Representing Bipolar on Screen
Artist in focus:
Dale John Allen
Dale details the therapeutic process that turned into an award-winning film, how authentic stories come from real experience and not being pigeon-holed as an LGBTQ+ filmmaker.
Your upcoming short film ‘Don’t Blame Jack’ is semi-autobiographical take on your struggles managing your bipolar disorder. How did you start the process for the film?
I think it came out of making ‘A Film About Love’. They’re sort of sibling stories.
I struggled writing stories with events that I’d never experienced so I decided to create work based on my own life events. It was really therapeutic and helped me channel a lot of my feelings and insecurities in a healthier way than I’d previously done. I started writing it when I was trying to practice scriptwriting and it kind of developed and I really wanted to make it.
‘I found a lot of the films emotional moments really difficult – I think I was probably scared to go there again in my own heaD’
The film is deeply personal to yourself, both as a queer man and someone who lives with bipolar disorder, was it challenging to write scenes drawing upon your lived experiences from a different stage of your life?
I think the biggest challenge I found writing DBJ was writing about events retrospectively. I found a lot of the films emotional moments really difficult – I think I was probably scared to go there again in my own head. I felt I owed it to myself to do the story justice but didn’t feel willing to put myself back in those mindsets again. My mentor, CampbellX, helped me out loads and encouraged me to find my voice in my writing and know when I needed to stop and take care of myself.
What I found so amazing when shooting it was that it didn’t feel like my life. That’s down to Jordan (Tweddle), who plays Jack, as an actor. He took the character and made it his own. I love that I recognise myself in Jack but the character is not me. Jordan turned him into his own person. I love that.
On average it takes 10 years for an individual with bipolar to receive an accurate diagnosis. When were you first diagnosed and what has been the impact of receiving your diagnosis?
I was diagnosed with depression in my early teens and then was given the Bipolar diagnosis when I was 20. It’s difficult to diagnose because I would only ever go to the doctor when I was in a low state. When I was in a hypomanic state the last thing I would think of was to go to the doctors because I didn’t feel ‘ill’ – I felt very much the opposite.
I experienced a mixed episode where I had the mentality of a serious depression with the energy and adrenaline of mania which was really dangerous. I think receiving a diagnosis was just a weight-off really. It made me kinder to myself and more forgiving of myself. It made a lot of things make sense and I actually felt really relieved when I diagnosed. I think the worst part was just not knowing what was wrong with me and not knowing how I could make it better. Now I feel like I have a lot more control over it and am able to manage it a lot better.
“I found a lot of comfort in films depicting mental illness and more representation would only be a good thing.”
Do you feel that stories of mental health are portrayed authentically in film? And would you like to see more representation of these stories, both through its characters and the individuals who work in the industry?
It’s tricky because Bipolar effects everyone differently so there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ representation. I think there are some wonderful stories out there with beautiful depictions of mental health struggles, such as ‘Touched with Fire’, ‘Mary and Max’, ‘A Woman Under the Influence’, ‘Girl, Interrupted’. I know that I found a lot of comfort in films depicting mental illness and more representation would only be a good thing.
Do you aim to challenge stereotypes of mental health with ‘Don’t Blame Jack’?
I don’t think I’m actively trying to challenge stereotypes. I think my work gives a bit of insight into the actual goings-on inside the mind of someone with mental illness. I guess it explains the logic of the decision-making that from the outside would be hard to understand.
I think DBJ highlights my own confusion around my diagnosis - that’s essentially the premise of the entire film. Jack has his own preconceptions of what a medically deemed mentally ill person must look/behave like and is sort of challenging that idea in himself.
Superbia helped fund your film ‘Don’t Blame Jack’. How important is it for the LGBTQIA+ community to have access to these funds to tell their stories?
Superbia and Greater Manchester LGBT Social Support Network both financially sponsored the film. We crowdfunded the rest (which was really hard but amazing and slightly overwhelming to see the support for the project)
It’s amazing for LGBT+ people to have access to money that is specifically there for them. Funding is essential and to have organisations dedicated to helping LGBT+ artists is amazing. It’s really encouraging.
“I don’t think we should pigeon-hole ourselves into an LGBT box because our stories are more than our sexuality.”
As a queer filmmaker, do you feel there needs to be more representation of LGBTQIA+ stories in film?
It would be nice to see LGBT+ stories that don’t put so much emphasis on a character’s sexuality. With DBJ I didn’t want it to be specifically an LGBT+ story. It’s a story about a man struggling with his mental health who just happens to be gay. His sexuality doesn’t really play any part in the overall plot of the film – I think that’s the direction I would personally like to see queer stories going in now. I didn’t write Jack to be a gay man for any reason other than because I am a gay man and I can only write authentically from that perspective.
I would love to see more stories being told by LGBT+ storytellers, but I don’t think we should pigeon-hole ourselves into an LGBT box because our stories are more than our sexuality.
You have been nominated for ‘Best LGBT+ Documentary’ as well as ‘Best Direction’. How does it feel to get this level of recognition on an international stage?
It’s great to get recognition for the work and makes me want to work a little harder and push myself more. It makes the hard work seem worth it.
When is ‘Don’t Blame Jack’ due to be released, and where can the public watch it?
I can’t say specifically as it all depends on which film-festivals we get into (I’m not allowed to say just yet) but hopefully around Autumn time. Follow @dontblamejack on twitter for festival announcements.