Voices Apart is a short film (17:26) which won the 2020 Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Research in Film Award (RIFA) for the Best Doctoral or Early Career Film this Wednesday (11th November 2020). At a time when the arts are vulnerable, the AHRC is committed to continually supporting the creative industries, with RIFA celebrating short films based on original research.
Voices Apart was made by David Heinemann and Elvina Nevardauskaitė as part of David’s doctoral thesis at Goldsmiths, University of London exploring the cinematic representation of psychosis, specifically in relation to the role of the voice. Using actors, this documentary, filmed in Lithuania, explores voice-hearing using first-person testimony from three contributors: Agnė, Laurynas and Mantas, who all have different relationships with the voices they hear.
This documentary looks at the people who can hear voices in their head. Whether a torment or a blessing, we see three Lithuanians reflect on their lives and their experiences.
This is a really interesting documentary, as the people shown are often inspiration for characters in fictional horror films rather than positive stories. Instead, you give them the respect to tell their own stories. Why did you want to make a film like this?
About five years ago we began to learn about and meet people who hear voices. We were struck by the depth and intensity of their experience, and the fact that they would experience an hallucination as reality, but afterward might understand that experience as something self-generated. Of course, not all voice hearers make this distinction – at least not all the time – but it seems that many do have this dual perception. We wondered what it might be like to live in this state of uncertainty. Often what triggers the onset of voice-hearing is psychological trauma. Voice-hearing itself can involve a great deal of suffering, yet it may mask a deeper wound. One of our goals in making Voices Apart was to create an empathetic portrayal of an often-maligned group of people, and to explore what their experience might be like from a subjective point of view.
The way this film plays out isn’t a typical documentary, using reconstructions in a way that I haven’t seen done before with the characters retracing their steps. I’d love to know more about the writing of the film and why you chose for it to have this style.
All of the testimony in the film is taken directly from the interview recordings with the documentary subjects. When we interviewed our contributors we agreed that we wouldn’t film them. Initially we imagined the film wouldn’t have any visual human presence, just associative imagery, akin perhaps to Gary Tarn’s Black Sun. But when we tested this approach, we found the results to be uninvolving. We really wanted the audience to identify with the contributors’ stories as they were related, to evoke the disorienting feeling of being, even momentarily, unsure where reality lies. Is what we see and hear real, or are our senses deceiving us? We knew then that we needed to feature human characters but finding the right form for the film proved challenging! The film needed to be cinematic, in keeping with what we saw as the subjects’ remarkable experiences, but we were wary of creating a film that might seem fictionalised, losing the connection with documentary reality. Finally, we hit upon the idea of just having actors lip-sync to the testimony in interview settings and re-enactments.
The people we see on our screen are actors bringing the real stories to life. Following on from the previous question, did the people who are having their words lip synced to have any say in the way they were portrayed and would come across on screen?
No, they had no say at all, and they haven’t even seen the film yet. (We’ve told them that it’s finished, and we very much look forward to them seeing it.) The ethical dilemma of shaping a representation of their experience was very much on our minds as we arranged the scenes, planned the shots and directed the actors. We attempted to make the performances, along with the compositions and mise-en-scène, as matter-of-fact as possible. In fact, we were helped greatly in this by the often emotionally flat delivery of the contributors. They can be relating the most traumatic incidents yet speak in a monotone. We found this extraordinary!
At the end of the film we see them break character and show themselves, suggesting that the film as a whole is quite metaphorical and these actors are adding to the voices heard. Can you give us more of an insight to the cinematic storytelling side of the film, rather than just the simple documentary for what it is?
This is a really astute observation! The actors coming out of character overtly signals to the audience the constructed nature of the representation. Of course, the artifice is obvious very early on, but ideally viewers will accept the artifice and allow themselves to be drawn into the stories anyway – until the end when they’re obliged to recognise the dual perception that has sustained their involvement. While this split mind (“I know very well, but all the same…”) is not as extreme as it might be in the case of voice hearers’ hallucinations, hopefully it comes across as an analogue. And even here the truth of the representation remains ambiguous. Are the actors really being themselves now, or are they acting the part of actors playing documentary subjects?
In the film, the actors talk about the contributing factors to their voice hearing, a recurring thing is neglecting their health. How important do you think it is for a film like this to be seen by an audience, especially considering the rise of mental health awareness globally?
Mental illness seems to be on the rise. Society needs to be understanding and accepting of it if sufferers are to avoid stigmatisation and get the help they need, and if we are to create healthier living conditions. We hope that audiences will empathise with the three characters and consider that what is labelled mental illness might often be, as one of the contributors suggests, a spiritual journey. If the film could, in any small way, reduce the stigma associated with mental illness we would be delighted. We would also like audiences to consider the importance of a healthy lifestyle in avoiding the onset of mental illness, as two of our contributors were anxious to emphasise.
Created as part of a doctoral thesis, is there plans for you to continue talking about these sorts of topics, or is there something else that you’d like to work on?
Before Voices Apart we made a drama about a character suffering from paranoid delusion, Unburied (2018), and we’re currently working on another drama about a character who grapples with her perceptions of a world beyond our accepted reality. We are both fascinated by the ambiguities inherent in the human perception of the world.
You can watch the trailer for Voices Apart here.