words of advice to current students interested in combining theory with practice.

Level gaze. Meaning:  look at the people you will be serving as your equals. And remember that they have a lot to teach you. Hard hit people almost always do.

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