Cutting Edge DramaIt remains a taboo subject even in a more open-minded 21st century where mental health resources are more available and commonly discussed than ever before, and where the stigmatised subject serves as a sensationalistic device for impact. Effectively conveying pain in film and making it not only believable enough to retain a suspension of disbelief but actually making it poignant can be a challenging task, but broaching a topic as controversial as self-injury involves an adept understanding – or at least sympathy – with the psychology of the characters(s) involved and the social appreciation of the subject.

Doing Your Research

Many scriptwriters, directors, and actors – especially method actors – long to gain an intensively engaging insight into the topic they are venturing into, and there are two very vital aspects of this: researching and comparing various theories and studies on the subject by a qualified scientific or otherwise established authoritative community, and covering the emotional angle as well: reading, discussing, and internalising personal stories.

If covering the topic of substance abuse, for instance, it’s not enough to acknowledge the opiates involved. There is a huge sense of “denial, dishonesty and fear” involved, observes rehab experts drugtreatment.com, and these are essential for making the story believable, unless the topic is strictly carpe diem and following the “live fast, die hard” mantra. The denial, dishonesty and fear factor not only adds an emotional and more human edge to the story, but it can become a pivotal aspect of the character’s own emotional and spiritual journey. In cases where the target audience is at a particularly vulnerable age such as the adolescent and teenage years, these elements are critical, regardless of what the abuse entails. “Viewing movies with depictions of cigarette smoking increased adolescents’ likelihood to start smoking” states Lissa Behm-Morawitz, assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s communication department. Several other critics believe that the glorification of drugs in film harbours the same effect; allacademic.com published a report suggests that “Studies indicate that films can influence adolescents’ attitudes toward and initiation of substance use. Social cognitive theory suggests that they may be especially likely to learn from teen models who they perceive as similar, desirable and attractive.”

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Plunging into a topic like drug and alcohol abuse sets any production up for instant criticism if done on an intensive level, which is why an acute awareness of the audience is paramount. Though the debate as to whether films contribute to today’s level of societal violence is rife, there is no doubt that to some degree, the allure of the drug world is partially perpetuated by its use in the media. Yet despite how sexy the opiate-loving, tormented artist, ecstatic raver or high-flying coke addict may be, it’s not new, and by contrast, there isn’t an incredible amount of material devoted to the uglier side of addiction and self-abuse. As a story-teller, isn’t it worth not only gaining a legitimate, informed and educated insight into the topic via medical research, as well as having some heart-to-heart interactions with survivors and victims, whether it is on a public forum, private conversation, or reading a memoir?

This is especially important when addressing self-injury in the context of cutting, burning, or other self-destructive issues. Even now the circumstances surrounding this in the media is generally marginalised towards unstable, young females – and this isn’t always the case. And with several films, the entire society surrounding mental illness itself, particularly institutionalised treatment, forms an equally critical aspect. Girl, Interrupted is one such film. “Even as it provides a less than straightforward depiction of mental illness, [its] portrayal of the mental health care system is even more ambiguous,” observes Hopkins Cinema Addicts. As films such as this and the more comedic, yet still heavily dark One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest attests, the nature of the care involved and the isolation from the rest of society is another very critical part of the protagonist’s, and/or supporting characters’ journey, and there is a vast realm here to explore.

Edging the Boundaries

Some may understandably desire a further penetration not only into the psyche of self-injury and its connotations but the blurring of boundaries as well – take David Lynch’s mesmerising Mulholland Drive, for example, which has since been subject to several interpretations. In one scene, aspiring actress and forlorn lover Betty (Naomi Watts) is seen in a head shot with tears in her eyes, making vigorous movement shaking her body implying that she is injuring herself repeatedly as a way to deal with grief. The camera eventually pans down to reveal she is actually masturbating, a literal play on the former definition of the word as “self-abuse”. Here, Lynch blurs the lines between pleasure and pain, and the potentially sensual and self-destructive. Without losing its resonance, this scene worked because the entire film is a kaleidoscope of nightmarish and self-destructive scenes, rife with metaphor (which Lynch wisely leaves to the audience to interpret). While some critics may argue that the figurative use of self-injury – particularly combined with other taboo subjects like female masturbation might not help the cause, on the other hand, it at least opens up a dialogue and explores alternative perceptions.

Addressing self-injury at all is a massive feat in itself in a society where it is deemed disgraceful and unstable, despite several other habits and even rituals which are similar and more destructive. What is most important to remember is that scars are stories, a kind of odyssey in its own right, and however it is represented a certain amount of integrity is deserve.