CW: Suicide, mental health, PTSD, bipolar disorder.
The subject of men’s mental health is one that is often neglected and brushed over. Stigma, shame, and the pressures of masculinity leave many men feeling lost and alone—even when statistics show that they aren’t. And we know that silence kills. In 2018, each day eight Australians were lost to suicide—and of those, six of them were men. It is a difficult subject to talk about and a hard conversation to have.
But people are having them. From ad campaigns on national television to a dedicated men’s health week, more and more voices are speaking up, creating a national dialogue on the subject. Directed and produced by Genevieve Bailey, Happy Sad Man is a raw and honest documentary that seeks to add its own voice to the mix. The idea of a conversation is the foundation on which this documentary is built—if we talk about mental illness, things can only get better for those who suffer.
Shot over several years, the documentary is a composite of interviews that are all genuine and at times more than a little heart-wrenching. Each interviewee has a different experience with mental health and mental illness; from bipolar disorder to anxiety, from young to old, from the city to the country and back. While there isn’t a real great breadth to the diversity of participants—most interviewees are white, for example—each man has something to contribute to the conversation and the documentary is all the better for it.
The documentary opens with John, one of the eldest of the interviewed men. He’s characterised as an eccentric, free-wheeling sort of bloke and the director’s best friend. His introduction is sweet and heartfelt—in a lot of ways, Bailey says this documentary is devoted to him. As the introduction closes, John looks into the camera and says “I’ve got a mental illness—and so do you”.
It is what can only be described as a bit of a ballsy opening, but an effective one nonetheless. From there, the documentary follows the lives of five men: the aforementioned John, who suffers from bipolar disorder; Jake, a war photographer with post-traumatic stress disorder; Ivan, an outreach worker in rural and country areas; Grant, a surfer who also has bipolar; and David, an artist with anxiety.
As there’s no real central narrative, it’s hard to summarise the events of the documentary. While the stories of the various participants follow a loose arc, they tend to meander a bit and aren’t all told in chronological order. It’s very obviously a low-budget production and while I’ve got nothing against those, it did feel more than a bit rough around the edges.
The composition and cinematography is a mixed bag, too—there are some technically beautiful shots, but they are outweighed by a lot of average ones. An oft-repeated motif was an extreme close up on the faces of interviewees; some of these shots were held for upwards of ten, fifteen seconds before the scene changed. I’m torn as to how I feel about them. On one hand, I don’t know if they had that much of an impact, but I can see that the intention behind them was to make us stop, pause, and truly look at these men. It offers a sort of humanity and conversational tone that slick cuts might obscure, but I think the style is more of a miss than a hit. Between the technical difficulties and its subject matter, I found this a tough documentary to sit through.
But don’t judge it too harshly for its flaws. While not a polished experience, Happy Sad Man is, first and foremost, a documentary that tries to speak openly and frankly on a subject that desperately needs it. As Bailey states in the epilogue, the intent of the documentary is to provide a sort of how-to YouTube video on mental health. How to open up and be vulnerable, how to look after yourself and your mates, and how to start those conversations around mental health that we all need to be having. And while I can’t give it a glowing recommendation, ultimately this documentary is as timely as it is important—and for that I think it is worth viewing.
So, on that note—if you or anyone you know is struggling, take the advice of this documentary and reach out. Talk to your family, friends, or GP, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or visit the BeyondBlue’s website.
Happy Sad Man hits cinemas November 14