Art, Madness and Oscar Winner Jessica Yu's The Living
by Anthony Kaufman
“You know you’ve entered new territory when you realize that your
outfit costs more than your film,” Jessica Yu joked on perhaps the most
enviable platform in the world for a filmmaker: the Academy Awards. Yu
won the Oscar for best documentary short subject in 1997 for “Breathing
Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” a documentary about a poet
confined to an iron lung because of a life-long bout with polio.
Yu now returns to Sundance (“Breathing Lessons “debuted in 1996, and a
narrative short Better Late in 1997) with her first feature length
documentary, “The Living Museum,” another inspiring and thoughtful
document, this time about artists with mental illness. The “Living
Museum ” refers to the magical place in which these artists work — a
“living” museum located on the grounds of a psychiatric center where
every wall is a canvas, every floor is a foundation, and every fallen
tree is a potential sculpture.
What is art? What makes an artist? And where is the line between
creativity and madness? As Yu comments, “That’s the wonderful thing
about this place. After awhile, you basically stop trying to figure out
who’s a patient and who isn’t.” Guided by Dr. Janos Marton, curator,
psychologist, and artist himself, Yu explores these questions and the
complex lives of six very different talents, from a young black artist
who creates politically charged pop art to a middle-aged woman who
creates minimalist pastels of strict line and color.
indieWIRE: The questions of art that the movie brings up — is that something
you’ve been thinking about for awhile?
Jessica Yu: It actually came about with the topic, but that’s probably why the
topic was interesting to me. . . . Dr. Marton’s radical theory is that
anyone who’s had a psychotic breakdown, automatically, he says, becomes
a great artist. But what I think he’s talking about is that you have all
of a sudden, this access to creativity that is very special. When I was
watching a lot of the artists, they just start working; there’s none of
that screwing around with, “Oh, am I good enough? Am I derivative?” —
they just do what they want. I couldn’t put my finger on it when I first
walked into the Living Museum, but I think as we started doing it, I
started to get it. And that was part of the exploration that I wanted to
come across in the film.
One of the first things [one of the artists] said to me was, “This place
is about the enchantment of mental illness without denying any of the
pain.” And he also said to me — if he had been given the choice whether
to have his life with mental illness or to have a “normal” life, he
could not have chosen the latter. That was also a part of the reason why
I wanted to do the film, because I believed him when he said that. But I
wanted to know why — how he came to that feeling? When he said it, he
said it so honestly that I thought, somehow he’s got this wisdom that
this is what he believes in — that he has found a way to be, if you can
say the word, thankful about his experiences. That was part of what I
wanted to get into.
iW: What are you working on now?
Yu: I do have a project that I’ve been researching. . . It’s another
very nice thing to be completely obsessed by. It’s just one of those
things where you have to make a film about it or you’ll drive all your
friends crazy just talking about it.
iW: Is that how it happens? You get completely obsessed?
Yu: Completely. . . . I find there’s always the idea that ends up
keeping you up all night — that’s the beginning of the obsession that
will have enough momentum to carry you through the film. I don’t want to
work on a film where by the end you’re totally sick of it. I’m still
completely excited about “The Living Museum “– that comes from having
so many questions and so much personal curiosity in the beginning, that
the only way to answer it is to go through this two-year long process of
trying to figure it all out.
iW: What are your plans for Sundance? Are you hoping to get some sort of
Yu: That’s pretty much it. If someone is interested, we’d definitely
pursue it. But usually, I’ve had the most fun at Sundance when I’ve gone
and I haven’t had any agenda for things that “must come out of it.” And
I can just go and enjoy watching other people’s films. Also, just being
able to watch my own film and get some sense of the audience reaction is
always such a nice thing. I have seen friends who’ve had films where
they’ve GOT to get a distributor. They’re “working.” And I will most
probably be “playing.” Good things always come out it, no matter what.
Even if it’s just more people knowing about your film, other festivals
being interested. . .