Arts & Entertainment

New documentary trains a lens on those with bipolar disorder

A bipolar sufferer reads from his journal during the documentary film
A bipolar sufferer reads from his journal during the documentary film "Of Two Minds"

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Filmmaker Lisa Klein spent her early years watching her big sister, Tina, maneuver through the world with a larger-than-life personality. Relatives and friends called her wacky, eccentric, spontaneous.

But Klein says when she went home to Detroit to visit family, she’d often find her sister spending days lying in the dark.

"If she woke up in the morning and said, 'I’m depressed and can’t come to work' [people] would [say] 'Buck up,'" Klein recalls. "But if she had diabetes and said, 'I need to up my insulin,' they’d say, 'Okay, take a couple of days off.'"

What Klein and her family didn’t know until much later was that Tina suffered from bipolar disorder, a mental illness that caused her to surf extreme waves of mania and debilitating depression.

Klein says her sister’s illness wasn't treated and progressed, growing worse until finally, during a bout of depression, Tina killed herself at age 45.

Tina’s suicide inspired Klein and her husband, documentary filmmaker Douglas Blush, to tell the story of bipolar illness — and the stigma of mental illness in general — through the lens of those who live with it.

The subsequent film "Of Two Minds" portrays the daily challenges faced by the nearly six million people nationwide.

Or anyway, Blush says, that's the goal.

“We’ve seen a lot of the most extreme, the most newsworthy, the sort of sexy over-the-top behavior," Blush said. "And I think that a lot of people who both are dealing with bipolar and the families who are dealing around bipolar don’t experience that day-to-day."

Many of those suffering struggle to put on a happy face when they feel depleted, hiding their condition from employers or lovers for fear they’ll lose their job, their relationships or both.

Carlton Davis of Pasadena was one of four Southland residents featured in the documentary. He described his bipolar condition this way:

"Being bipolar is the roller coaster ride of your life! Everything's on full throttle," he said. "Like a race car! Nothing can stop you, then.... it dies."

Davis says he went through nearly 40 jobs over the course of six decades, ultimately giving up work as an architect.

"I knew there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know what," he says in the film. "I thought, 'I’m an artist, I’m tempermental. Artists are temperamental. I’m like Vincent Van Gogh.'”

Los Angeles makeup artist Cheri Keating described her heights of mania as "feeling like God."

"Of Two Minds" opens with a dance video Keating made of herself while on a manic high that shows the upside of bipolar, when everything feels light, fun and joyous.

But later in the documentary, we see the dark side of the illness when Cheri reads on camera from a passage in her journal:

"Around 5 p.m. a black cloud descended upon me," she reads aloud. "The same one I got stuck under on Tuesday, just the most rotten and foul mood. I don’t know what, if anything, triggered it but it was bad. Really bad, suicide bad."

She goes on to describe the challenges of getting out of bed, going to work, taking her meds. And then about how she could easily kill herself by taking all the anti-depressants and painkillers in her medicine cabinet.

When she finishes reading, she’s asked by Klein how that writing makes her feel in retrospect.

"It scares me," Cheri responds. "Because I feel certain that I’ll be there again. Do I really want to die? Do I really want to end my life? Or is it that I just want the pain to end?"

The film also features the life of a Philadelphia Weekly columnist, who blogs and makes YouTube videos about her illness; a former lawyer who authored a book about the disease; and Cheri’s on-again-off-again former boyfriend, Petey, an artist and musician who, ironically, was also diagnosed as bipolar during the making of the film.

"Of Two Minds” is among the films featured in the Docu-Weeks series sponsored by the International Documentary Association that screens at at Laemmle Noho 7 in North Hollywood starting Friday afternoon through next Thursday night.