Where Do I Go From Here?
I’ve had depression described to me as an obsession with the past, anxiety as a fixation on the future. In my experience with both, this has proven to be accurate. With my filmmaking, I feel in control, but when it comes to my own life and my influence over my mental health, often feel powerless.
When framing a shot, there is a desire to capture a moment in time—emphasizing the particular light, the diegetic sounds, perhaps a slight breeze. This process is not unlike attempting to ground myself through meditative mindfulness: noticing my surroundings in detail, trying not to let my mind drift backwards or forwards. So, as an independent filmmaker, I’ve been thinking a lot about my surroundings and the role they play in my ability to succeed.
I spent the first five or so years of my life on a very small island called Gabriola, part of the little clusters of land in the ocean on the very western side of Canada. Eventually, my family and I made the move from this tiny forested wonderland to Vancouver Island, a somewhat bigger island.
To a certain extent, we control our surroundings and with whom we choose to engage, and this can have an immeasurable impact on our state of mind. Often, these decisions are made for the wrong reasons, especially when we are vulnerable. I’m starting to try and unpack the decisions I have made, and the paths I have gone down in my career, for better or for worse.
After graduating from film school in Vancouver, I followed a relationship to Toronto with no real plans or support in place for myself. Shortly after the move, and the inevitable breakup, I found myself living in a new city where I felt I had to prove my right to be a part of the creative community. I applied for my masters at York University, as many filmmakers I admired had done before me, with the hope of carving out a space for myself.
Filmmakers are told that we ought to live in one of the major cities, the cultural and economic epicenters of any given country, because that is where “it” is all happening. Being able to move to and work in one of these cities has long been synonymous with a successful career. Vancouver and Toronto are equally unaffordable cities, and both have healthy film industries built around servicing commercial productions. But when it comes to independent filmmaking, arguably the biggest advantage to living in a city like Toronto is proximity to programmers and critics—as gatekeepers who, of course, have their own ideas about success and visibility.
In any city, these cultural hubs are ripe for opportunity and discovery, but they are not without their fair share of toxic power dynamics and issues with accountability. All artists crave community, but cultivating a healthy one might not be so straightforward. In the experiences of myself and many of my peers, “film communities” often end up being the opposite of what they claim to be. A community should be inclusive and made up of people who have common interests and goals, but this definition becomes muddled when the common goal is divided into the success of individuals. Competitiveness is often fueled by self-doubt and a desire to be seen as valuable—but someone else’s success actually has very little to do with your own. Attempting to navigate all of this while struggling to make rent creates an uphill battle in terms of maintaining one’s own self-worth and mental health.
Many of us continue to follow paths toward success that may not actually suit us at all. What often keeps filmmakers in these cities is a fear that if they leave, they will miss out. As a talented filmmaker once cautioned me: “They will forget about you unless you are standing right there in front of them.” But in what I’ve seen from friends and colleagues, the decision to relocate to these metropolises of opportunity has only led to deeper feelings of isolation, a lack of motivation and, in many cases, bankruptcy.
This year, I have evaluated the role I play in my own unhappiness and patterns of thinking. I’ve come to realize how affected I am by my physical surroundings. I need trees; I like being near water. I’ve started to wonder whether these might be critical factors in my success as a filmmaker, as abstract as that may sound. It doesn’t matter how one’s achievements stack up if you are deeply unhappy. If we aren’t able to enjoy the process, what’s the point?
I recently switched to an old flip phone to try and cut down on my social media usage, and the benefits were shocking. Without the constant temptation of a smart phone, I wrote a grant application and applied for a residency abroad. This one little change positively affected my potential to succeed. And it was a small-scale illustration of why deciding where to live—and with whom to surround yourself—can be crucial elements in your own success as a filmmaker.
Mental health is too commonly ignored when it comes to the arts. There is a conception that because people in the arts are doing what they are passionate about, they must be happier than those who submit to the daily grind. I asked on Twitter once (I know) what keeps people from making films, and what I heard consistently was that self-doubt is the greatest obstacle in the way of their success.
I believe in open communication about these challenges, as it becomes clear just how prevalent they are. It may be difficult to foster an entire film community that is truly inclusive and accountable, but I’ve witnessed pockets within them that strive toward this goal. Whether you call it a community or not, it’s critical to surround yourself with people who can support you, who believe in you when you can’t, and for whom you can do the same. No matter where that may be, that’s the best path to success.