Empathy in action

Try Walking in My Shoes: Empathy and Portrayals of Mental Illness on Screen

The Dax Centre, University of Melbourne, 13 & 14 February 2014

As a film scholar, the study of emotions is central to my work. Films have long been called “moving pictures” and I like to think this isn’t just because of cinema’s origins in individual picture frames spliced together to create the illusion of movement. The term “moving pictures” captures for me the essence of the emotional experience of film viewing: films can move us to tears, to laughter, to fear. In my view, it’s impossible to talk of cinema (or indeed television) without also talking about emotions.

One particular emotion that film and television can elicit is empathy: the ability to share the emotions of another person, to imaginatively put yourself in their shoes. Screen media can tap into our capacity for empathy through a variety of techniques: for example, music can express a character’s emotional state; an actor can wordlessly convey their character’s emotions through facial expressions or gestures; a screenplay may use voice-over narration to give the audience privileged access to a character’s internal thoughts; or the director may externalise a character’s emotions through their choices of lighting and camera shots (eg. handheld ‘shaky’ camera work that mimics the character’s agitated emotional state). The significance of this empathetic relationship between the character on screen and the viewer lies in its ability to help us see the world from a perspective that may be different from our own. In this way, empathy provides insight and can lead to greater understanding.

My cinema studies PhD examined the portrayal of mental illness in a selection of feature films from Australia and New Zealand. While empathy was a key concept in my thesis, this focus only emerged in the final stages of research and writing (as happens so often in the PhD journey!). I was keen to return to the study of empathy and explore this more fully from an interdisciplinary perspective, looking beyond how film studies scholars have used the concept thus far, towards theorisations of empathy in history, psychology and philosophy.

The potency of empathy in film and television was the focus of a recent symposium Try Walking in My Shoes: Empathy and Portrayals of Mental Illness on Screen, which I co-convened with Dr Victoria Duckett (Deakin University) and Patricia Di Risio (University of Melbourne). The aim of the symposium was to explore the significance of empathy – as well as its limitations – for the depiction of mental illness in a range of screen media: feature films, documentaries, TV shows, and short films. The symposium was supported by CHE’s Shaping the Modern Program, and presented in collaboration with The Dax Centre, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes mental health and wellbeing by fostering a greater understanding of the mind, mental illness and trauma through art and creativity.

From the outset, it was important to us that we have a range of perspectives represented in the symposium’s program, given not only the richness of the theme of empathy but also the complexity and sensitivity of the subject of mental illness. We invited filmmakers, mental health professionals and consumers to join the conversation alongside screen studies scholars, who included postgraduates and early career researchers as well as established academics. The symposium brought these diverse groups together with the express purpose of encouraging dialogue and the sharing of information and insights across two days of presentations, screenings, workshops and tours of The Dax Centre’s gallery.

Our keynote speakers played a crucial role in setting up the theoretical framework for our discussions. Associate Professor Jane Stadler, from the University of Queensland, provided a comprehensive history of the various ways in which empathy has been theorised in screen studies, and she advanced our understanding of how empathy operates in relation to television’s long-running character arcs through her compelling close analysis of the NBC series Hannibal. In a wide-ranging survey of art and the history of film from the silent era until now, the University of Melbourne’s Professor Barbara Creed drew provocative links between humans and animals in her exploration of emotions and mental illness. Professor Raimond Gaita, also from the University of Melbourne, examined both the necessity and the limits of empathy – and its relationship to ethical concerns – to our understanding of mental illness. To illustrate his argument, Professor Gaita reflected upon his childhood and his parents’ experiences with mental illness, as portrayed in his much-loved memoir Romulus, My Father and the 2007 film adaptation, starring Eric Bana, Franka Potente and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

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Professor Gaita’s keynote beautifully ‘set the stage’ (indeed, the screen!) for our special event, an evening screening of Romulus, My Father, followed by a panel discussion with perinatal psychiatrist Dr Samuel Margis, script supervisor on the film Katherine Fry, myself and Raimond Gaita. These four panellists were intended to represent the range of perspectives we hoped to capture across the symposium: those of the mental health professional, the filmmaker, the academic, and the person with a lived experience (with Raimond uniquely contributing as philosopher, author and carer).

Romulus, My Father is a film I have watched many times for my research, but it had been quite a while since I had seen it on the big screen with an audience. The film’s stunning wide-screen photography of the landscape around Frogmore in rural Victoria, its haunting musical score and the luminescence of young Kodi Smit-McPhee’s face struck me anew. Watching this film in the presence of the person whose life was being recreated on screen – and who had earlier shared with us his candid reflections upon the film – was an incredibly poignant and privileged experience.

I thought I knew this film so well, that I was ill prepared for the emotional response it drew from me. As I watched Franka Potente’s performance as Christina (based on Raimond’s mother) in the scene where she decides to end her struggle with an undiagnosed mental illness and take her life, tears started to roll down my face. On one level, I imaginatively felt Christina’s pain, but I suspect my empathetic response was as much to the loss and grief I knew would soon be felt by her husband and son on screen and, more powerfully, towards the man sitting somewhere in the auditorium who had experienced this loss at such a young age.

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When the house lights went up after the end credits and the panellists gathered for their discussion, the tension and apprehension were palpable – how could anyone speak after such an intense communal viewing experience? In the end, it fell to me to acknowledge the atmosphere in the auditorium and to express our gratitude to Rai for being so generous in sharing his life with us, through his writing, through his keynote, and through this film. I’m not sure exactly what I said, as I was still dealing with my own emotional response, but several people have since told me they were glad I expressed what many people in the room were feeling that night.

This screening was a potent demonstration not only of the power of film to move us, but its ability to harness this emotional response and lead us to think about and reflect upon the experience of living with mental illness. Here was empathy in action.

Posted by Dr Fincina Hopgood

School of Culture and Communication

The University of Melbourne

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