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Following her smash hit I Am Eleven, Australian ﬁlmmaker Genevieve Bailey was inspired to ﬁnd more diverse and positive portrayals of men exploring their emotional selves.
Her new film, Happy Sad Man, gives an unforgettable voice to the complex emotional landscapes we can all traverse. Touching, funny and tender, this must-see documentary is set to shine a light on and change the dialogue around masculinity and mental health today. Exploring hopes, anxieties, joy and darkness the raw vulnerability of these stories will inspire you to hold some of the men in your life that bit closer.
“It’s been quite challenging to know that over the next month I will be hearing about other people’s trauma, so I need to be mindful of how to look after myself.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Your production company is called Proud Mother Productions. I’m interested to know what inspired the name.
I often say that my films are like my babies. They have their gestation periods, then they’re born. Then you send them out into the world, and like any proud parent you hope they have a good life and you stay with them and watch them go out. I think that’s the same as making a film. Fifty percent of the process is making the film and fifty percent is making people see the film. I’m quite hands on with audience engagement and I like being in the cinema and talking with audiences after and hearing what people thought of it. An integral part of the filmmaking process, to me, is watching the film be received.
One thing I know about psychology is that the first question you’re asked about is your family, or your mother. It has nothing to do with your own mother?[Laughs]. Funnily enough, that image you see in the Proud Mother Productions logo is my mum. She used to be a singer. A few years ago, when I Am Eleven came out, she was giving people flyers and someone said to me, “That must be why your company is called Proud Mother, because she’s so proud.” I told that person that I had never thought of that, and mum said, “What? Isn’t it named after me?” [Laughs]. I always knew I had a proud mother, but I guess I thought more of it in terms of my relationship with film.
Happy Sad Man opens with you asking one of your subjects the question, “I want to know, who are you?”
So Gen, I want to know, who are you?
[Laughs]. Very good. I’m so used to being the one to ask questions. Who am I? When I made I Am Eleven people would ask me what I was like when I was eleven. I would tell them that I’m still pretty much the same person. I think I’ve always been a curious person and I’ve always been interested in difference. When I was in grade six I always wanted to hang out with the prep kids and older people. I’ve always been curious about being around people who aren’t the same as me or my family. I guess that lead me into making documentaries and understanding people. I’m a pretty compassionate person and I’m also very playful. I’m like a dog. I’m curious and playful. [Laughs].
It’s not easy getting into documentary filmmaking in Australia. Was there ever a time when you wanted to be a narrative filmmaker?
I started off doing fiction. When I was studying at film school I was making fiction and films that were experimental. When I was in fourth year, I got an email from a filmmaking group saying there was a guy who was looking for someone to shoot a music tour and his name was John. That’s how I actually met John Anderson from this film. So my first documentary was a bit of a baptism of fire following John Anderson around with a folk band and musicians. That was when I started to become seduced by the idea of storytelling when I didn’t write the story myself and it was someone else’s truth. I have ideas for fiction films, but over the last decade I’ve been really focused on docos and I love them. I love that you have to be spontaneous and so much more flexible than when you’re writing a fiction script and you know what’s going to happen at the start, middle and end.
Happy Sad Man focuses on five men; John, Jake, David, Grant and Ivan. How did you decide on these five individuals?
I started with John, and I could have made a whole documentary about John. There’s a lot going on there and he has so many stories to share. I was also spending time with David and I would talk about David at length to people who hadn’t met him. I really find David a very magnetic and enchanting person, but also a very clear communicator and storyteller as well. I suppose I was thinking about images of men today in the media and I thought that the kind of guys I hang out with aren’t necessarily the guys we traditionally see on our screens. I thought they were much more interesting and much more insightful than our political leaders and people who are making decisions for our country and our environment rather than just John’s. I met Jake on a film I was making. He was based in Afghanistan and coming back and forward. I was spending time with him in Melbourne and he would head off again into conflict and post-conflict zones. I thought his was a very different story I could share. I met Grant through a friend of a friend and the same with Ivan. These five guys had their own way of articulating highs and lows and ups and downs and what we can do to be there for ourselves, but also be there for other people. That was a big motivating factor for me. Most people will say they will be there for their mates, but what does that actually look like? How do we actually do that when things do get difficult? I’m really passionate about that side of the film’s impact. I want people to think about how we can be there for other people.
Was there ever going to be more men?
With I Am Eleven, I was very unconventional in that there are 25 kids in that film. I thought if I had any more men in this film for every minute I put in of a new guy, I’d have to cut a minute of these guys. So five felt like the right number to get to know them without having to trim too heavily.
Why did you decide to focus only on men?
I guess it was because of Johnny. When I met him in film school, he was more than twice my age and we became like an unconventional duo. We don’t really see a lot of images of men exploring their interior world and expressing their emotions the way that John does. As a woman, not only do men need to see role models of other men expressing their emotions, but I think women need to see that as well. The statistics are in Australian, that seventy five percent of suicides in Australia are men. While women suffer just as much from mental health issues as men, it’s also really important to know that in Australia, if you’re a male aged between fifteen and forty-four, the biggest risk to your life is yourself. Every day there’s seven to eight suicides in Australia, but for every death there’s actually more than two hundred attempts a day. I felt compelled that we needed to have more images of men expressing their vulnerability as a strength rather than a weakness. No one benefits from the idea of “man up”. I have so many reasons why I felt the need to explore this idea through the eyes of men, because I think we all need to see more of that.
Did it take much to convince these guys to be a part of the project?
The guys all have their own ways of expressing that during Q&As. David always says that when I finished I Am Eleven, I would always have the camera with me and we would start shooting. It was always conversational and playful. What I’m glad about is that all the guys were able to see the vision that we had for this project and that it could have a positive impact in the world. They were then able to set aside any discomfort they had about seeing themselves on screen in certain moments and realise it could help other people. I’m really glad that they’re proud of it. As a filmmaker I want the people who are collaborating with me to also be proud of the film.
All five men are so different. Other than mental illness, did they have anything else in common?
I think now that the film is out, the guys have talked about the bond that we all share. Each of them have spoken about or shared their stories in a way that’s public. Before they all met you could grab them and put them in a room and I would say that they wouldn’t have crossed paths otherwise. That’s what I love about making documentaries is that you get to bring together people on screen, but also in the audience. At a recent screening a woman in the audience put her hand up and thanked us for the film. She told us the film made her feel like she was just hanging out with us and that she felt like one of our friends. It brings people together. One woman was eighty-two and she said she wishes she had seen the film when she was younger so she didn’t feel like she as so alone. One woman was a coroner who sees a lot of male suicides. We had one guy in Melbourne who really summarised exactly what I had hoped the film would achieve. It’s been really special to see how the film has been received by such diverse audiences. I feel like we have a broad demographic for this film. I’m proud about that.
Each one of the guys were making efforts to help themselves. They were active and they were part of a community whether it be surfing, photography or performance art. Is that one of the messages you’d like people to take away from this film?
Yeah. Sometimes there’s a lot of awareness raising about mental health. A lot of people get to a point where they’re aware, but wonder what’s next? That’s why it’s very important to be there for other people. We acknowledge that people talk about their struggles to a family member or a GP, and be met with unhelpful words. That can deter you from talking about it any more. Grant talks in the film about the fact that his parents have been supportive and helped him go from doctor to doctor until he found a good one. I make the comparison to hairdressers. There are so many hairdressers to choose from, but if you got a really bad haircut you would go back to that hairdresser. Grant says in the film that telling someone that they should suck it up because there are people out there worse off than you is like telling someone who is happy not to be happy because there are people out there happier than you. Isn’t that a really powerful way of summing it up?
Do you have a background in psychology?
[Laughs]. It’s quite funny you ask that. I don’t. I feel like this has been a PHD in psychology. When my last film screened, Professor Pat Mcgorry, who runs Origin Mental Health, came to a screening and he actually commented that seeing me speak is a similar style to how he works with people he’s seeing as a psychiatrist. I think I’ve learnt over the years to have big ears and be a good listener. A lot of the time we just need to be heard. We live in such a busy culture now, but a lot of the time people aren’t listening or connecting with nature and are always so short of time. I always try to keep my ears open and connect with people in person rather than through a screen.
How’s your own mental health after this experience.
The journey of making the film was intense. But I can honestly say that to release it and now and tour around Australia with it has been a huge thing to undertake because the film encourages people who watch it to open up. It’s been quite challenging to know that over the next month I will be hearing about other people’s traumas so I need to be mindful of how to look after myself. For me, that’s listening to good music, spending time in nature, being in the ocean, and connecting with good people and animals. I’m mindful that this isn’t going to be a short release because we’re going to be doing a lot of impact screenings in regional areas so I’m mindful that as an empathetic person, It can be quite tough on me.
Happy Sad Man is out now. Here’s where you can see it.