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What Do You Do When Your Star Quits Your Film?

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It was a shocker. The star of my documentary, Out of Mind, Out of Sight: Inside the Brockville Psych, was quitting. Michael Stewart, my dream subject, the patient I wanted more than any other of the 59 forensic psychiatric patients -- the people they used to call the "criminally insane" -- at the Brockville Mental Health Centre, was pulling out.

There he stood with his excellent manners telling me politely that he did not want to be in my film, or discuss his tragic case or for that matter have anything further to do with me, not now or ever. And for the next few months, cut me dead.

Welcome to the cruel realities of the world of documentary making. It's supposed to get easier when you've won four Emmys. Don't you believe it. This was a disaster.

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What set Michael off from all the other patients? Although he had committed a horrible, brutal act of violence, ironically he was the most powerful tool I had to soften the public's views of forensic psychiatric patients. It sounds crazy but it was impossible not to love Michael.

For one thing anyone who looked at him could see how tormented he was. You could practically see his demons buzzing about his head, hooting and laughing and shrieking. In mid-conversation he would break off to look up in the direction of something that was not there - his voices, perhaps (known as command hallucinations) telling him to do bad things. In 2002, the voices apparently told him to kill his mother, June...I say "apparently" because no one but Mike really knows.

One of the things that distinguish sufferers from mental illness who kill, from the killers in the prison system I have met, is the degree of guilt. "People suffering from schizophrenia kill family members," says Dr. John Bradford, Michael's shrink in the film. "Once they recover, they then realize they've done this terrible, terrible thing. Michael has never forgiven himself." His remorse was so powerful it was almost crippling.

No patient moved the nurses more than Michael. They'd see him walking around pouring out his anguish and self-loathing: "How could I have done it? How could I have done it? I loved this person. What is wrong with me?" One night he saw a pool of urine on the floor and became deeply agitated. He rushed up to the nursing station, deeply distraught: "Is that blood? Is that blood on the floor?"

Seeing his suffering you could not hate or be angry with this young man. I passionately believed his presence in the film could help convince Canadians that forensic psychiatric patients were not the monsters they were so often portrayed as - including Michael himself . But he was slipping out of my grasp.

Steve Duffy, the hospitals' Director of Patient Care, gave me some wise but daunting advice: "Sufferers from schizophrenia are very up and down. They've just changed his meds; it'll probably get worse before he gets better. But he may well come round. Be patient with the patient."

Patience is a very expensive commodity when you are making a film. How long was this going to take? Fortunately Silva Basmajian, my executive producer from the National Film Board of Canada and one of Canada's documentary greats, threw our co-producer's support behind us.

Michael quickly spiraled downwards, avoiding people, rarely speaking. But eventually there were wee signs of improvement: he stopped cutting me; stopped taking the stairs when I took the elevator; made eye contact (briefly), returned a nod with a nod; smiled at least once....was the old Mike coming back? Still, he showed absolutely no signs of wanting to return to the filming fold.

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Than one day months later something unfortunate happened that I was sure would cost me Mike's participation for good. I'd promised to never, ever film him secretly, without his consent. But one day, I was filming another patient, Sal, when he unexpectedly walked over to Mike and began to chat with him as the camera rolled. Mike noticed the camera. My heart stopped. Anguished, I rushed over stammering apologies. Mike waved away my explanations brusquely: "You can film me if you want." You know, like: "What's the fuss? What's the big deal?"

My star was back. It had taken 6 months, but he was back. Documentarius interruptus.

At such moment directors get religious. They fall to their knees and make a prayer of thanks to the documentary gods and all the funders who paid for this long-term epic, a speech more embarrassingly fervent and gushing than any you've ever heard at the Oscars: thankyouthankyouthankyouNationalFilmBoard CBCdocumentarychannelRogersCMFShawHot DocsFederalprovincialtaxcreditthankyouthankyouythankyou!

Amen.

Out of Mind, Out of Sight: Inside the Brockville Psych screens at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival April 30 and May 4, airs on TVO May 7, 8 and 11, and streams at docstudio.tvo.org starting May 8.

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