When Melanie Wood set out to tell the story of the HOpe Centre in North Vancouver, British Columbia, she didn’t know what to expect. A documentary filmmaker based in Vancouver, she had been used to telling stories of people whose voices had often been neglected. Her documentary A Stranger In Our Home told the story of two teenage victims of internet predators. Another documentary, O.com, shone a light on cybersex addiction and was a finalist at the New York Film Festival.
“I like to tell stories of people who don’t normally have a voice,” says Wood. “That’s the thing I enjoy, is going to ordinary people who I think have an interesting perspective on something that we’re not talking about.”
When she was floated the idea of filming a documentary on the lives of the people within the HOpe Centre, an inpatient and outpatient mental health clinic, she jumped at the chance.
“People still carry a lot of shame and stigma around being ill, and I think one of the reasons that happens is because they look at the people who [are held up as examples]. Yes, the public wants to hear from someone who’s got a mental illness, but they want to hear from them after they’ve just got a medal at the Olympics,” says Wood.
“The people who’ve achieved something don’t make us uncomfortable. We love heroes. But it’s the discomfort — the feeling of being uncomfortable around people who are still struggling — that I think helps us shift. I think we can make the biggest change when we are ourselves in a state of discomfort.”
In producing Living in HOpe, a four-part documentary series for the Knowledge Network, Wood would end up spending over a year at the HOpe Centre, profiling the lives of people with severe mental health challenges, along with the team of nurses and physicians who work with them every day. A meticulous planner by nature, she soon learned that her filmmaking habits would have to adapt.
“[That] first day, I had a list of things we were going to shoot, and not a single one of them happened,” she laughs. “Nothing.”
Instead of sticking to the plan, Wood and her colleagues listened — and ended up with a new depth of stories they might never have gotten otherwise.
“People need to be heard when they’re sick,” she says. “That’s how we can make the most change in our mental health treatment. If we all try and protect everyone and say, ‘you’re not fit to be seen by us until you’re better,’ what does that say to that person?”
“I didn’t want it to be an us and them,” she adds, “I wanted this to be, ‘this could be my sister, my daughter, my mother.’”
Through her year at the HOpe Centre, Wood found her own perceptions changing — her unconscious assumptions challenged.
“The illness isn’t the person; the person is the person,” she says. “Everyone is just struggling to do the best that they can. That’s what it is.”