Using Film to Provide a Window into the Mind: A Discussion with Indie Filmmaker Kat Napiorkowska

Hoping to shed light on what it is really like to suffer with mental illness, Polish filmmaker Kat Napiorkowska began creating short films on different mental illnesses and posting them onto YouTube. Interested in learning more about the mental health series Kat created, I reached out to her and got to learn about her creative process and why the topic of mental health is so important to her.

Words: Tracey Flores

  Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from  Living with Depression )

Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from Living with Depression)

Public discourse on mental health has steadily increased in the past few decades; however, the discussions that take place surrounding mental health have not always been constructive. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 450 million people suffer from mental health issues worldwide. It is likely that the lack of understanding and resources available to those who suffer with mental health issues contributes to the estimated 1 million suicides committed every year.

What compelled you to start creating short films about mental health?

I don't want to say it was an accident, but I didn't really plan this either. It all started with depression. A close friend of mine was struggling with the disorder and couldn't seem to tame it. Finally, one day, after countless experiments with different meds and psychiatrists, they were diagnosed properly, received the right medication and regained control over their life. The journey was a tough one though, and I'm not going to lie, it affected me immensely. 

So when we finally got closure, I thought to myself: "it would've been so much easier for me if I knew how this worked back in the day, when we were just starting out". I had to learn the hard way, so why not make life a bit easier for others? That's how LIVING WITH DEPRESSION and LIVING WITH A DEPRESSED PERSON were written.

The video went viral, which was completely unexpected. The response was amazing. It felt good, and people started asking me to consider continuing the series. I did, and it turned out that the videos were relatable, so it felt right to just keep going.

  Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from  Living with Depression )

Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from Living with Depression)

There are a plethora of mental health issues. How do you decide which ones you will make films about? 

I usually read the comments and see what's requested most often. If I'm not entirely sure, I'll simply create a poll and let people vote.

Are there any mental health issues that you are really keen to make films about in the future? If so, what are they and why?

Both bipolar and eating disorders are highly requested. Since this was never about me, I just follow people's requests. However, I think that borderline personality disorder would be interesting to tackle. I don't want to romanticize mental health, but when I write, my favourite part is the creation of a character and this one seems like a true challenge and a good foundation for a proper, longer film.

Your videos seem to resonate with individuals who are dealing with the mental health issues you discuss. You've repeatedly mentioned that you do not suffer from many of the mental illnesses you create content on. Could you share the process you undergo to create such relatable pieces about issues that you may not have personal experience with?

The only disorder I suffer from is social anxiety, which I think is why this was my most relatable piece yet. It was fully based on my own experience. My process of writing is continuously evolving, though.

Depression was based on years of being close to someone who suffered from it.

OCD was partly based on my own experience, but that's when I started to incorporate research.

By the time the third video was out (about panic attacks), I've already been reading tons of emails from people who follow my work. I would ask them to describe their disorders in a way that feels natural. No questions, they would simply share whatever was on their minds.

Last but not least, I like all my work to be science-based, so I read academic literature to help me categorize all the disorganized information that people send in. It's a mix of all of the above, and a pinch of empathy, which helps me to not just understand, but actually feel what others are going through. I think that's essential when you write about such delicate topics.

How do you hope that your films contribute to the discourse surrounding mental health?

I want to fight the stigma surrounding them. I want people to finally start treating them the way they should be treated, like an illness that needs to and can be cured. People with mental health issues often suffer alone, hiding it from the world, too ashamed to ask for help. I'd like to change that. And maybe - as a byproduct - I'd like them to know that they are not alone and there are people out there who truly understand. Sometimes it's hard to explain and put your feelings into words. My videos help with that, so instead of having to stress over it, someone suffering from a specific disorder can just play my video to a loved one and say: "THIS, this is how I feel".

"People with mental health issues often suffer alone, hiding it from the world, too ashamed to ask for help. I'd like to change that."

  Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from  Living with Social Anxiety )

Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from Living with Social Anxiety)

For those who have never seen your work, which short film would you recommend as an introduction to your work? Why?

I would definitely recommend the social anxiety short. I've spent nearly 3 months working on it and I had financial support from a crowdfunding campaign, which I think shows in the video. Not only is it relatable, but also quite enjoyable to watch, including the cinematography, music and the storytelling.

  Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from  Living with Social Anxiety )

Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from Living with Social Anxiety)

In addition to mental health, you have touched on topics such as veganism, sexism and politics in a few of your videos. Do you feel that artists hold a responsibility to utilize their platform to encourage dialogue on serious topics?  

I wouldn't call it a responsibility, but I find it disappointing, knowing that many content creators out there have a huge following they could easily influence, and place them on the right path, but they won't. They won't, because they're scared they'll annoy some viewers, so they'd rather stay neutral. They've gotten comfortable, because anything else means losing revenue and that seems to be too much to handle. And what better way is there to influence a human being than through art?

Today, an overwhelming part of our society is not interested in politics, science, social nor environmental issues when they're brought up in the form of official, boring, formal speech. But can you blame them? That's where we - the artists, the content creators - come in. We take complex issues, make them easier to grasp for everyone and eventually, we appeal to emotion. It may be a fallacy, but it's the only thing we've got left if we want people to get involved.

 "Sometimes it's hard to explain and put your feelings into words. My videos help with that, so instead of having to stress over it, someone suffering from a specific disorder can just play my video to a loved one and say: "THIS, this is how I feel"."

  Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from  Living with Social Anxiety )

Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from Living with Social Anxiety)

What can we expect next in your mental health series? 

Bipolar disorder I and II is next in line, but I had to indefinitely postpone it since I don't have sufficient funds to create it.

Aside from your mental health series, are there any other projects that you are either working on now or hope to work on in the future?

I'm hoping to finally focus on myself a little bit more. Throughout the past 2 years and a half, I've been devoting all my money and time to the mental health series. This summer, I'd like to take a vacation and focus on my festival short film debut. It won't be mental health related, but it surely will touch upon the subject of inner struggles.

  Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from  Living with Social Anxiety )

Image: Kat Napiorkowska (Still from Living with Social Anxiety)

As an independent filmmaker, is there anything audiences can do to support your future projects?

I may try another crowdfunding campaign in the future, but for now, I like the idea of creating a short film and putting it behind a small paywall, around a 1$. It's already planned and it won't be mental health related. Working title is "After a break up", that's all I can share for now. If anyone would like to support my mental health work, they could buy access to the video for a dollar once it's out.

On a final note, I'd like to encourage anyone reading this to financially support their favourite artists/content creators, those who are just starting out and who are aiming to keep their work high quality. The problem is that work like mine doesn't really sell. All the money I put into it, doesn't pay off, but the world needs it. The number of views mental health videos get (in general, not just mine), proves it. We can't do this on our own, though. High quality, well researched content means countless hours of work and pockets full of money. The only way we can continue is when people directly support us.