“I never liked horror movies growing up; I’m really scared of them,” Sonny Mallhi laughed, “I don’t enjoy the experience. I get really scared and strangely paranoid and  think someone is gonna come kill me in the theatre. But Roy Lee of Vertigo loves horror movies and so, working with him, I learned to appreciate the really good ones.”

I had the pleasure of sitting down with soft spoken director Sonny Mallhi, whose film Anguish offered one of the most compelling premises of this year’s festival, to discuss his career in the film industry, taking the indie route, and inspirations for the film.

Anguish centres on troubled sixteen-year-old Tess (Ryan Simpkin) who has been manifesting and diagnosed with various psychological disorders. Jessica (Annika Marks) is at wits end trying various treatments and seeking specialist after specialist. Tess’ torments are not assuaged by the move, nor the giant pill box she must consume daily, and, soon enough, she becomes overshadowed, leaving her mother desperate enough to consider the impossible. Jessica and Tess’ lives collide with that of local grieving mother, Sarah (Karina Logue), who may just have the insight they need.

Offering the point of view of both mother and daughter, Anguish leans somewhat more heavily towards that of Tess, who wanders lonesome in this small town, meandering on her skateboard, as if herself a ghost, exploring her new surroundings and trying to ignore what seems impossible. Although she rarely speaks, Ryan Simpkin is simply phenomenal as Tess and manages to communicate volumes with her eyes. The cinematography captivates the small town perfectly both in its beauty, with hues of oranges, blues, and greens, and potential for dread around every corner. The sound design is thundering, at times almost handing out blows, maximizing the scare factor and echoing the chaos of Tess’ experience.AnguishRevVert

Anguish is Mallhi’s directorial debut after working as a writer and producer for many years. For Mallhi, it all began when he moved to L.A. and took on a very generic intern position at a production company, where he fetched much coffee, read many scripts, and did most of this completely unpaid. Eventually, he made his way to Vertigo, which was specializing in remakes of Asian films such as The Ring (2002).

As an executive, Mallhi set up various projects and naturally found himself stepping on set to co-produce one of them: The Lake House (starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock), originally based on Siworae (2000). One of the most influential experiences for Mallhi was working on developing The Strangers, where he was the executive producer.

As for screenwriting, The Roommate (2011) was Mallhi’s first script, which he originally wrote under a pseudonym. Once it was picked up, he revealed himself as the author, which made for a funny story amongst colleagues, and then went on to develop the film. Mallhi has also produced films like House at the End of the Street (2012), and Nicholas McCarthy’s At The Devil’s Door (2014), which screened at Fantasia in 2014 and also distinguishes itself for featuring three women lead roles.

Despite offers from studios, Mallhi decided to go the indie route with Anguish:

“The daunting part was, again, not selling it to studio; I had to choose everything. I think mostly for better. I think for better,” laughed Mallhi. One of these choices was to shoot in his home town where he could benefit from local connections as well as pay homage to his love of the midwest and small town films.

Moving from writer and producer to director, Mallhi found the biggest challenge, and there were more than he had expected, was knowing when to be open to changes and when to stick to his original vision:

“What I found as a producer and as a director,” he explained, “is that there is no formula. You just hope that you’ve been open to things that made the movie better or fought for things that made the movie better. Then you sort of find out at the end of the day.”

For the subject matter, Mallhi’s inspiration stems from a true story he found on the internet. As for filmic influences, Mallhi cites the strongest influences as what he learned from Bryan Bertino working on The Strangers.For the cinematography and visuals, he also found inspiration in the small town where they shot, which is a picturesque setting for Tess’s wanderings and horrifying ordeal.

As for the true story, it offered the possibility to explore several themes, including the dramatic relationship between a mother and daughter. One of the key things that caught Mallhi’s eye was that the film did not go the route of a classic (re:tragic) exorcism tale:

“[Exorcism] never works in the movies, and it probably never works in real life,” added Mallhi, “if you think about Emily Rose, that is a great example of a real life scenario where priests were torturing this girl to death and the family trusted them, thinking that it was for the best.”

ANGUISH-e1437855683398

Through Tess’s eyes, Anguish asks us to question ourselves on the authorities we heed, as parents and patients, when it comes to conditions we may not fully understand or know how to handle. The history of how mental health has been handled and treated is a dark one in Western Society: a horror tale all of its own.

Even today in North America, where these conditions are medicalized there remains much that is unknown and many lacunas in providing relief. Indeed, the way illness and health are conceptualized is culturally specific and very much shifts throughout history. Having researched these different perspectives and drawing from those of people around him, Mallhi explores in Anguish the possibilities of understanding conditions that frighten us in a different light. He does so without attributing a positive or negative value to these other possibilities. When mulling over Anguish, there is horror and terror a-plenty.

At the heart of Anguish, Mallhi is seeking to push viewers and himself outside our comfort zones, to follow the characters as they try to grapple with what they cannot change and are forced to entertain different, at times surreal, otherworldly, possibilities:

“I don’t really believe in anything. I have this weird attitude where I want to believe in things but I am just too skeptical. I wish I wasn’t. There’s that side of me that really wants to believe it. I wish I could just get out of my own way to believe it and I think, for me personally, this movie is a lot about that.”

I will start this by saying I know I am lucky, loved, healthy, and have the world by a string. I wake up most days with a huge smile on my face, knowing that I can accomplish anything. I am young and my face is symmetrical. When I look at my life I see a whole lot of goodness and bliss. My family, friends, and cats are incredible and I even love all of my jobs. My glass is half full.

Then there are those rare days where the sun just refuses to shine. You feel suddenly old and ugly, flawed and hopeless – completely unlovable. The demons you try so hard to help others fight off creep into your own thoughts. Those stupid fucking bad days seem to be longer than every good one combined. Today I am having one of those god awful days. The glass is still half full, just now it’s full of shit.

I think it is partially due to the seasonal affective disorder: I crave sunshine. I need my long dresses, bare legs and feet, no underwear or bra, just long flowery flowing freedom. I’ve been aching, slightly1926223_10102348672233968_6553281700865224625_o sick for months. My skin is dry and awful. I just don’t feel sexy when it’s gloomy. There is a happiness solar panel on my head that needs to be charged ASAP.

 

I also think the forthcoming spring is a little intimidating. It makes me think of love in the air and people having picnics with their lovers in the park. I am single by choice, but I still miss the simple joy of waking up next to someone. Having kisses and a cup of coffee waiting for you when you wake up is lovely. If I truly wanted a lover, I know there are at least a few people waiting to be mine. Sadly it’s not that easy. We never love the ones who openly profess their undying love for us. It’s the ones who are hard to get, the ones who show distance, the ones who challenge us: those are the ones we really want.

I try not to dwell on the things that make me sad. I know that I do hold things inside and communicating my feelings is not my strong suite. I do a lot for others. I aim to be the person that you know will always have your back no matter what and be the voice of the voiceless and fight the good fight. I think everyone is good at the core. I root for the misguided; I forgive people without question; and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. In my quest to give others happiness, I often forget to leave some of that passion and happiness behind for myself.

I was really taken aback when comedian Robin Williams took his own life. He was someone who exuded confidence and caused so much laughter. Being funny doesn’t mean you are happy. It is unfortunately common for comedians to suffer from depression. It makes sense to me, people who are funny do it as a defense. I think about all of the celebrities who died before their time due to drug addiction or self affliction and it’s horribly sad. What’s the point of making it, if it’s so lonely at the top? Minds that create astounding beauty are also capable of making tragic darkness. You can accomplish all of your dreams and still feel emptiness, what’s left to strive for if you have everything?

10544369_10102348673366698_4596999301855934682_n

I am a performer. We make the world laugh instead of being the butt of jokes ourselves. I know that I have always laughed to hold back tears. You get really good at hiding the sadness and the rest of the world only sees the bright light you choose to exude. Mental illness runs in my family – I often wonder if I have multiple personalities that just get a chance to exist on stage, then they can’t haunt me in my everyday life.

When I am on stage the sad thoughts melt away, nothing hurts, I own the crowd’s attention, and I feel true success for the 3 minutes I am up there. I pour my dark thoughts into my art and it makes me more approachable and relatable. All the time girls tell me I inspire them, I am up there flaunting my imperfections. People think I really have my shit together, that is the furthest from the truth.

I’m doing my best to keep it together and keep on waking up with that smile forward. I will never stop trying to help others deal with this harsh cold world. It’s important to remember that even the happy people get sad sometimes. Nobody is immune to sadness, we just have to keep doing the best we can do to not let it consume our psyche. Never ever take people for granted. Love them fully, hug them often, use your gifts to empower others and remember to leave a little bit of love left for yourself.

Wednesday April 4, 2012. Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece is bustling at its habitual frantic pace. A 77 year old man stands solemnly in front of the Greek parliament, holding a handgun. Then, he shoots himself in the head, putting an end to his life, and leaving behind a note: An outline of what had lead to the unfolding of this tragic end.

“I have no other way to react apart from finding a dignified end before I start sifting through garbage for food,” he has written on the note.  His last wish was “to leave no debts to his children.”

The fact that the 77-year-old pensioner shot himself in front of the Greek parliament wasn’t a coincidence, it was a symbolic act. It could even be considered a “terrorist” act if we employ the same logic as the mainstream Canadian media has in the wake of the Ottawa shooting.

In August 2001, economic punishment claimed yet another life. Kimberly Rogers, a 40 year-old, 8 month pregnant Ontarian, died while she was under house arrest for welfare fraud, because of the restraints that the Ontario social services had imposed on her, under the directives of the Mike Harris government and the guidelines of the Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty.

Ms. Rogers only had a total of 18$ to spend on common necessities such as rent, food and hydro per month.

Demonstration 20141031

Unfortunately, these are not isolated cases. The correlation between the imposition of austerity measures that produce economic hardship on the most impoverished sections of society and the increase in suicide rates has been verified by several studies since the start of the economic recession in 2008. Most recently, a British conducted study claimed that austerity measures caused over 10,000 deaths since the start of the economic crisis. This just goes to prove that there is an undeniable link between economic conditions and mental health.

In the past few weeks, many have qualified the Ottawa shooting, a suicidal attempt in many ways, as an “act of terrorism,” and yet, somehow, the events just described above do not qualify as terrorist.

Wasn’t the shooting in front of the Greek parliament in itself an act of terrorism, for did it not instill terror? In the past few weeks many have come out stating the obvious: Michael Zehaf Bibeau had mental health issues. This being said, neither the mainstream media nor politicians have asked the real question that requires an answer: what was the cause of his mental health issues?

First and foremost, whereas the tragic crime of Michael Zehaf Bibeau can be qualified as terrorism, the desperate act of a 77 year-old pensioner in Greece can’t. The reason is simple, the former’s motive was to push for a political agenda, while the latter aimed to discredit the dominant political discourse.

The only difference I see is that Zehaf Bibeau committed a murder, which is a crime and is inexcusable. But both events, in terms of symbolic importance, are the same. They are both attacks on the political consciousness. But most importantly, they are both the manifestations of a profound sickness within the societies in which they took place.

Durkheim1

At the end of the nineteenth century, amid profound social transformation unleashed by the industrial revolution, the forefather of modern sociology Émile Durkheim established the link—after an extensive study of suicide in France and Germany—between the changing economic sphere, economic marginalization, the weakening of social links and a sharp rise in suicide rates. The idea that dismal economic situations, extreme poverty and alienation in the workplace, which produced massive marginalization and a rise in mental health issues, was continued during the second half of the twentieth century by Michel Foucault, who wrote Madness and Civilization: A history of insanity.  In his book, Foucault elaborated that “folie” or mental health issues transformed in advanced capitalism. Further, Gilles Deleuze underlined in his works the correlation between some capitalist activities and schizophrenia.

Despite being very straightforward, the fact that our social environment, the structure within which we work and live, and the economic system that rules over our daily lives have very direct and real influences over our mental well-being has been completely shut out of the picture. Mental illness is certainly a fact. But exclusion, marginalization, and the social context in which both Martin Rouleau and Michael Zehaf Bibeau lived certainly had an impact on them, and thus on their actions. Once again mental health is used here an exit strategy. “He had mental health issues,” and that’s all there is to it!

Unfortunately this does not cut it, because both individuals seemed to “blend-in” perfectly with society—Michael Zehaf Bibeau was a exemplar student during his high school year. So, what brought about this tragic turn of events?

In Zehaf Bibeau’s case, his obvious marginalization, economical hardship and difficulties of living a homeless life probably had a major influence on the young man and most certainly were factors that contributed largely to the deterioration of his mental health. Unfortunately, no importance whatsoever is given to those aspects that might have been the cause of his subsequent radicalization. The only thing the media has taken from the Zehaf Bibeau’s story is that he was a Muslim.

Parliament_building

How many homeless Canadians are wandering the streets, today? How many Canadian families are terrorized by the fact that they won’t make ends meet?

More than 800,000 Canadians rely on Food Banks to have some sort of “proper” nourishment. A staggering amount of Canadians live very difficult precarious economic situations. While the plight of Canada’s most diminished has been soaring within the past decade, austerity measures have been applied across the board. Profound cuts to food banks and community services have been applied by various levels of government to “balance the budget.” Provincial and federal governments have ripped apart the Canadian mental health system, and thousands of Canadians are in desperate need of affordable housing, and social housing. Some have said during the past weeks, that Canada got a taste of its own medicine: “Canada declared war and must now deal with the consequences.”

But once again that is a form of criticism, which fits with the dominant political discourse that wants us not to question the austerity agenda. What if Zehaf Bibeau was radicalized not by ISIS or some video, with “cool” special effects on the Internet, but by the economical repression he lived on a daily basis?

Terror breeds terror, and so does austerity, in more ways than one.

A luta continua.