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  • Writer's pictureGabriel Rhenals

Blog Post #21: My Reel Minds Film Festival Experience Recap!

Several weeks ago, I was caught up in a whirlwind of activity involving a media appearance blitz and a screening of my 13th short film, Semester of Madness, at a local mental health-themed film festival, the 2nd Annual Reel Minds Miami Mental Health Film Festival, organized by NAMI Miami-Dade (National Alliance on Mental Illness). I'd like to share some thoughts on the entire thrilling and memorable experience! First off, that short film of mine, Semester of Madness, is a narrative fiction film that follows the harrowing account of a college student's experience of a particularly severe episode of mental illness. It's based on true events. I made the film back in 2012 and it has since been exhibited at multiple film festivals and been enthusiastically well-received by the public and mental health professionals. It's even shown to doctors at a mental health hospital in downtown Miami, FL. You can find Semester of Madness in its entirety here. Its trailer is below:

About NAMI Miami-Dade, it's "part of the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization" whose mission it is to "offer free, confidential and safe information, support, advocacy and resources" to those affected by mental illness. It's a great organization that does valuable work across the country where there is a surprisingly marked deficiency of such services through federal, state and local governments. NAMI Miami-Dade first heard of my short film when I teamed with the Florida International University chapter of NAMI (I was a student at FIU at the time) to screen the short film and hold a panel afterward consisting of two mental health experts and myself. About a year after that event, I was contacted by a family friend, Beatriz E. Mendoza, who was working with NAMI Miami-Dade at the time, who told me that NAMI Miami-Dade's board had heard of the FIU event, seen the short film and was interested in having it featured at their second annual film festival. And knowing fairly well what NAMI was all about by then, they had me at hello. A most welcomed honor!

About a week before the festival, it came time to promote the event and the first instance of that involving me would be through an interview with the Miami Herald. In preparation, I tried to anticipate what questions I'd be asked and prepare accordingly. Soon enough, I received a call from a most professional, young reporter, Janette Vazquez, and responded to her incisive and thoughtful questions. It's safe to say that the interview went supremely well and a few days later, the article featuring my interview and advancing the upcoming film festival went public in both online and print versions. You can find the article here. Some days following the Miami Herald interview, I was informed that NAMI Miami-Dade had managed to secure a spot on WPBT2's (South Florida's PBS) program, Your South Florida, and I was invited to be interviewed along with Director/Vice President of NAMI Miami-Dade, Susan Racher. The opportunity came as a surprise but, more than that, a fun challenge! Let's see how I do on live television flexing my impromptu speaking skills! Thankfully, my years of experience as a Toastmaster prepared me for such an occasion and I can say that I experienced virtually no nerves or trepidation and I think I did a pretty good job for my first televised appearance. It was grandly exciting and I absolutely relished the opportunity to express myself on such a platform. And long-time journalist and host of Your South Florida, Pam Giganti, is such a professional and skillful host and facilitator. I was in awe seeing her in action on the set. You can find the entire video interview here.

Then, on Saturday, May 13th, the main event! I had been asked to speak following the screening of my short film at the festival, so I prepared a few words and spent the run-up to the event rehearsing quietly on my own. But I've got to hand it to the NAMI Miami-Dade organizers and volunteers big-time. They had to weather a last-minute location change due to an unexpected electrical issue! But upon early arrival at the location where the event ultimately took place (UM's Fieldhouse at Watsco Center), you'd have thought nothing had been up-ended in any way. Color me impressed!

(Event photos above by Marilys Rios)

600 people had RSVP'd (the maximum amount) and nearly as many, if not more, ultimately showed. It was an astounding turnout! Prior to the film program, local band, FogDog, treated early-arrivers to some soulful original music that was a real pleasure to take in. And then came the films! I had been privy to the selections prior to the event so I knew what was coming but I must commend the organizers for finding a wonderfully varied and remarkably insightful selection of films. They all focused on separate but equally important aspects of mental illness. Topics and themes included depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and how race and family play into treatment and the prevalent stigma associated with mental illness. And there was a speaker programmed after each film that provided greatly informative context and perspective on the aspect that had just been illustrated cinematically. It was a great format! As for my own turn at the podium, it went well. I spoke about my own story of recovery from mental illness and tried to show that with the support of loving, ever-present parents and an unwavering trust in the science of treatment, a complete recovery is possible.

At the conclusion of the event, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Aide, J.C. Garrido, presented an official proclamation that named May 13th, the day of the festival, "NAMI Day"! And with that, the festival came to a decidedly historical close. To conclude, I am deeply grateful to NAMI Miami-Dade for the tireless work of all involved in putting together this extraordinary event and for giving me an opportunity to share my short film, Semester of Madness, and my personal story to help promote a festival and, more importantly, an organization that aims to advocate for the understanding of the complexity of mental illness, dispel myths, educate the public and provide support for those affected by mental illness.

And a special thanks to the inordinately dedicated, Kathryn Coppola, who was my NAMI Miami-Dade point person through all of this awesomeness. Kudos!

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