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Movie Monday Turns 20, Shines Light On Mental Health

It seems appropriate Bruce Saunders would jokingly compare himself to an American folk icon.

"It's like Bob Dylan and his never-ending tour," he says, referring to the weekly film series he launched in the spring of 1993 Bruce Saunders
Bruce Saunders
in a 100-seat lecture theatre in Royal Jubilee Hospital's Eric Martin Pavilion when he was a psychiatric patient.

"This is my never-ending film festival."

And while the title of Dylan's 1964 megahit The Times They Are A-Changin' reflects a situation that has impacted his non-profit program, its mandate remains the same - to de-stigmatize mental illness in a welcoming, inclusive environment.

"It's still bringing the community together, even in this day and age when people can pipe things in from Netflix," says the affable film buff and landscape gardener, adding tongue-in-cheek he wasn't surprised his program would still be going strong.

"I'm a bipolar guy so of course I'd imagine that," laughs Saunders, who conceived Movie Monday as an alternative to the trashy TV shows and movies shown in his ward's open area during his stay after a failed suicide attempt two decades ago.

"Movie Monday does dispel the myth that bipolar people might be unstable or unable to follow through on things," adds Saunders, whose program operates on an annual budget of $30,000, with funding from the Vancouver Island Health Authority, Canada Council for the Arts and educational grants from Janssen-Ortho and Eli Lilly Canada.

"What I've found with Movie Monday and gardening is the importance of consistency. ‘Just show up' is the advice I give to people floundering with mental-health issues. Luckily, I've had a reachable enough goal."

Among significant changes Saunders has noticed since Movie Monday first unspooled with Cannery Row on June 14, 1993, are shorter attention spans and how distracted audiences have become in the age of smart phones and social media.

"We're still in a bit of a bubble but I'm trying to reach out through movies - the attractant," says Saunders, whose original mandate - to serve "consumers" of mental-health services - was expanded to include the public long ago.

While he has had success - last Monday's showing of Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould was a sellout, for instance - it's still a challenge convincing some the Eric Martin Pavilion is "a safe place" to watch a movie.

A potential patron once even expressed concern he might not be allowed to leave the building after seeing a movie there.

"It's not a Marat-Sade situation," Saunders says. "But so many people don't come because of that perception."

While Movie Monday remains one of the best movie bargains in town, with admission by donation (or free if you can't pay) and cheap popcorn, it's not just about movies. Saunders has brought in filmmakers, actors, activists and other notable guests. In 1994, for example, he welcomed the late Dean Brooks, the psychiatrist who let Milos Forman shoot One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Oregon State Hospital after many others turned Forman down, played Dr. Spivak [Cuckoo's Nest character] in the film.

Georgina Beyer, the transsexual New Zealand MP, also did a Q&A from her office after Saunders screened Georgie Girl, the 2002 documentary about the farm boy of Maori descent who became a cabaret performer and struggled with addiction before her political success.Movie Monday has also hosted a madam and Vancouver sex-trade workers while screening Safer Sex Trade.

Saunders has also ratcheted up his passion for programming great Canadian films that are often overlooked.

"We are so terrible going to our own cinema," he laments. "The French-Canadians are great. They'll go to see 90 per cent of their films. I'm going to have the first theatrical showing of Blackbird after the Victoria Film Festival, which is ridiculous."

He isn't exaggerating when he says Blackbird "should be hauling in a huge audience" nationwide if it had been given a chance. Jason Buxton's feature debut about a bullied Goth teenager played to perfection by Connor Jessup, who's wrongly accused of plotting a Nova Scotia high school massacre, is a taut, astonishingly affecting drama about adolescent alienation.

As long as such overlooked films exist, Saunders says he'll keep showcasing them while dispelling mental-health myths.

"Half the battle is getting some positive news out about someone doing something in mental health," he said. "There are enough people in the headlines garotting people on buses or killing a family."

Movie Monday celebrates its 20th anniversary Monday at 6:30 p.m. with cake and Cubers, a documentary about an elite group of "brainiacs" obsessed with the Rubik's Cube. There will be a short featuring Leo Yousif, a Pearson College student who, with the help of 60 classmates, created a seven-foot portrait of former prime minister Lester B. Pearson with 1,200 Rubik's Cubes.