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SIFF 2009, Day 24

June 14, 2009

Poppy Shakespeare
(2008) Dir. Banjamin Ross

From Blogger
One June 14th, the festival was over. Winners were announced, but as the festival wasn't yet over, films were still being screened. I attended one last film, which is among my favorites this year, Poppy Shakespeare.

Poppy's story is told through the eyes of her friend, N (Anne Maxwell Martin) at the the Dorthy Fisher mental health day care center they are required to attend. Poppy (Naomie Harris) is different from the other patients that spend their weekdays at the center. Poppy doesn't believe she belongs there. Poppy isn't mentally ill and is required to attend as some sort of mistake due to a questionnaire. N knows that system inside and out and like everyone else at the center, spends her time making certain that she remains forever within the safety of the Dorthy Fisher. So despite not understanding why Poppy would want to leave, she agrees to help her, but there is a nasty catch 22. In order to prove that Poppy is sane, she has to first prove she is crazy, so she can qualify for mad money and get legal representation to prove that she is in fact sane.

Poppy Shakespeare provides a rare and highly accurate glimpse into the lives of the mentally ill and in doing so, it moves with ease between humor and tragedy while bringing to light real problems with the systems that treat crazy people. This was such a wonderful film with totally unique and amazing characters that I was completely captivated by. The film, made for British television, is based on the eponymous book by Clare Allan. Clare Allan spent 10 years in a mental health treatment facility and writes about mental health issues for The Guardian. This background lends a lot of plausibility to the characters and their circumstances.

And I recognized this immediately. While the British medical system is vastly different from the American one, I immediately recognized some similarities. Or at least one big one. Once one has acquired a diagnosis for a psychological condition, it is a very difficult thing to shake. Despite all of the treatment and rehabilitation, it is challenging to prove sanity. And if anyone believes that someone might be a threat to the safety of themselves or anyone else, the patient immediately loses control of their own treatment, of their future really. Not that I would know about any of this.

But probably the most interesting aspect of Poppy Shakespeare is the depiction of the world of the day center and those who inhabit it. It appears to be an alternate reality. Many of those within this world know little of life outside of the mental health system and the rules and coping strategies are so radically different, that it is amazing that anyone who spends time inside that world finds their way out. But while the film depicts the apparently hopeless situation, Poppy Shakespeare rarely becomes tragic in tone and remains ultimately optimistic, quirky and often quite funny. The world of N is not a tragic one. She is not overwhelmed by the sadness of Poppy's situation, but instead N's world remains bright and off beat.


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