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Culture | “A tool for understanding”

Autobiographical documentary revisits family struggles with mental illness

In Juanicas, Montreal-based filmmaker Karina Garcia Casanova invites us to be a fly on the wall of her family home. An autobiographical documentary ten years in the making, the film follows Casanova’s mother and brother – Victoria and Juan – and their respective struggles with bipolar disorder. The result is an intimate and harrowing exploration of mental illness.

The film begins when Juan returns to Quebec to live with Victoria after spending time in Mexico, where the family is originally from. Not long after his arrival, Juan spirals into deep depression and paranoia, locking himself in his room for months at a time. Casanova and her mother are unable to control the situation, and during a particularly rough episode, Juan attacks his mother and completely destroys their home.

Juan’s condition is reminiscent of Victoria’s struggles, and forces the family to revisit their past. In an early scene, the siblings joke about their eccentric childhood under the care of their (at the time) undiagnosed mother, who dragged them to outlet shopping malls on the weekends to shop the sales and eat cheeseburgers, while other kids in their class were off fishing.

“Had we not immigrated to Canada, had we had family around us and a more stable family pattern, had my parents not had a divorce, things may have been different.”

But as Juan’s condition worsens, discussions of the past become much more grave. We learn that because of their mother’s illness, the siblings were neglected and often left to their own devices, leaving Casanova to be psychologically tormented at the hands of her brother. In an interview with The Daily, Casanova explains that the film is a “testimony and a tool for understanding.” Speaking of her mother’s diagnosis, she says, “It forced me to revisit my past and look at it from the perspective of mental illness.”

The strength of the film comes from the deep introspection of its filmmaker, who bravely delves into the pain of her childhood. In dreamlike references to the past, Casanova weaves home movies and photographs from her childhood into the narrative. That said, this is no home movie, but rather a carefully compiled, painstaking timeline of her family’s struggle.

Casanova explains that the film is a “testimony and a tool for understanding.”

The film also offers an eye-opening counternarrative to the clichéd Canadian tale of immigration. While immigration stories in popular culture often focus exclusively on families who leave their home countries to find a better life, Juanicas provides a more nuanced representation, full of uncertainty and resentment. Karina and Juan struggle to understand why their mother left Mexico, where she had a family and a support system.

“To us, it feels like a very absurd decision on my mother’s part to stay here and live a life of isolation and relative poverty when she didn’t have to,” Casanova says. “You can’t simplify immigration stories, and I wanted to be truthful to that.”

Casanova goes on to explain that while she understands that mental illness is caused by physiological factors, it’s also important to consider environmental aspects. “Many different factors were at play in creating this very dysfunctional situation,” she says. “Had we not immigrated to Canada, had we had family around us and a more stable family pattern, had my parents not had a divorce, things may have been different.”

A refreshing departure from the investigative documentary style, Casanova uses her personal experience to showcase these nuances and complicate the narrative of mental illness. Watching similar personal films helped Casanova come to terms with her own experience, and this is what she hopes to pass on: “With such a personal story, you never know if you’re going to reach people, and I think I have, because a lot of people come up to me [after screenings], and I find that very rewarding.”


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