Interview with Alexandra Hohner

On 2nd November 2016 I gave a lecture for the animation students at the University of Western England, Bristol (The Fallacy of Objectivity and Ethics of Representation). Following my visit Alexandra Hohner contacted regarding her third year writing task, which takes the form of a journal article. The topic was how animated documentaries represent invisible illnesses. She wrote, ‘Your talk was very informative but I’ve tried to put together some more specific questions about Patients’ (2012).

1. What made you decide to use a realistic design of Patients instead of creating a more “psycho-realistic”, caricature design?

I wanted the realism in Patients (2012) to work as a counterpoint to some of the more hallucinatory scenes. I initially believed that it would help the traumatic moments feel real, however I’ve made more successful interpretations of those moments, such as the scene in Animated Attempts at Depicting Mental Illness (2015).

2. Do you think if the main character wasn’t based on you and your experiences, but on someone else’s- you would have shown things differently? how so?

Well that’s a hard question because I’d have to basically design a new film. I’ve made animations about other people and I generally try to capture their essence in a reduced and simple line drawing. For instance, Nick Mercer, the speaker in Escapology: The Art of Addiction (2016):

I believe these drawings are different because I made them 3 years later and by then my style had changed.

Patients is a bad example as I don’t distort the character much however I have made many contorted self portraits which I consider a form of psycho-realism.

However, I find it hard to push my self to be as derisive and disfiguring when trying to use the same methodology in portraits of other people.

3. I understand that for a documentary maker, the best-known subject can be themselves, but what do you think: why should other people should be interested in your personal story?

I was just lucky that something incredibly interesting happened to me. I think this is not a common story and that’s why it’s fascinating. Despite this it became clear that the people who connect to Patients the most were those who have friends or family who have suffered from acute mental illness.

4. A bit more provocative question: I understand that for a documentary maker, the best-known subject can be themselves, but what do you think: why should other people should be interested in your personal story?

I like to make films which confront issues that people don’t like to talk about, i.e. mental illness, addiction or sexual dysfunction. What I’ve found is that if you find the right topic you’ll discover a quarter of you audience can relate to it directly and the rest are likely to know someone who’s been affected by it.

I like to use a similar tactic to stand up comedians. I’ll explore the darker or even mundane side of my own existence to find something that people can connect to. Observational comedy may have been developed in response to the reflexive documentary discourse.

5. What do you think you’ve learnt about how to treat your future subjects and their stories, from being your own subject first?

The most important lesson I learnt was the fact that I know I could do a good job. I’ve shown the subjects of my films previous work and we more or less start the project with them trusting that I’ll make, at the very least, an interesting film. This confidence is really important and provides them with a lot of reassurance.

6. In your animation, the main character does look like you. Are the other characters based on the people who you met?

In Patients, all the characters are based on people I came across fleetingly in the hospital or people I know very well. The doctor, for instance, is still my psychiatrist. My parents really look like that although I decided to do their voices. In fact I did all the voices in Patients. I quite liked the idea of embodying each character as if it was all a dream and everyone was you. There was a pleasing madness to it.

7. What about the dialogues? Did you write them based on “real events” or have some of these words been actually said to you? How much freedom did you give to yourself during writing the script: were you a writer or just an editor?

All of the dialogue is invented. It is very hard to remember back two or more years to provide a perfect quote. I did my best to capture the spirit of each character I represented but this is definitely problematic. My brain was in such a mess around the time I was restrained and injected that I had no clear idea of the events leading up to it. I’ve been told by a health professional since completing the film that no nurse would ever say “What are you doing, get back to bed”. I just did my best to gauge the tone of what I meant to express. I am afforded a lot of trust by and audience who can sense that the film was based on personal experience. Even if that’s not clear the film gives the impression of being well informed. That’s the crucial.

8. Did you use actors to record them?

No. It’s all me. I can do some pretty mean accents and enjoy the process. Although I have since become increasingly sensitive to the racial insensitivity of such a practice. I’m not sure if I would ever do it again.

9. In case someone else would be your subject, how much of a role would you give him in editing or writing the script? Would it be a collaboration or would you only look for confirmation?

I’ve only ever used interview testimony in films I’ve made about other people. The crucial negotiation centers around the release form. Until that is signed I am nervous about the power an interviewee has over the film production. At any point they can withdraw their verbal consent and ruin your film. I think of this as a sort of yes or no question right at the beginning. ‘Do you want to be in the film, if so this has to be signed before we start’. I’ve recently felt more comfortable with this process because I realised that it’s almost impossible to put into writing the complex negotiation about how to represent some one fairly. That is build on a relationship of trust between you and your subjects. I try to make it clear that I would never want to make a film featuring someone who hates the outcome. A lot of this trust comes from showing previous work but mostly its from the relationship you build. I’ve had subjects release all control because they trust my artistic intentions, and I’ve had others who essentially want to authorize each piece of audio before It’s considered for the film. While I use the term subjects here, in fact I think it’s most healthy to think of them as collaborators.

10. When you were creating the representation of the main characters, what qualities and emotions were most important?
Do you think you were harder on yourself than you would have been in a case where someone else is the main character?

Visually I need to show how gaunt the I was at the time of the psychosis. I felt this was such an unusual phenomena with a symbolic power that I knew it had to be focused on in the film. I was being eaten away by the illness so my body suffered just as much as my mind. Emotionally I feel much of the film is very neutral. I made little attempt to convey emotions until the final scene where the patient finally recognises that they are unwell. This was another key point for me, the idea that someone who is mentally ill may be the last to know about it. You loose track of how you appear as you internal perspective becomes warped though the fog of chemical imbalance.

I don’t think I was particularly hard on myself but there was a definitely intimacy I could afford. I remember including my penis in the drawings when I’m naked in the bathroom. I liked the way it make the character look vulnerable. I’m not sure if I would have done that if it was another person’s testimony.

Appendix:

Patient script – Revision 5 (2012)

memory

Doctor

You will be detained here under section 2 of the Mental Health Act.

 

Cut to a dark room where the patent on bed.

Listening to the shipping forecast.

Nurse

Nock Nock

Come on, time for your medication

When he turns off the shipping forecast the narration beings

The patient joins the end of the queue.

The cleaner swept round the corner emitting a high frequency drone. A flickering florescent strip light broke the patients conventional perceptions. The patient had often experienced such phenomenon. His most vivid encounter had taken place on the first night of his detainment.

Cut to common room

As day had turned to night the shadows revealed a flickering ghost like aura around the other patients. Beastly projections of their inner beings postured before one-another, strutting for dominance. The patient wondered how he might appear to the others.

Upon examining his hands he noticed tiny shoots emerging from his fingertips.

They coiled round the arm of his chair and spread across the vial floor from his feet.

Nurse

Just take the pill and show me your mouth.

He gulped down the sugary lump, stretched open his mouth and left.

In the bathroom the patient disrobes and examines his naked flesh. He pulls at his rubbery skin.

As the bath fills with pristine crystal fluid he submerges himself.

The patient towels down his skeletal frame. A dull pain in his arse reveled a pinprick on the cheek. A bitter taste filled his mouth as broken recollections fell into place.

Cut to the corridor at night

Nurse

Hey. What are you doing up? Get back to bed!

The patent turned to face the approaching tribesmen. As the hunters surrounded him, they grabbed his arms and pushed him to the ground. A knee pressed against the back of his head crushed his cheekbone into the floor. Fumbling hands pulled down his trousers exposing his bare buttocks. The howls of his torment echoed though the empty corridors, peeking as a needle prick pierced his behind. Gradually his distress petered to a drooling moan.

Fade to black

Nock Nock Nock

The patent opens his eyes with a shock as he is woken from sleep.

Nurse

Come on, its time for your appointment.

Upon entering the doctor’s office the patient was offered a seat. The soft leather wrapped around his boney bum as he lowered down. Opposite him the doctor bounced his knee as he skimmed over the contents of a paper folder.

Doctor

I think it’s about time we talk about your recent experience.

You’ve had what is called a psychotic episode.

Psychosis is caused by a chemical imbalance and can result in strange beliefs, paranoia and visual or auditory hallucinations.

So you may have seen or heard things that weren’t really there.

The anti-psychotics you are taking will gradually stop such occurrences but before our next appointment I want you to think back and try to establish what was real and what may have been caused by the illness.

The Doctor stood up with the patient to shake his hand.

Back in his room where the patient lay staring at the ceiling.

For the first time the he considered the authenticity of his astonishing visions. Could such apparitions be in his head? He even questioned the voice that chronicled his every moment….

The voice…

It was a disembodied voice in his head…

The patient sat….

 The Patient

Arrr… Shut up!!

silence

Nock Nock

Mother

Is it ok to come in?

His parents enter.

Father

Hello son.

You’re looking better

Mother

We brought you some fruit and more cloths.

I hate to think how long have you been wearing those hospital gowns?

Patient

I don’t think I’m very well.

Patient bursts into tears

Parents comfort him

Interview by Animartists Culture and Psychology Journal

Earlier this year I was approached by Panagiota Karagianni about doing an interviewed for Animartists, a Geek online magazine about psychology and culture. You can read the English language post here. Below is a transcript from the interview:

 

Alex Widdowson is a very talented artist and an Animator living in London. Alex had been preparing a beautiful animated documentary for four years, in which he covered fundamental issues on mental illness and the treatment that people from around the world get in clinics. The title of this documentary is “Patients” and is a tough but a really realistic approach of the lifestyle of the people that are mentally ill. Lately, he prepared a new video based on the previous version, a stronger representation of the topics covered in the “Patients” and you can watch it here:

How and when did you realize that all you want to do as a job is to be an Animator?

Animation seemed the most useful medium to process and communicate my confusing and traumatic experiences of mental illness.  I initially started a fine art degree at the relatively prestigious college Goldsmiths, London in 2007. However I became quite unwell for the first time and quickly dropped out after causing a whole host of chaos. My subsequent hospitalisation and recover were truly devastating so by the time I restarted a fine art degree at Loughborough University I had something to prove. I felt it was my duty to push myself, taking on challenges that were truly daunting. For a while I experimented with immersive performance, this involved founding a cult based on agnosticism.  The goal was to lose track of whether or not I was joking and that the cult was indeed fictional. It was so evocative of my first experiences of mania and psychosis that I effectively induced these states and that summer I was in hospital again. Broken and medicated I picked up animation as a way of directly processing some of the trauma of my treatment and illness. I was haunted by having injections forced upon me by a team of nurses when I was running around wild on the hospital ward. Animation was a means to an end at the start but it also fitted well within my desire to push myself. I like to think of the medium as a multi-dimensional canvas. If you can picture it you can animate it. The only limitations are time and energy.

How would you say that you feel when you do art, when you express yourself through art? 

The whole process is utterly stimulating; animation challenges me as a writer, journalist, director, draftsman, actor and mechanic.  But often animation is very methodical. After the initial planning you are more or less locked into an intricate process for rendering. I find this sort of intense and rhythmic process soothing.  It reminds me of a math class at school where you are taught a complicated formula, you repeat the exercise and then move onto the next similar problem. There is also an extraordinary feeling with hand drawn animation when you piece it all together towards the end of the day and see the scene in motion for the first time. I’ve never found this suspense and release in any other medium.  It makes me very happy.

Do you often like to undertake a social range of issues in your art as you did with the Patients documentary?

I’ve become increasingly interested in animation as a tool for exploring real-world topics where often live-action might fall short. While researching and writing for the blog animateddocumentary.com I was constantly amazed by the new ways artists use animation to explore factual content. These stories deserve so much more than a talking-head interview or reenactment. Initially I didn’t see my work as serving a critical social function. Patients, for instance, was primarily indulging my own need for catharsis. As the project developed I ultimately saw its value as a tool to help people understand what madness felt like. Now that I’m making films about other people, from the start of the process I have to be much more aware of the socio-political framework that encompasses their stories.

And talking about Art and Social issues, Patients and your latest reworking of that project, actually are a great presentation of a very big issue of our society: mental illness. What did inspire you to occupy with an edgy and so alive issue like this?

It’s nice that not everyone assumes that these films are biographical. They most definitely are, but still, it’s comforting that sometimes people assume they’re no more than an artistic and journalistic endeavour.  The truth is that they are painfully close to my heart. Part of the value of these films is that when I look back at my most difficult experiences, those traumatic images have now been substituted by my drawings. This pain has been so heavily processed I often perceive the scenes I’ve made in my films rather than a direct memory. I feel very blessed that I can use art in this way. Mental illness is a very tangible and pervasive phantom in all our lives. If you have never been affected directly you may at least know someone who has, yet until recently in Britain there was a strong convention not to talk openly about this topic. Charities like Mind and Time To Change had genuinely shaped the landscape when it comes to stigma. I hope my films made a modest contribution. 

William Shakespeare used to say that the purpose of Art is to give life shape.  Do you feel that art can really reflects the real life without senses of exaggerations?

I don’t worry that exaggeration is a problem. The films I make have carefully translated, condensed and articulated experiences as honestly as possible. Their value comes from the accuracy of these processes.

What do you manage to bring off through your animated documentary in which you cover that kind of issues? (Feelings or beliefs)

The premise behind Patients was to create the clearest and most accurate depiction of psychosis I could muster. Madness is often perceived as horrifyingly nonsensical, but for the most part it feels like a muddle of your existing persona and experiences mixed with a bit of fantasy and fear. I wanted to do my best to smooth over some of these ambiguities and depict a simple sequence of events that lead the protagonist to realise they might be unwell. With Patients I hope to make psychosis less scary, where as my retrospective film, Animated attempts at documenting mental illness, made use of the rough and more expressive animation tests I’d made to capture the frenzied sensations of psychosis. While these did nothing to make psychosis seem less intimidating, it was a more honest representation.

Do you believe that a diagnosis of mental illness can put the personality of the ill person aside and degrade him as a human being?

From what I see this is certainly becoming a more popular perspective in psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Doctors identified two episodes of psychosis in my life. This is indisputable. However I’ve never been given a diagnosis of an underlying condition that causes this. My doctor’s exact words were that I have ‘Alex Widdowson’s disease’.  He said that as I didn’t neatly fit any of the diagnostic models there was no use in labelling me. Yet I have older colleagues from Sage Community Arts, a mental health charity where I was artist in residence, who were been given a different set of diagnosis every ten years, never quite fitting any of them. If the label helps you, your loved ones or medical professionals more easily understand what is happening then I think that shouldn’t be suppressed. But I’m also much happier with the newer, more open-minded model adopted by parts of the British psychiatric services. However I need to remind myself that mine is a story of successful treatment. I feel like I was treated incredibly well and was able to recover quit effectively. I’m aware that some people had a terrible time and perceive the psy-professions with great suspicion.  

FEAR is the number one reason why people treat mentally ill people the wrong way and why ill people live under the “stigma” of illness. What place do you believe that FEAR occupies in our lives and how would you advise someone to control it?

I’m sure it was tougher in the past but personally I feel like I’ve encountered very little discrimination in my life. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by supportive and sympathetic friends who I can be open with. They project little judgment or unnecessary concern. However my circumstances dictate how open I am about my history of mental illness. When I started working in a more strait-laced job, as a graphic designer, it just didn’t feel appropriate to expose myself that way. Even though I am a little secretive I believe that if I ever became ill I would maintain the respect I’ve earned, be given time recover and be invited back to work. Essentially, I feel safe. What really worries me is the potential doubt in people’s minds that I am not aware of. I cannot calculate or predict this. For all I know it doesn’t exist. So sometimes I find it easier in a professional situation to restrict it to a need to know basis. I would say this is an important skill I have learnt. I was so open about my issues at the beginning, not because I felt safe or wanted to address stigma but because I was so uncertain about my experiences I compulsively put details out there to see how people reacted. If they dealt with it badly I knew not to trust them and vice versa. It wasn’t until I found some inner peace that I was able to choose when to talk about it.

Do you think that the common opinion assists the regulatory function of the psychiatric professions and why do we need to be normal to live?

The idea of being normal is ridiculous. It sounds to me like a synonym for being boring or scared. For instance, I don’t really trust anyone who enjoyed being a teenager.  These people confuse me. It’s my guess that these are also the ones who strive to be normal. I believe one should nurture their eccentricities.

I often work with the Philadelphia Association in London, set up by R.D. Laing in the 60s. He was a very well known counterculturalist who helped spark the anti-psychiatry movement. He questioned our rigid perceptions of sanity and madness asking whether it is indeed our society that is sick. Laing asks: ‘Who is more dangerous? The psychotic who mistakenly believes he carries a hydrogen bomb in his stomach or the perfectly adjusted B-52 bomber pilot who will drop very real hydrogen bombs when ordered to do so?’ These sentiments seem entirely relevant in the past 15 years of British foreign politics and the financial crisis. Our government waged two seemingly pointless wars in order to keep our American friends happy.  Five years later the financial sector started to realise they had conceptualised the practices of lending and debt so far beyond its rational definition that the entire system imploded. Yet rather than Tony Blair being condemned as a war criminal he was made peace envoy to the Middle East; rather than prosecuting bankers for corruption the state propped up the banks. These absurdities exist at all levels, in all parts of society and in the individual. I believe those happy healthy “normal” people are just as scared and conflicted as the psychotic if you dig down a little.

How do you think mental ill people should be treated and what should change on the function of the psychiatric wards so ill people can have a better and more balanced and comradely way of life?

From what I remember I went through some pretty extreme experiences on those psychiatric wards, but in no way do I disapprove of how I was treated. When I was lucid I was offered extraordinary levels of respect and patients, and when I was at my worst I believe they restrained and sedated me for my own protection. I don’t think there is much of an issue about how patients are currently dealt with in the UK other than the funding cuts. Austerity measures imposed by the Conservative government have had a massive impact on resources for the treatment of mental illness. The inpatient clinic where I was last hospitalised has been shut down.  For me this is the real battleground.

And coming to an end, i would like to know if you are preparing something this season? 

I’m currently working on a short animated documentary about addiction but it’s a little early to really go into any detail.

A wish for Animartists

I was really struck by an Oscar Wilde quote brought to my attention by the experimental animator, Paul Bush: ‘The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’

 

Alex Widdowson: Documentary Animation MA Y1. New Student Presentation

Alex Widdowson

Contact:

  • alexander.widdowson@network.rca.ac.uk

Social Media: Facebook,  TwitterVimeo & Tumblr

Bio and animation practice:

In 2008 I dropped out of a Fine Art BA at Goldsmith’s College. Soon afterwards my mental health deteriorated and I was sectioned for drug induced psychosis brought on by cannabis abuse.

This was profoundly traumatic because I was experiencing delusions and hallucinations, while being confined for a month in a psychiatric ward whose staff practiced forceful restraint and sedation when necessary.

From 2009 to 2012 I made many animated documentaries about this during my BA in Fine Art at Loughborough University . Here is a short clip from a montage I made called Animated Attempts at Depicting Mental Illness (2015).

In the 8 years since this happened I have abstained from illicit drugs and developed strong insights into my mental health. I am personally committed to talking openly about my experiences. If you have any questions or ever need a sympathetic ear please feel free to approach me.

My artistic practice has developed as a form of self administered therapy. Below is an example of an illustration I created last year while experiencing difficult relationship problems. My contorted figurative style was influenced by what Chris Landreth referrers to as ‘psycho-realism’, a term he developed to describe his methodology in his animated documentary Ryan (2004)

art-is-therapy

I have been a contributing writer for the blog AnimatedDocumentary.com since 2013; publishing over 40 articles, attending animation festivals and working closely with my co-authors and copy editors Alys Scott-Hawkins, Ellie Land, Carla MacKinnon and Linnéa Haviland.

My practice was further developed at the Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark, where I attended the AniDox:Lab. This is an Animated Documentary professional development course where I learnt how to develop and pitch a project. While my film, PIGS, did not get funded the process of developing and animating the pitch trailer was invaluable.

In March 2016 I teamed up with Nick Mercer a psychotherapist and drugs addiction counsellor from the Philadelphia Association to make a film about addiction.

(Please email me if you would like to view or screen this film)

I’d like to close with a rather somber documentary I created after returning from a trip to Africa; Hours and Hours of Footage of Two Giraffes… (2014)