A Personal Look at Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia Update, October 2002

Edmonton Journal September 11, 2002
LENGTH: 690 words

By Mike Sadava

Alex Viszmeg's film about schizophrenia doesn't have the Hollywood lustre of A Beautiful Mind, but his first-hand knowledge of the illness could take the viewer further into understanding the nature of the beast.

Viszmeg's 42-minute video Invisible Odyssey, which premieres Thursday night at the Metro Cinema, might be the first movie on the subject made by someone who suffers from schizophrenia.

At a preview he gave me Tuesday in the offices of FAVA, the Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta, I found the film to be enlightening, disturbing like a bad drug trip, at times overwhelming, yet striking a note of hope.

Interviews, electronic music, surrealistic poetry, clips from the classic Lon Chaney movie The Wolf Man and clips from an old National Film Board series about schizophrenia are interwoven with footage from Viszmeg's experimental films and random images.

It's not exactly pleasant viewing, hearing about the voices in people's heads, paranoia and the strange hallucinations, but it starts to give an inkling of what it's like to suffer from this illness.

In an interview in the FAVA smoking room (like most schizophrenics, Viszmeg is a chain smoker), he says he was concerned about turning people off when he made the movie, but he was also determined not to softpedal the reality of the disease. "It's sort of a sketch of what it's like. But everyone is individual, and everyone has his own story."

The upbeat ending comes from sufferers and medical professionals alike talking about the improvements in drug therapies, and how people with schizophrenia can improve their lives by doing activities they are passionate about. For example, an artist who describes how he takes refuge in sketching during the dark moments asserts that people with schizophrenia can be
productive, that they are not "discards" from society.

"I wanted the ending to be up -- it's a dark journey, but to come out of it with some hope."

This film has been the product of Viszmeg's journey through schizophrenia and more than 25 years' worth of involvement in film.

Now 48, he graduated from Ryerson in film arts in 1978. Acetate seems to run in the blood of the Viszmeg family -- his brother was the late Joe Viszmeg, a well-known Edmonton filmmaker who received national exposure for his moving films about his battle with cancer, which killed him three years ago.

A native of Cobourg, Ont., Alex moved to Edmonton in the 1980s after Joe was established here and was working at post-production and film processing, and making his own experimental films.

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1989, after what he calls a long period of denial.

Ironically, film, which has been his salvation, also may have contributed to the onset of schizophrenia. He was working in total darkness processing film, and his mind started playing tricks on him.

He has been living on a disability pension and is on medication, but thankfully on a dosage that's low enough that he doesn't suffer from the bloating that's a common side-effect of the drug therapy.

He got the idea for the video about five years ago, after noticing a dearth of information in the media about schizophrenia.

With support from the Canada Council, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and FAVA, he started production in 1999. He hopes it will get play in festivals and be used for educational purposes, and possibly be broadcast.

He says it's neither a narrative nor a documentary, but an effort to fit a bunch of pieces together. The clips from The Wolf Man, for instance, draw out a parallel between a mental illness and the mythical stigma of being a werewolf.

"The Wolf Man, he's torn inside about what's happening to him and he doesn't know what's going on."



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