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Sundance 2019: Q&A with 'Bedlam' director Ken Rosenberg and BLM founder Patrisse Cullors

'Bedlam' director Ken Rosenberg and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
'Bedlam' director Ken Rosenberg and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Millions of Americans struggle with mental health-related illnesses every year, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, but many individuals are not fully aware of the workings of the mental health system. The haunting documentary, “Bedlam,” which just premiered at Sundance, marks a unique opportunity to shed light on this crisis to the masses. 

Directed by Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, the film gives viewers an inside look into the mental health system and how it got to where it is now. By following the lives of several mental health patients over six years, Rosenberg supplements the history and facts of the issue with humanity and stories and visuals of the real-life effects of these institutions. Rosenberg, who also practices psychiatry with a specialty in addiction medicine, tells the story of his own sister, who struggled with mental illness her whole life, and his journey alongside her. 

Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, plays a key role in the film. She has spent years advocating for more just mental health systems, in part because her brother, Monte, who we meet in the film, struggles with mental illness. 

The Chronicle spoke with Kenneth Paul Rosenberg and Patrisse Cullors at the Sundance Film Festival. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: One thing that struck me about the film was the personal connection both of you had to it. What was that like for you both, having that personal connection and wanting to make a film about your experiences? 

Ken Rosenberg: What’s personal makes sense. My older sister, who was kind of my role model, once said, when I was seven years old I had to write a thing for school, she said, “Write about yourself.” And I think that was very good advice. And I think that also filming Patrisse and filming the families that I filmed, I really learned that the personal political, art, theater, is all one. So, what was it like for me? It was honestly one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done. 

Patrisse Cullors: I spent a lot of my childhood wanting for my brother to get the help he deserved, and the care he deserved, that the way he was being treated by — whether it was the school system or the prison system or the mental health system — was absolutely egregious. When I met Ken and he said that he wanted our family to participate in this documentary, I understand the power of storytelling, and how important it is when you tell a story, not just to the public, but when you tell the stories to elected officials, who really have the power to change these systems, that was really important for me. What I didn’t realize was going to happen during the process was a kind of support system that would be created between Ken and me, and our relationship. 

TC: I feel like a lot of people don’t really make the connection of mental health and mass incarceration. How have you come to understand the way those two issues intersect? 

PC: It’s, unfortunately a really simple story, which is deeply political, and that’s the Reagan administration singlehandedly getting rid of hospitals and many folks who were in those hospitals ended up on the streets and as we ratcheted up a system around criminalization, people with severe mental illness became the sacrifice of this system. L.A. is really a microcosm of what’s happening across the nation, and what happened to Monte and many of the other families are just a microcosm of what’s happening to millions of other families. For our family, we really should have had early intervention. Monte showed signs of mental health issues as a teenager, and instead of receiving intervention, he received criminalization. 

TC: In the film, there was a scene showing how you helped organize people in the streets, bringing jail beds to block the road to shine light on the injustice of the mentally ill in prison. As a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, how have you garnered support and energy throughout the movement?

PC: I’ve been doing organizing work for 20 years since I was 16 years old. The basis of me doing organizing work is where I grew up and how I grew up, but it also has a lot to do with witnessing what happened to my brother. When I met Ken, we were at the very beginning phases of building a local organization that was supporting the ending of building a mental health jail in Los Angeles. And by the following year, as we were filming, I started Black Lives Matter with two of my other co-founders, and some of the biggest issues that we have seen in both our local movement and our national movement are that many people who have been killed by police have mental illness. Police have become the first responders for people with mental illness, and we’ve seen that become very deadly. And so we are also in a moment of really advocating that we really treat mental illness as we treat cancer. 

TC: In making the film, what was both the most challenging and the most rewarding parts of it? 

KR: For me, that’s a very easy question. I think that both the most challenging and rewarding part was putting my own story in it. That was not my intention. My intention was to make a film about mental illness, and as I went along to make that film as deep as I could, I realized that the viewer was watching something but they didn’t know why they were watching. And they knew these stories were compelling and dramatic and tragic and triumphant, but they didn’t really understand  why I was doing this, why I was behind the camera. So I took a complete risk and put myself in it, and gradually, more and more, until I kind of bookended the film. I think that the most rewarding part was meeting families, working with Patrisse and getting to know people in that intimate way, and come to a point where we could send this message out. Patrisse has been doing this for years, and by complete accident, or spiritual encounter, however, you want to think about it, we are here. 

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