HAPPY SAD MAN. Australia, 2019. Directed by Genevieve Bailey. 100 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).
In 2011, Genevieve Bailey released her first film as director, I Am 11. She had decided that 11 was an interesting age to explore, the transition from childhood to puberty, tracking a number of children throughout the world, boys and girls, in Australia and in different countries including Asia.
Since then she has been on the move, but very much around Australia. In this documentary, she explores the lives of five men whom she has known over the years. They are quite distinctive, each having his own story, sometimes very curious, which will interest the audience. However, they also have a common denominator. Each of them has some kind of mental illness experience. She herself appears as a character in the film, explaining her friendship with each of the men, sometimes appearing in the interviews, sharing their life experiences with them.
The first character we are introduced to is John. And he is quite a character, born in Broken Hill, moving around the country, settling in Melbourne, odd relationships with his children, a scrawny kind of character to look at and meet. In many ways he is the anchor of the film, the first one introduced, seen frequently throughout the film, and having the last word. Whether he would be too difficult to encounter in real life, one wonders, but certainly on screen he has many engaging moments, singing and playing a musical instrument, some dancing, a lot of travel, different meetings with his sons, concerns about his health. So, John sets the tone.
The second character, Jake (for Jacob) certainly arouses the interest. He worked as a cinematographer for Genevieve Bailey herself and had an ambition to be a film photographer. However, he made a decision to be a travelling photographer, going to war zones, especially in connection with the Syrian Civil War. There is a lot of graphic footage that he has collected, especially in the ruined city of Aleppo. He is of a Muslim background, relating very well to his earnest mother and his Australian grandmother who is very outspoken in her praise of her grandson, his causes, and critical of those not caught up in the same concern and enthusiasm. Jake also has a daughter in France with whom he has little contact. He has to make decisions about travelling the world or settling back in Australia.
And then we move on to Grant (and he says it is pronounced with a long a vowel sound because he comes from New Zealand). He is a genial man to meet, a surfer. However, after some time he is diagnosed as bipolar and not only lives with the consequences but ultimately, becomes a campaigner for awareness for mental health. This is especially true with gathering people on Bondi Beach, dressing up in carnival fashion, a celebration of joy for those with mental health difficulties. His campaigns continue.
And what to make of David? If we thought John was a touch eccentric, David is even more so. Tall, good-looking, bespectacled, putting on weight, living at home with his mother, a sense of humour which has more than its moments of weirdness. Probably best to describe in as a performance artist, with a huge long beam as an extended hand greeting people at Sydney’s Opera House, setting up some kinds of performance spaces, especially with his dog Teena and the plan to make a perfume which smells of dog!! He even appears on the Today Show, ready to enjoy his eccentricities – but the hosts receiving a lot of emails condemning them for setting him up and mocking him. David seems resigned – and happy to continue, despite his mental health issues, with his comic performances.
Which means that the last man to be introduced, Ivan, seems to be living a fairly calm and ordered life. A farmer, married twice and with sons, actually devotes himself to travelling around to farms and properties, to country towns, talking with men, a sympathetic listener, someone who is well aware of mental illness, the possibilities of suicide, but is able to be a calm presence, enabling people to speak their minds and their feelings, the most sympathetic character.
As with the title, Genevieve Bailey looks at both the happiness and sadness in their lives, men who are actually prepared to reveal something of themselves in the states and feelings, both happy and sad men.
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Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.