I’d like to reintroduce you to your very own bipolar documentarian. The first installment of a documentary series on mental health called “Hope” was released on June 10, 2020, by Ben Duffy, the production’s 27-year-old writer and director who’s bipolar and proud. Ben, whose first film We Are Skateboarders is approaching one million views on YouTube, is also one of the protagonists of the documentary that stars Gene, Linda, Devin, and the “Down in Upstate”: a group of Ben’s friends that were together in high school in 2007. Each of the actors in the documentary suffers from mental illness. Throughout the film, they discuss thoughts and feelings about living in a world that stigmatizes their situation. They also discuss their most inner terrors and hopes, as well as coping skills for when life feels unbearable.
At the beginning of the first episode, for instance, Ben shows us footage from the peak of his mania, so we observe the symptomatic way he thought then about himself and his abilities. The documentary is captivating because it is a naked reality incarnated in young folks. You’ll hear real people the way you could if you were a therapist—one that could be trusted. And that makes the film compelling.
Ben and his friends Mike, Frank, and Larry talk about bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, as well as the stressors and brain chemicals that may bring mental illness on. These young people discuss what they know and what they do not; the conversation is fresh and lively, and you, the viewer, feel you are with friends.
Ben asks about the place of hope in mental illness. It is also deep as it becomes apparent that for one of Ben’s friends, there is always the security of knowing he can take his life if he feels he must. All of us need protection and security. The courage of Ben’s friend to bring his ultimate sense of security into the documentary moved me deeply, and I bet it will touch you too. The group also discusses alcohol and how it can become a crutch and make things worse, not better, by adding a complicating layer to mental illness. Then Ben meets with a woman who has a hard time taking credit for how great she is doing after being through hell and back. Her journey began when she was 17 years old, a time when she should have been launching into the world.
You will hear of one interviewee and his struggle not knowing if he’s hallucinating or not. He talks about how people are afraid of him and do not want to associate with him when they learn of his diagnoses. You will be witness to intersectionality and how being African American with a mental illness complicates moving forward in the educational system; and no, it is not about the person’s lack of ability. You will also hear how a young man felt of two minds: one committed to suicide and one not—it is sturdy and gripping because it is “and,” not or. As you watch the scenes progressing, you understand how the protagonists’ inner voices played in their heads when they were sick.
For me, one of the most powerful moments of this first part of the documentary episode took place when Ben’s frustration toward medications become apparent. Discussing the one that works, the ones that don’t, you can almost detect that there is frustration at the fact that he has to take any medical substance. Ben is brave and tells us that they are right for you if you need them, and they are suitable for him, something he must do. Most powerful yet, when Duffy goes deep into himself and finds out how his father and his actions left an unerasable mark in his life. And it is through Ben’s suffering, but also tenacity and persistence that he turns life around and establishes a relationship of deep love and connection with his father.
The documentary is personal and sincere, with profound insights regarding mental illness, the stigma attached to it, and the power of hope: Ben’s and the series’ final destination.
I wholeheartedly recommend this first installment of Ben Duffy’s documentary! Go Ben, go!