________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 1 . . . . August 29, 2008

cover Flight From Darkness.

Trevor Grant (Writer & Director). Don Copeland & Lynne Beck Copeman (Producers). Joe MacDonald (NFB Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2007.
52 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9107 052.

Subject Headings:
Manic-depressive persons-Canada-Biography.
Indians of North America-Saskatchewan-Biography.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Julie Chychota.

*** /4


It’s in human nature to resist a lifelong sentence of medications. Also, people have a tendency to think that once their symptoms go away, the illness is not going to come back. That keeps many people in this terribly destructive orbit. They can’t move out of that orbit to see that they’re eventually going to get burned up by the sun. (Dr. Kay Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University.)

One of the hard parts of being bipolar: you think you’re cured, sometimes, when you’re not; it’s just the medication making you better, so you stop taking it, and of course it’s back to square one again. (Percy Paul.)


A promising Princeton scholar of string theory, a gold-medal athlete, an artistic photographer, a husband and father, and a valued employee, Percy Paul was a rising star--until bipolar disorder surfaced and plunged him into a dark depression. Flight from Darkness traces the trajectory of Percy’s struggle for control over his illness. This documentary unflinchingly pursues a deeper understanding of what Dr. Kay Jamison describes as a “life-threatening and psychotic genetic illness characterized by wide fluctuations in mood, energy, and sleep patterns,” in which “you are cohabiting with a self that you have no sense of, but you do have to live with.”

      In a matter of 52 minutes, Flight from Darkness takes viewers from November 2005 to June 2006, and to three locations: Saskatoon, Ottawa, and Patuanak, a First Nations community 700 km northwest of Saskatoon. Yet the film does not proceed in a strictly linear fashion; instead, it doubles back to fill in gaps as necessary. Dates, locations, and other bits of information are denoted by on-screen captions or titles. This fragmented approach to storytelling simulates the surreal disorientation that Percy experiences as a result of fluctuating mood swings. Just as the journal he keeps anchors Percy to his alternating selves (and perhaps even serves as a moral compass), so viewers rely on the titles to tether them to a time, place, disposition, or any combination of the three.

      To present a more comprehensive depiction of bipolar disorder, the film juxtaposes the clinical explanations of Dr. Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, alongside Percy’s firsthand accounts of his moods and secondhand observations by his professors, ex-wife, family members, and former student residence manager. Testimony quickly establishes Percy’s intelligence: he is a “talented artist,” a “genius” who started school at three and a half years of age, and a graduate student who shows “tremendous potential.” Bipolar disorder, then, is no reflection upon an individual’s mental aptitude--although Jamison does note that it frequently strikes highly imaginative people--but rather a condition in which a person’s mood cycles from manic to depressive. The creative “high of the mania is attractive,” admits Percy; he cannot say the same for the paranoia that accompanies it, nor the debilitating depression that follows.

      Director Trevor Grant effectively conjoins imagery and sound to communicate non-verbally what is spoken. For instance, the goofy Percy who excitedly shows off his room and playfully holds up a bottle of Febreeze à la Barker’s Beauties contrasts sharply with the depressed Percy who hides in his messy room with the lights off. The Percy who frantically writes mathematical equations on a KleerBoard™ is set in opposition to the Percy who arrives late for class and leaves early, unable to focus on the lecture due to sleep deprivation. The Percy who plays in the snow with his children is not the Percy who drinks to escape memories of his father’s alcohol abuse and violence. The camera allows viewers to see for themselves how Percy’s mood changes.

      Sound is less conspicuous, overall, yet it too conveys important information. Music often crescendos and accelerates as the tension builds in the events being narrated. For example, early in the film, as Percy attempts to condense string theory into one sentence, a barrage of images, including a PDF of Percy’s thesis, hits viewers along with electronic noises not unlike those of a dial-up modem. The intensity of sound corresponds to the intense manic creativity that informs Percy’s academic output. The noise creates a tension that is immediately dispelled by a cut to the next scene, which employs a calm, leisurely paced music. Additionally, the sound of a cell door slamming shut occurs twice to mark Percy’s initial institutionalization for attempted suicide. Finally, there are times when the film introduces an abrupt silence, as if to impress upon viewers the seriousness of the moment.

      Toward the end of the documentary, the music takes an upbeat turn. This section is entitled “June 2006 / moving on.” Percy has found a new place to live, and although he is off medication, he has begun running more, so that his brain produces a natural high. These positive strides are thrown into question, however, by the title “suspension / placed on medical leave,” which literally refers to Percy’s academic status, but applies figuratively to Percy’s life in general, since, by his own admission, he is “buried above ground right now.” The documentary may intend to project optimism, but given the sobering statistics, it can offer only a cautious hopefulness at best. As the final title reminds us: “There is currently no cure for Bipolar Disorder.”

      One cannot help but admire Percy’s incredible courage for making himself vulnerable to such intense scrutiny over seven months. Little wonder that expletives work their way into his speech from time to time; it is his way of expressing his frustration at his illness. Hopefully, he will find the means to control it in order to reach his full potential.

      The Mental Health Works Web site reports that bipolar disorder affects one percent of the population. This proportion may seem negligible until one recalls the statistics referenced in the film: 50% of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once, and 15% to 20% ultimately succeed. Add to this mix the fact that a first significant bout of depression generally strikes people in their twenties, and it becomes exceedingly important for adults and teens alike to recognize the symptoms and know the facts. They will find a great deal of that information in Flight from Darkness’s sympathetic treatment and accessible language and examples.


Julie Chychota lives in Ottawa, ON, and works as a computer interpreter and sometime transcriptionist.

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