Known for their prolific and expansive career as an editor, creative director, stylist & fashion editor, wordsmith & copywriter, and now filmmaker – Ky Bxshxff offers us a rare and precious moment of vulnerability within the fashion / creative industry through their directorial debut CABIN FEVER.
The film depicts interchanging actors characterising “The Boy”. A figure in isolation is tempered by daily tasks that slowly begin to unbind; exposing the sheer ferocity with which the psyche can dance into oblivion if left to its own device. I strongly resonated with many scenes in the film, finding it eerily soothing to see my own past behaviours reflected back to me — as someone who lives with bipolar mood disorder characterised by periods of psychosis. I am all too familiar with how the dissolution of an organised reality is slowly seeded over days, weeks — until one is eventually unable to conceive of a world outside of their own mind. This dissociation from normalised and socialised reality renders me unable to function, yet it is with an intimate and largely misunderstood fondness that I cherish those secretive insights into the interiors of my mind. There is an ominous crescendo to the narrative and in my interpretation this was a stark portrayal of the utter ego death one goes through during dissociative and psychotic states, where there is no separation of living and dying, no binding social constructs or contracts; it is merely the utter edge of internal existence. Ky has created more than a film in this regard. They have created a landscape in which real dialogue can be forged to bring us out of the darkness of stigmatisation around mental health and towards a reality free of society’s ableist demands of the human experience — an astounding feat for a film that was born out of the uncertainty and constraints of the global pandemic and it is a privilege to share their incredibly poignant insights into the film.
How did the vision for this film arise?
Lockdown is the clear catalyst – but, it is not the narrative. Funnily enough, though it didn’t feel funny at the time, the beginning part of the year (and the last quarter of 2019) was dedicated to another film, my originally-planned debut. That film was dedicated to the uniquely magical mix of inner-city living married with outdoor life that Cape Town offers – for obvious reasons, after months of pre-production, this project stalled. Initially I was devastated – but, as always, I remind myself that divine timing is better than mine. Funny how things just work out in the end, right? After passing through the stages of grief for my lost project, I started looking around me – careful and critical observation of the world around one, through the lens of one’s own lived experience, is the origin of every great story. I realised that the unprecedented disruption to all our lives and the isolated, disconnectedness (especially that of solitary youths) that 2020 thrust upon us looked very much like mental health — or brain health, as I’ve enjoyed hearing it called — difficulties that many of us face. The film aims to help the viewer draw this comparison within their own understanding. And so, lockdown became a playground for me to explore the psyche and the solitary adventure (maybe misadventure?) it takes when isolated — whether forced out by others from social connection or forced out by one’s own thoughts.
So many people tell me they can relate to the film, linking it with some of the various activities they too did during lockdown – which is great, and I love every interpretation of the film because ultimately it is the viewer’s film, not mine. But at its core, this is a movie about mental health. It tells the story of the dizzying descent towards death of the unchecked, untreated, unsupported psyche. COVID-19 is a killer to be taken seriously — as is the threat to our health system. But, should we not be talking about mental health as much? Last month I read a shocking statistic: according to the SA Depression & Anxiety Group “there are 23 recorded suicides a day, and for every suicide there are a further 20 attempted suicides”. [Hectic], right?.. The more we can talk about this, the safer I hope people will feel to both be authentic and to seek treatment or support. “Unlearning” is the theme of 2020 — so too must we unlearn our archaic views around brain-health and start treating it with the same openness and compassion that many other conditions receive. It’s cliché, though I do love a cliché , that if this film opened one person’s eyes to this, I have achieved the mission I committed to when CABIN FEVER was but a seed and a spark.
I found the film evoked a level of suspense; there are moments when the characters were doing simple tasks, and then suddenly starting leaning into more introspective moments with their interrogation of themselves in isolation. The accompanying soundtrack really amplified those moments. What are some of the core themes the film aims to explore?
My team and I worked very hard to suspend the viewer within the waves of The Boy’s psyche; back and forth. The brain, in my experience, works like that. This ebb and flow sometimes means that we only pick up our general direction sometime too late. Much to Jesse Fine, my Director of Photography’s horror, there was no ordered editing plan, beyond the ending. Rather, it was very intuitive, almost inhabiting The Boy’s head and letting them lead the edit. I also worked with an extremely talented musician, Ntokozo Mzimela from CT-based band Orah and the Kites. Ultimately, we feel that the film is immersive — just as we experience our brain health. Personally, I live with Schizophrenia, Depression and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. It’s a simple fact of my identity – as simple as the fact that my eyes are brown and green. However, living with this alternatively-wired circuit in my brain can be far from simple.
Thematically, it’s that chaos that we are exploring. Lockdown becomes a universally relatable backdrop to explore isolation and dissociation. What do we do when we feel isolated? Do we isolate ourselves? How do we react when we are isolated by others? What does dissociation feel like, does it even feel like anything at all? Ultimately, the films ends in a death scene. Perhaps, some might take this as a sombre view on mental health. For me, I’d rather focus on the two-thirds (and a bit) where The Boy sways between states. This is where we can make real change. This is where we can change the narrative with compassion and acceptance. From a stylistic point of view, the surrealist and absurdist way of telling the story is the story itself. Within our own minds, nothing is real and everything is absurd. But where is the line between that world within and the world without?
Film is such a robust medium for communicating ideas, but it comes with unique challenges. How was the production process under the COVID circumstances?
For starters, shifting from a film I’d worked on for months (investing time and money) to a film I had just written was a mountain to climb on its own. Once I reached the summit, I developed a can-do, will-do, lets-do attitude to producing and directing this film. During lockdown, I ran all casting from my parent’s spare room in Joburg, with Cape Town actors, running production meetings and rehearsals much the same way. I think this actually helped streamline the process, a welcome relief for a first-time filmmaker. But, of course there were challenges. Some actors I only met on our first day of filming (scheduled as soon as it was allowed). I think there’s an efficiency to our working online but it lacked the chemistry that is sometimes needed to co-create magic. What I was really impressed by was the industry’s creation of how-to standards for shoots, which were shared via WhatsApp like a grapevine. We followed these on set as far as possible, working with responsible studios and a cast and crew committed to the cause. I am so grateful to that cast and crew, who each worked above and beyond to tell this story during such a wild time. Ultimately, I think what I’ve learned is that when you have a strong story to tell, you’ll find a way to tell it. Plus, now every time I’m nervous about something, I remind myself that I pulled off my first film in 2020 so now I can do just about anything.
The film deals with dissociation — in my own experience with bipolar and psychosis, living in a disassociated reality is perhaps one of the loneliest, yet simultaneously most profound spaces I have ever been in. What are your thoughts on how the mind seeks to cope with altered realities?
The brain is a rather clever little thing, but sometimes it gets its algorithms wrong in an effort to always over-protect us. It learns what hurts and what destroys, and creates a force-field around us. For many, this force-field is dissociation. Myself, I lived many years with untreated Schizophrenia, which included many prolonged waltz’s with psychosis. It becomes incredibly lonely when your reality is always unseen, unheard and misunderstood by those around you. That is a really lonely world to live in, much like The Boy in CABIN FEVER. I glamourised the chaos and romanticised the isolation, helping to maintain the walls that trapped me within myself. Today, through my spirituality, medicinal treatment (both psychiatric, western medicines and more holistic plant-based medicine) and therapy (lots and lots and lots of therapy) — I now have the tools to mitigate psychotic blips. I have learnt to channel what used to hold me captive, into something that hopefully holds my audience captive. That said, reality is the most relative thing. Also, there is wisdom and grounding and inspiration to be found in the altered realities of our inner, alternatively-wired psyches. I work very hard, with a support system I trust, to find the ways to rein in that which holds me back and nurture that which makes my unique point of view powerful.
Written and directed by: Ky Bxshxff