I was excited to see Touched with Fire and to have the chance to meet the filmmaker, Paul Dalio, but I also had a bit of hesitation. Not having seen the movie yet, I was afraid it would rely on standard tropes of people with mental illness (such as romanticizing/glamorizing the illness or showing them as deviant or dangerous) instead of portraying us as real people (which we happen to be). So imagine my great relief when I found the film accurately portrays what it looks and feels like to be a person with mental illness in our society. Additionally, meeting Paul was refreshing, as he was very open and honest and unashamed about his experiences as a person with bipolar disorder.
Paul says his film draws from many of his own personal experiences with bipolar disorder, although the plot differs from his own life. The movie centers around two poets with bipolar disorder, Emily and Marco, and the challenges they face while trying to create a life together. Emily and Marco have something of a whirlwind romance, which ends when Emily chooses to remain on medication and Marco decides to stop taking it. To Marco, taking medication takes a vital part of himself away. He feels it stifles his creativity and dulls his perceptions, stating “Would you have medicated Van Gogh?” Much of Marco’s viewpoint is influenced by the book, Touched with Fire by Kay Jamison, which studies historically significant people with mental illness and shows how they offer great gifts and unique perspectives to society. Dalio himself has been inspired by the book and has struggled with the fear that medication would mean that he would never become creative again. However, he stated that while he initially did feel “numb” for years after taking medications, his body adjusted and now he has been able to direct his creative energy more effectively and to feel his feelings more meaningfully than before. In a powerful scene in the film, Kay Jamison similarly advises Marco that the correct medication would not take away emotion or creativity.
It is very rare to see a film that accurately depicts how it feels to be a person with a mental illness living in our society—and even rarer to see it done in a humanistic and hopeful tone. It was a very special experience for me to be able to see Touched with Fire and to speak with the director about his creative vision and knowledge. It is my hope that as the stigma around mental illness lifts in our society, we will see more authentic representations of people living with it in the media. I encourage you to see Touched by Fire and support Paul Dalio’s important work.
You can watch the trailer here.