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Gemmar McFarlane – Making movies with a mental health focus

Published:Friday | July 14, 2023 | 12:05 AMDamian Levy/Gleaner Writer
Gemmar McFarlane is passionate about mental health, and it shows in his films.
Gemmar McFarlane is passionate about mental health, and it shows in his films.
“I definitely want to tell the story of my mental journey,” said McFarlane.
“I definitely want to tell the story of my mental journey,” said McFarlane.

For many, mental health can be a touchy subject. Rather than shy away from the conversation, director Gemmar McFarlane looks to create films that will kick-start a difficult dialogue.

His passionate mission has thus far resulted in two short films. The first, Absolute Power, a documentary film about a victim of domestic violence, was a part of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund series of films for female survivors, and a selection in 2022’s Greater August Town Film Festival (GATTFEST). The second, Time to Go, is a psychological thriller about a woman with dementia. Time To Go is set to go on tour in several locations, thanks to the British Council’s Touring Programme, and was a finalist in the Jamaica Film and Television Association (JAFTA) Propella initiative.

“I’m very passionate about mental health,” McFarlane told The Gleaner, as he spoke of how he has personally been impacted by mental illness.

While his focus on dementia in Time To Go started as random, it soon proved to be all the more personal when someone in McFarlane’s life started to show signs of the disease. “So here I am preparing for this film and I’m seeing the signs in front of us and they kind of inform the work now. So I started to model the character based on their experience,” he shared.

With the material hitting so close to home, it’s easy to imagine the film being too difficult to complete, yet for McFarlane, the experience was cathartic. “I feel like it was there to help me kind of get through that period,” he said. That same catharsis is what the 27-year-old director wishes to pass on to an audience, with a few thrills to go with his message. “I’m not trying to do it in a preachy way or in a pretentious way, but more like I want to kind of mess with you a bit. Essentially, with all my films, I want to get people to understand that it can happen to anybody and really and truly put you in the shoes of somebody that is experiencing it and show you what the experience is like.”

McFarlane also wishes to share his own journey. “I definitely want to tell the story of my mental journey. It is a movie that I’ve gone through. I’ve been to Ward 21. I’ve been to the lowest of lows. I’ve been a victim of violence because of my mental illness.” McFarlane lives with Bipolar Disorder Type 1, a diagnosis he formally received at the age of 16.

“People know it as a mood disorder, but it’s really and truly, it’s so much more. For example, in my situation, I guess I would have gotten hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, right? Which took me on many adventures,” he shared, adding that creating a film about his experience could explore numerous angles. “There [are] many ways I could spin it. I could do it where we think the protagonist has superpowers, but it turns out he actually has a mental illness or I could do it gritty, and show you exactly what happened.” Until he is ready to tackle his magnum opus, McFarlane is content to hone his skills. As a visual storyteller, he works in the production of music videos, commercials, and television.

With a creative vision, passion and lived experience, he is in a unique position to create films of relevance and importance.

“I feel like there’s value in my perspective and especially coming from a neurodivergent person and a people that is of a different kind of experience. And the film is the perfect way for me to do that,” he said. “I find that when I’m writing, even on set, it’s very therapeutic and cathartic. Even for some of the actresses and actors. For example, on the dementia film, about three or four people on the crew, had experience with it, with dementia. And about five people in the previous film had domestic violence experience ... I’m realising that, when the film is done, there’s impact in the experience, but in the making of it, there’s so much more that goes on. I think it’s a beautiful thing.”