Seven things you should see at this year’s Rendezvous With Madness Festival

This story is sponsored by Workman Arts.


As mantras go, it’s one that we’ve heard endlessly over the past year and a half: “We’re all in this together” And as important as those words are, the reality is that, for many of us, finding community, friendship and a place to belong has never been more of a struggle. These have been life-changing times that have challenged the strength of everyone, and there’s zero shame in acknowledging that.

If anything, we deserve credit for persevering, especially those of us faced with mental health and/or addiction issues that have somehow been magnified by COVID-19. And it’s important to remember that we all need to continue going above and beyond to help raise awareness. To that end, enter the 2021 edition of the Rendezvous With Madness Festival, where the arts will once again serve as a springboard for talking about, and celebrating, the strength it takes to come through difficult times.

The first, and biggest, mental-health-focused arts festival in the world, Rendezvous With Madness celebrates its 29th year this October 28 to November 7. Given the way the COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecendented-in-modern-times isolation, anxiety, and financial uncertainty for many, there’s an iron-clad argument to be made that the fest has never been more timely or important.

Spotlighted this year are 68 short and feature films from 18 countries around the world. Binding those films together is the message that, just as we’re all in this together, we’re all humans facing very human – and therefore relatable – challenges.

What to see at the festival

POLY STYRENE: I AM A CLICHÉ, 2021.
Image still from Celeste Bell and Paul Sng’s POLY STYRENE: I AM A CLICHÉ, 2021.

So while the subject of the award-winning documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché was a first-wave punk rock legend and feminist icon to her legions of fans, at home the X-Ray Spex singer born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said waged a life-long battle with mental illness while doing her best to be a good mom to her daughter.

The Testament of Oliver, 2019.
Image still from Jessica Nilsson’s The Testament of Oliver, 2019.

Putting a human face on those we often see on the streets, The Testament Of Oliver finds Danish filmmaker Jessica Nilsson chronicling her friendship with Oliver Juvonen-Peel – a man living with schizophrenic and alcohol use disorder who drinks to mitigate his psychiatric issues. The catch-22 is that his chronic drinking makes him unable to get help at mental health facilities while securing treatment for his alcoholism at outpatient clinics is next to impossible because he’s flagged as being mentally ill.

Generational addiction is the focus of both Michigan filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax’s North By Current and Los Angeles-based documentarian Jessica Earnshaw’s Jacinta. And Iran’s Numbness uses humour to address bipolar disorder, gambling addiction, and codependence.

Chelsea Watson Self // Isolation, 2021
Chelsea Watson Self // Isolation, 2021.

Rendezvous With Madness’ virtual exhibition component In(Site) includes seven projects and performances. Chelsea Watson’s Self // Isolation will resonate with, well, everyone; the work chronicles her COVID-19 mental struggles with digitally manipulated self-portraits taken while self-isolating at home during the pandemic. Coal Mines and Tree Tops finds autistic artist Dani Crosby dissecting his experiences from a uniquely personal perspective.

For those longing for a return to something resembling pre-pandemic normalcy – whatever normalcy might be – live-theatre performances are also part of this year’s celebration. Rosa Laborde’s True tackles family trauma through the prism of Alzheimer’s in a way that’s as playful as it is poignant.

A testament to our collective perseverance

The importance of joining the conversation is a huge part of destigmatizing mental health and addiction issues. The best way to move the dial forward is to talk about what’s going on inside. Reflecting that reality, Rendezvous With Madness includes workshops, panels, and Q&A sessions that will give both artists and audiences the opportunity to talk about how art is a gateway to understanding mental health and addiction issues.

As one might hope, inclusivity is a huge part of the festival, with all tickets offered as Pay What You Wish. Audiences will have the option of attending virtually or in person.

For those new to Rendezvous With Madness, the festival is one of the ongoing success stories of Workman Arts, which proudly bills itself as the longest-running multidisciplinary arts and mental health organization in Canada. Founded in Toronto in 1987 by former psychiatric nurse Lisa Brown, Workman Arts started out as a small theatre company with a mandate to empower artists while fostering a greater understanding of mental health issues.

Placing an emphasis on peer-to-peer arts education and arts community partnerships, it’s grown into a powerhouse with over 475 artists under its umbrella. As much as COVID-19 has presented unprecedented challenges, the film, theatre and art projects Workman Arts is highlighting this year are a testament to our collective perseverance.

We’re all looking to feel like we belong – to connect with communities of like-minded and understanding people. More than ever, Rendezvous With Madness is there to not only help guide you, but, perhaps even more importantly, use art to empower.  

The Rendezvous With Madness Festival runs from October 28 to November 7. For the complete schedule go to workmanarts.com.

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