Name a documentary on Netflix and the likelihood is I've seen it, especially if it is a serial killer documentary. Don't even think about sitting there and judging me - we all do it! The reason they are so fascinating to me is because they are so far from what I am that I can't understand how people could do that. There! Happy now? Feel reassured? Good.
Seriously though, documentaries have the power to influence change. Look at Blackfish. Thanks to the success of the documentary, highlighting the barbaric treatment of orcas, Seaworld was forced to end its orca breeding program.
I am a fiercely passionate mental health advocate, if you didn't know already. I strive to play an active role in supporting the conversation around men's mental health, which is why I said yes, instantly, to reviewing Jonny White's documentary The Voices of Men. In the UK, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. Anyone choosing to take their own life is a tragedy, but these figures highlight just how much of an issue it is amongst men. We need to do more, and we all have a part to play - even if we don't think we do.
White, a filmmaker and digital artist, asked men from across the UK to send in voice recordings detailing their experiences of mental health issues. When I originally received a brief overview of what the documentary would touch on, I expected to see faces looking directly into camera, so I was surprised to see this was not the case. Nonetheless, the documentary is just as, if not more, impactful without seeing a single individual in face on.
Now, just like the documentary so responsibly does, I'm going to take the opportunity to pop in a trigger warning. The documentary, and this review, discusses themes some people may find difficult to read about, including depression, anxiety, bipolar and suicide. Please do only continue reading if you feel able to and reach out for support if you need it.
I'm going to get straight to the point. White's documentary really is incredibly powerful and emotive. Created to fight the stigma attached to men's mental health and expressing their emotions, White's documentary goes a long way to shining a light on the mental health issues men face, often behind closed doors. Unlike a physical illness, mental illnesses can be masked by those living with one, an approach men often take in fear of being judged or deemed weak. We need to change this and make sure no one feels ashamed to talk about their mental health.
I'll be honest, it is very raw. I came away feeling deeply moved by the documentary. But isn't that what we need as a catalyst for change? To feel deeply moved?
The documentary importantly highlights how each person's experience can differ from one individual to the next. Each man, who so bravely shares their experience, has a unique story to tell. They explain how they tried to cope with the trauma they were experiencing and how the illness affected them mentally and physically. They reveal how, sometimes, the pain drove them to even consider ending their own life as a way to make it all end.
Many of the shots, I found, were filmed from the point of view of the individual talking, with the odd feature of part of someone's face. I think this carefully thought out approach of only showing part of someone's face highlights how talking about mental health publicly is still unthinkable for some. Many men feel unable to come forward because of the stigma attached to talking about mental health.
Filming from the point of view of the person is another engrossing technique, as it helps you to understand what it might feel like to be in their shoes. This approach, combined with the regular glimpses of abandoned car parks, streets and bus shelters amplifies the isolation people can often experience when faced with a mental health issue. The effects of a mental health illness can force those who live with it to spectate on the outskirts of life, unable to connect and embrace the hussle and bussle of life because their illness simply won't allow them to.
Perhaps I am more sensitive to this than others, having suffered with depression and anxiety myself, but the visual effects and sounds, which are quite sombre at times, are highly effective in immersing people in what having a mental health condition looks like. The colour, as the documentary effectively demonstrates, is drained of vibrancy, just like the person.
As one of the men so rightly says on the documentary, mental health is treated as though it's not a disease. It is, and just like every physical illness that threatens life, we need to do more to educate ourselves on the signs and symptoms. We need to look out for each other. We need to be there for each other. And, most importantly, we need to normalise men talking about their emotions and their mental health.
When I saw the final scene of the documentary, as shown above, I couldn't help but feel it represented optimism for the future. A newer, brighter day with a clearer sky. I hope that's what this documentary achieves - real meaningful change.
To watch The Voices of Men here