Arts and mental health

Touchstone Animated Film Project

A new, innovative animation film project has helped service users at SLaM in their journey of recovery and wellbeing.

The Touchstone animated film project pilot, which was funded by generous donations, involved current and former service users at the Touchstone Centre (a therapeutic centre for people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder) located in Croydon. In the end, in about 40 days spread out over a period of six months, six extraordinary films were created.

Art for wellbeing

Project artist and director Tony Gammidge has run video and animation projects on medium secure units and psychiatric centres for six years. In the past he has collaborated with ward residents to produce short animated films inspired by true life, imagination, fantasy or memory – or a mix of these sources.

All of the filmmakers who took part in the Touchstone animation film project had had experience of trauma, and some of them were current service users whilst making the films. The project was a chance to reflect on themes of transition and change, and to explore relationships, placing an emphasis on the making of art.

Mario Guarnieri, psychotherapist and dramatherapist, came up with the idea for the Touchstone project, and, when he met Tony at a conference, he knew he was the ideal person to lead on it. Mario helped produce the project and provided voices for some of the characters in the films – in a variety of accents.

A personal voice is heard through the films

Mario believes there was a need for the project because ‘the [filmmakers] share a common experience: that their experiences of trauma were not acknowledged. As a result, they are withdrawn from life, come to believe their lives are worthless and that nobody wants to hear them.’

Many people in the mental health system may not feel in control of their story. The filmmaking process offers filmmakers the chance to work with their own stories and regain some control and agency over their own life narrative.

The use of animation as a story-telling medium emerged naturally during filming. Plasticine is malleable and much easier to ‘direct’ than an actor – though ‘it can get quite crafty, sometimes’ (filmmaker Irene). It offers participants some control over their storytelling, and encourages a mindful focus on taking small steps.

‘Even if you’re making a bit of work that’s quite sensitive or quite distressing, there’s something about the process that can hold people together,’ says Mario. This is because filmmaking is ‘very process-driven. You take a photograph, then you move onto the next thing, and then take another one.’

Becoming absorbed in the creative process afforded the participants a different kind of engagement with their stories, in a way that purely verbal therapy does not do – but it was only by engaging in other forms of therapy previously were participants able to make these films. The Project was grounded at Touchstone, with the therapeutic work of the Centre providing an important framework for their creativity. 

How the project has helped participants

Irene says, ‘It’s the best therapy I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve had quite a lot of different therapies throughout my life, at different times. It’s given me the chance to cleanse my body from all the pain and suffering I’ve given myself.’

The subjects of the films do generally centre on the filmmakers’ common experience of difficult circumstances, but each film is the result of a unique creative vision realised through the collaborative work of the filmmaking.

Filmmaker Jenny says, ‘It was a continuation of thinking about difficulties in a creative manner, instead of an overwhelming, self-destructive way.’

Similarly, filmmaker Lauren says, ‘I've learned  a lot in the process of making my film. With Tony and Mario's support, I was able to really look at the difficult parts of myself, but from a distance. I think that by letting them be 'seen' helped me to start to accept them and have more compassion for myself.’

The films were first screened at the ORTUS learning and events centre in Camberwell and included a Q&A session with the filmmakers. They were then screened a second time at the ORTUS (part of the Adamson Festival) and once also at the Bethlem Gallery, again with the filmmakers there to share aspects of the experience with the audience.

Mario, Tony, and the filmmakers hope to take the films to other mental health settings and conferences, and possibly to other arts and gallery screenings, in order to communicate the impact of the project to a wider audience. 

More about what filmmakers thought of the project

Claire says, ‘The process is one of the things that make it enjoyable, even if the content is quite intense or difficult. I think just the pleasure of letting it be and grow, and be nurtured, makes it a very fulfilling thing to be engaged in.’

Jenny says, ‘There’s something very beautiful about the crudish nature of it. It’s not like Wallace and Gromit, but it’s beautiful in its own way, and I think it carries it much better than if it was acted out.’

Irene says, ‘I think that it has made me more visible. My body seems to have really healed. Literally, the scars have really healed since I made the film.’

Lauren says, ‘I feel proud of what I have made and it has shown me that I can create something even on days when I feel like I can't.’

This project was made possible with the help of people like you. If you’ve been inspired by this story, please consider making a donation to SLaM, to ensure people like Irene, Jenny and Claire can continue to find strength and hope, and to inspire others.