My most important artistic objective in this documentary film is to accurately express the emotional and factual truth of my subjects’ experience. Rarely is the voice of a person with mental illness heard in the media without sensationalism or hyperbole. I hope to realistically and respectfully convey the experience of the people in this film without unnecessarily highlighting the novel aspects of their mental illness. I hope to portray their lives so that viewers can understand their inner reality — their emotional frame of reference — as vividly as if these were people they knew in real life.
In rendering this truth, I have to approach the issues without prejudice. Is mental illness a chemical imbalance in the brain? Or is mental illness a Western construct rooted in science? Is mental illness karmic retribution for deeds done wrong in a previous life, as many Buddhists believe? Is the treatment of mental disorders with pharmaceutical drugs a panacea? The very concept of mental illness assumes a distinct separation between the physical body and the mind. Science sometimes seems to presuppose that there is no spirit or soul. When cultural epistemologies cross and merge, lines between objective facts and social constructs become blurred.
In many Asian cultures, expression of one’s feelings is an admission of weakness. Most Asian Americans seek treatments such as herbal medicine or acupuncture for problems which, by Western definition, would be considered psychological in nature. In many Eastern medicinal theories, no discrete lines exist between the physical, psychological and spiritual. While psychosis may be considered a mental illness in many Asian cultures, depression or alcoholism may not be considered a form of mental illness. Many Asian cultures associate mental illness with psychotic behaviors, rather than the numerous mild to moderate mental disorders as defined by The Diagnostic Statistical Manual, published by the American Psychiatric Association. In some Asian languages, the word for “depression” does not exist. On the other hand, there are no English-language equivalents for frequently cited pathologies in Asian cultures. The chasm between Asian-American systems of belief and the world of modern psychiatry is vast.
Asian-American communities combine the culture and lore of their homelands with American customs and values. It is this confluence of disparate beliefs, with all of its inherent contradictions, that defines Asian America, that we will explore in this film. We will investigate the cultural myths, beliefs, and folklore surrounding the issue of mental illness. The perspective of the film will not, for the purpose of creating balance, implicitly endorse the biomedical view of mental illness.
Through the production and distribution of Can, the producer hopes to diminish the stigma surrounding mental illness that is endemic to some Asian and Asian-American cultures. Through visually effective storytelling that is emotionally engaging, we hope to build consensus against socially stigmatizing people with mental illness. We hope to educate the broader population about the experience of mental illness from an Asian-American perspective, and to instigate meaningful dialogue about this taboo topic in Asian-American communities. By dispelling the taboo power of mental illness, we hope to dissipate the denial and shame surrounding the subject. We want to improve the quality of public discourse about the subject of mental illness, and step up the ensuing search for answers.