Last night I attended a Secret Cinema screening. For those not familiar with the concept, for Secret Cinema you aren’t told in advance what the film is but you’re given a series of clues and told to turn up at a secret location at a certain time armed with specific props that are relevant to the film setting. So it was with great trepidation that I and a couple of friends arrived at Ladbroke Grove station wearing dressing gowns, each carrying a pair of slippers and a toothbrush, to be met by a series of creepy men in white coats directing us down residential streets until we came to a disused hospital. Whereupon we were given hospital gowns and a ‘prescription pad’ of vouchers with which to purchase drinks. We had realised in advance that the film was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the whole setting of the eerie , dimly-lit hospital, complete with Nurse Ratched and a host of ‘crazy’ patients made for a fantastically immersive experience. With impressive attention to detail the hospital had been converted to a 1960’s asylum and we were free for a while to wander around the rooms and wards, occasionally being accosted by the actor patients, brusque nurses or stern psychiatrists. Many people got into the role, laughing maniacally, running around and participating fully in what was perceived to be “crazy” behaviour. People were taking photographs everywhere, as they watched with gruesome fascination while the mechanics of a transorbital lobotomy were demonstrated, or an actor was dragged to a bed and strapped down for his session of ECT (complete with scarily realistic convulsions). It was how I imagine a modern-day Bedlam would be: leering, gawping spectators being entertained by the lunatics.
There was no denying the morbid intrigue nor the fun of dressing up as a patient and going through the motions of being mad: people being photographed or filmed repetitively rocking in chairs, lying on hospital beds looking crazed, gulping down “medication” shots in little paper cups, scrawling on the walls in red ink in one room, being “assessed” before having a label of ‘sick’ or ‘disturbed’ slapped on their hospital gown. It was, all in all, an impressive entertainment experience.
It was therefore something of a much-needed shock to the system for the audience when, just before the film started, an advert was screened for the Time to Change campaign to reduce the stigma of mental illness and end discrimination against those with mental health problems. It pointed out the social and employment discrimination that is still rife where mental illness is concerned, perpetuated in no small part by the continuing stereotypes of those with mental illnesses as frenzied, babbling lunatics. It struck me that this was a unique kind of educational opportunity to show up the implicit assumptions many people have about mental illness, seeing as we had spent the past hour or so indulging in that stereotype with glee. Although I have seen it several times before, there was something about the setting and being moved by that advert that added an additional layer of pathos to the film, particularly when all McMurphy’s rebellious revelry (which we’d been mirroring in the run-up to the screening) culminates in a tragic, sobering outcome.
As I sat in my dressing gown on the Central Line heading home, I wondered whether in addition to enjoying the event, others would leave perhaps just a little more enlightened and sympathetic to the profound distress of mental illness, and the damaging effects of prejudicial stereotypes, than when they went in.
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