My New Creative Endeavor: Producing an Autoethnographic Film

Living openly with bipolar disorder requires a continual “coming out” process in multiple aspects of my life. Lately, I have experienced this the most acutely in my work which is inseparable from my lived experience with mental health challenges. In addition to pursing a PhD in Anthropology, I am also a part of a nationally-recognized certificate program in media documentation at NYU called Culture & Media. After having completed the required coursework, this summer I will be participating in a six week intensive course to develop skills in directing, recording, and editing to produce my own documentary which I will work on for a full academic year. I am grateful to have trusted advisors and a colleagues in the department who I have disclosed to prior to thinking about the film project.

Since participating in Culture & Media, I was interested in making a film about perinatal mental illness.When I confided in a Cinema Studies professor about what I had been through during my pregnancy, she encouraged me to make the film about my story. Despite having an archive of self-shot footage from my manic pregnancy in 2019 and 10+ hours of digitized home video footage, I initially had resisted the idea of a film project centering my story. I was unsure about how “safe” it was to “out myself” to the entire department. I was unsure if I would still be perceived as capable of maintaining “objectivity” in my research on perinatal mental health. I wondered if stigma would cause others to look at me in a different light.

When I mentioned this more personal film idea to a colleague, he pointed out the value of going through with it. As soon as I matriculated into the anthropology program, I took an entire year of leave because of the mental health challenges I experienced during my pregnancy and subsequent postpartum. He reminded me that my mysterious absence perhaps created the perfect audience who might appreciate learning about what I was up to when I was away. More reassured, but still a bit apprehensive, I decided to test the reception of my project by proposing it to one of the chairs of my dissertation committee. After I nervously expressed the vision for the film, she was delighted by my autoethnographic approach and expressed her full support. It was an amazing feeling to know that my lived experience is welcome in my academic and professional world.

As an anthropologist-filmmaker, I will engage with autoethnography as both “process and product.” Unlike memoir or autobiography, the main intention in using autoethnography is not simply to relay my personal experience, but to situate myself within the broader sociopolitical, cultural, and economic context to understand a larger social phenomena. I will use autoethnography because there are aspects of the Black maternal mortality crisis and perinatal mental health that I can (for the time being) only convey through with my lived experience. The overlapping, multiplicative effects of racism, sexism, classism, and ableism/sanism on Black mothers and birth people significantly increase the risks associated with self-disclosure. In my work thus far, I have encountered way more white people in perinatal mental health spaces than people of color. Therefore, my autoethnographic film is a gesture of vulnerability and reciprocity towards the Black birthing people with whom I want to be in community as well as offer my art and research as a space to share their stories.

I feel extremely privileged to be a graduate student in a department where I do not bare the burden of being a trailblazer and that there were others who came before making the path a little easier to walk. Emily Martin, Professor Emerita  of Anthropology at NYU, disclosed her own bipolar diagnosis in her book Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture. An alum of the Culture & Media program produced Back to Me, a short documentary on her experience with psychosis. Thankfully I will not be the first to dabble in the taboo world of mental health and self-disclosure. My film will be in good company!

I will likely continue to share updates on this blog about how this film project progresses. I look forward to making connections with birthing people, mental health professionals, peers works, researchers, and others whose voices I can weave through my narrative.

Stay tuned!

Image Description: The hands of a person holding a Canon Zoom Lens camera in front of her face.

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