Afflictions: Culture and Mental Illness in Indonesia, by Robert Lemelson

Neely Myers
Publication date: 
11 April 2013

The Afflictions Series: an Interview with Ethnographic Filmmaker Robert Lemelson

When Robert Lemelson, an anthropologist, filmmaker, andresearch professor at UCLA, recently visited the George Washington University to speak at a conference on how ethnographic films can help us understand torture, I had to request an interview. I confess—I have long been a fan of Lemelson’s films, which I have seen screened at meetings as large as those of theAmerican Anthropological Association and the Society for Psychological Anthropology, and as small as the Clinical Ethnography workshop at the University of Chicago.

Lemelson’s films have played at film festivals around the world. So, here are some tips for you.

Tip #1: Lemelson loves to screen his films to a wide variety of audiences, and if you invite him to screen his films for you, he may just agree to come and speak with your group.

Several of Lemelson’s films that I have seen are now part of a six-film series titled Afflictions: Culture and Mental Illness in Indonesia, which Lemelson produced and directed with Elemental Productions. This powerful series was nominated for Best Limited Documentary Series from the International Documentary Association Awards in 2010. The films have won numerous other awards, which can be viewed here.

Tip # 2: Rather than purchasing the film series yourself, it is ideal to request that it be purchased through your home institution’s library, which will make it available to your students (who will benefit from having access to the series), and faculty (who will enjoy using it as a teaching tool for various topics related to culture and global mental health). Or you can rent it on Amazon, etc.

The series consists of six, 20- to 45- minute ethnographic films on people diagnosed with severe mental illness in Indonesia. The series is based on material drawn from 12 years of person-centered research by Lemelson. In the spirit of psychological anthropology, the series follows six individuals of different ages and backgrounds across time to explore the relationship between culture, mental illness, and first-person experience. The films include (these titles hyperlink to trailers for each film): Memory of My FaceThe Bird DancerFamily VictimRitual BurdensShadows and Illuminationsand Kites & Monsters.

As Lemelson and I settled in for his interview in the basement of the Red Cross building in Washington, DC, he told me that his commitments to the methods and theory of psychological anthropology, as well as his love for—and desire to experiment with—ethnographic film were the inspiration for this series. In general, Lemelson told me, he is committed to looking at anthropological concepts and their application to real-world problems. We must raise awareness of issues related to political economy, power, and gender, he claimed, because they are so important to solving global challenges.

click the link to see the full interview and other links.