I began formal painting lessons at age 14, and have been making art ever since. Painting was my deep connection with beauty and good, no matter what else was going on in my life. After 20 years, my work evolved to sculpture and site specific sculpture at San Francisco State University and I started writing poetry. In a lecture, I heard the phrase “personal as political.” This changed everything. I decided to use my art to make a difference.
The feature documentary Piece of Mind addresses the urgent need for a continuum of care for persons living with serious mental illness, which is not fully addressed in the U.S. My introduction to this complex issue cut to the core of my being. My sister has schizophrenia. We have always been close.
Looking for support, I attended the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Family-to-Family class in 2013, and heard many stories of families struggling to help their loved ones. I knew I had to make the film. The issue was staring me in the face.
My first documentary Unlocking the Heart of Adoption explores the lifelong process of adoption for adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents in same race and transracial adoptions. Throughout the film, as I tell my story of becoming pregnant as the result of sexual assault and unwillingly relinquishing my daughter for adoption in a home for wed mothers in 1969, I construct a life-size sculpture of a mother holding her baby in a hospital bed using bamboo, chicken wire, burlap and plaster. After many years, I found my daughter. The film aired on public television and continues to be used as an educational tool encouraging greater understanding of core adoption issues and changing lives.
My second film explores family preservation. The Emmy-nominated documentary On Life’s Terms: Mothers in Recovery follows five moms in a women and children’s residential treatment program over three years. The women learn parenting and recovery skills, gain pride and become self-sufficient. My intention was to encourage empathy for these stigmatized moms. The truth is, there are underlying issues of abuse that contribute to self-medicating with substances. And like all mothers, they love their children. The film aired on public television, and combats stereotypes about the mothers for service providers, medical professionals and treatment programs.
Making the documentary Piece of Mind presents unique challenges. From my conversations with folks about the stories in Piece of Mind, I realize that severe mental illness is a tough topic for people. I feel the best way to address this is to make a beautiful film. Beauty has the power to elevate story and make the difficult palatable. This will be accomplished by telling personal stories with honesty and heart, shadow puppet scenes to animate key events, a moving film score and revealing humane solutions.
Empathy for marginalized women, men and children in gut-wrenching, misunderstood and stigmatized life situations is the driving force behind my desire to make documentary films.
© 2021 Sheila Ganz