Reviews Short Narrative

Isolated (2023) – Unrated

Director: Jay Ramharakh

Writer: Jay Ramharakh

Cast: Craig Moonen, Mike Boukes, Jordy Ijzerman, Tasia Valenza, Jamie Treselyan

Running time: 16mins

Mental illness is an extremely sensitive topic, which popular culture has historically mishandled. Whether accidentally, or knowingly, many of the best-known films of the last century have featured tropes that have been highly damaging to neuro-diverse communities – regularly portraying people with mental health conditions as dangerous and violent, feeding into systemic and social discrimination.

Schizophrenia is one of the most commonly misused conditions in cinema – regularly tapping into long-held beliefs that people with the illness are likely to commit hideous acts of violence seemingly at random, and using those myths to excuse filmmakers from having to contextualise the unfolding horrors. But various studies suggest people with schizophrenia are more likely to be victims of violence than its perpetrators. One 2018 study in Cambridge found people with schizophrenia reported more verbal and physical abuse than any other group in the study, while another suggested one-in-10 people with schizophrenic spectrum disorder had been the victim of a violent crime.

Creating yet more cinema which deploys schizophrenia as a half-baked punchline – treating people with the condition as objects existing to be used as crutches for lazy writing, while dodging any hard questions about the role social exclusion, crumbling health and social care systems and economic disparities that might lead anyone to become violent – is only going to strengthen that feedback loop. Instead, as Shailee Koranne rightly pointed out in a 2022 article for CBC, we need to finally put people with conditions like schizophrenia in control of the narrative.  

She concluded,

Increasing or improving representation of schizophrenia in the media will not immediately change societally-rooted ableist attitudes. But empathetic and informed storytelling can help to counteract and correct the misinformation that is shared through TV and movies. With stories about schizophrenia still so deeply entrenched in stereotypes that impact the real-life treatment of mad people and the inequities they face, the need to tell better stories isn’t just critical — it could be life-saving.

There are different ways we can all facilitate this kind of change. In our own lives, we need to make a habit of pushing back against the casual ableism and bigoted tropes readily deployed when gossipping about other human beings – either those we know, or public figures who the media stalks relentlessly out of a (not-unfounded) belief that they can sell us every morsel of the carcass. Hollywood studios need to to find a way to include people with first-hand experience of mental illness into their productions – and listen to what they have to say – and as audiences we need to stop giving films a pass when they lazily lob tropes our way that equate mental illness to sinister violence.

Beyond that, I don’t control how Hollywood’s studio system spends its money. But I do advise independent filmmakers – including first-time artists and students – about the technical and thematic pitfalls of their craft. To that end, in the wake of having watched Isolated – the debut production of film student Jay Ramharakh – there are some important notes I would like to share with those who come after him.

As you will have noticed from my article’s title, this film has joined a select group of movies on Indy Film Library – it has received no rating. That is something reserved for work which I believe could be deeply harmful to a group or groups of people in the real world – something which simply giving the film a ‘low score’ would trivialise and normalise. So, there are many points of craft which I would normally take Ramharakh to task for in his film – laughable mask-logistics, preposterous pandemic science, hammy acting, cartoonish fight-scene Foley. But they are simply not important in the grand scheme of things.

Instead, let’s talk about the end of the film. Spoilers ahead – although you might well have already guessed where this is going.

The story follows Rick (physically performed by a gas masked Craig Moonen, verbally by voice actor Michael Ursu) and his brother David (Mike Boukes and Chris Van) as they stumble through a deserted forest on the outskirts of an apocalyptic ‘Boston’. The film was shot in the Netherlands, so presumably having the characters unable to remove their masks (or the air will immediately give them a fatal virus) was a calculated choice, so that American actors could more easily voice them in post.

David is killed during an encounter with bandits, while Rick flees to a nearby bunker, and hides over several days. In that time, he speaks to someone using a ‘radio’ – which is very noticeably a Philips reel-to-reel tape recorder, and an unrelated dictaphone – to a man named Allen (Jamie Treselyan). At one point, the conversation is interrupted by what appears to be someone Rick believes is a bandit. Rick beats him to death, even as the intruder protests “I’m here to help you!

Returning to the radio, Allen explains that the area is being evacuated, and it is finally safe to go outside and seek rescue from the army. As a relieved Rick exits, however, the camera lingers in the bunker, and begins a listing ominously toward a pristine sheet of white paper. Voiceover from his late-brother David reads the immaculately written note.

If you are reading this note, it means I am already dead… My little brother is schizophrenic, and so not everything is as it seems. Please look after him and ensure he survives this pandemic.

The camera then moves back to the corpse of the ‘bandit’, to reveal he was in fact a US soldier (though arguably those two professions are indistinguishable, and equally as likely to pose an existential threat). Rick has apparently hallucinated at least some of the things we have witnessed, illustrated by a flashback of him speaking to a radio we already knew couldn’t possibly function, but this time only light static responds to his prompts. Allen did not exist.

As far as my admittedly limited understanding of schizophrenia goes, hallucinations and hearing voices can sometimes be symptoms. But that does not excuse the fact that we’ve arrived at the point I laid out earlier.

Schizophrenia – however accurate someone might argue the symptoms here are – is a punchline; a lazy, tacked-on afterthought masquerading as a twist, to distract from how utterly uninspired and pedestrian the rest of this alleged survival horror was. It is lazily dangled in front of us as a shocking surprise, on the assumption that it bodes no further questions. The audience is simply supposed to accept Rick is a schizophrenic, and that’s just how they are. Without having to actually put effort into developing the story earlier in the film, exploring Rick’s feelings and experiences during an apparent apocalypse, or how any of that might inform his actions, Ramharakh seemingly believes he can just cut and run. Roll credits.

That kind of move might have flown years ago – wrongfully – but it is high time we declare this kind of writing is simply not good enough. In a film which lasts 15 minutes not including credits, a solid third of the run-time is devoted to the protagonist sitting in silence in an empty room, or trying to sleep. There was ample time to find a way to creatively and honestly explore the themes Ramharakh decided to tag on at the end. At the same time, the €900 production fee – a princely sum in the world of student cinema – could have been far better spent consulting experts and people with schizophrenia about how this story could be told, without being so ham-fistedly sensationalist, and reinforcing a dangerous bunch of stereotypes about mental health.

As to the advice I promised first-time filmmakers, all this should stand as a stark warning. Many artists want to run before they can walk. If you are determined to tackle an issue as important as schizophrenia in a story, it probably shouldn’t be the first film you make. It is a complex issue which deserves care, emotional maturity and respect – and not to be the subject of a flailing amateur still finding their feet as a creator.

Preferably, the future will see more films talking about schizophrenia made by people with first-hand experience of living with it. If you are not directly impacted by the condition, it might be worth considering whether you really are the right person to head up a project addressing it. But at the very least, if you are bent on going through with such a story, involve people from the community you are making the subject of your film. Listen to what they have to say. Think about the real ramifications for their lives that the ideas your film puts out there will have.

At the same time, if you are a film tutor, sending your students out into the world to make their first movie, a portion of responsibility falls on your shoulders. It seems very unlikely that Ramharakh was given feedback of the kind listed above – even though the film he produced as part of his course is now doing the rounds on the festival circuit. Clearly then, tutors need to prepare students for more than finding ways to capture pretty sunsets, or edit cohesively. So, talk to your students about their framing of social issues, and encourage them to evaluate the assumptions about communities regularly belittled by popular culture.

Independent filmmakers have an opportunity to tell the kinds of stories that studios reflexively forbid in their pursuit of profit – including more thoughtful and expansive narratives focused on people living with mental health conditions. That could be a huge force for social good, opening doors for people with schizophrenia and other disorders to show the world through their own eyes – challenging preconceptions that they are a group who can be disregarded by the social and political order of the day. Continuing to churn out the same old tropes from mainstream cinema is simply unforgivable.

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