Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival announces online and outdoors programme

Attribution/author:Article by: Deborah Chu

The multi-arts festival's 15th edition will challenge conceptions of normality in the wake of the mental health crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic

When Covid-19 reached our shores in March last year, there was a lot of talk about a 'new normal', which has since developed around public health measures such as mask wearing, physical distancing and endless Netflix binging. But when the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival returns for their 15th edition this May, audiences will be asked what, exactly, does normal mean? What did the 'old normal' mean to our lives and mental health, and how could we do things differently post-pandemic?

Running from Mon 3–Sun 23 May, SMHAF will coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week (Mon 10–Sun 16 May) and will be the festival's second digital programme, after last year's plans were forced to rapidly shift gears and go online in the wake of 2020's first lockdown. In the year that has elapsed since, people across the world have faced mental health crises as a result of the unprecedented pressures and isolation brought on by the pandemic and lockdown measures. Greater support and a more compassionate understanding of mental health is now more vital than ever.

As one of Scotland's largest festivals, SMHAF's programme is built from the ground-up by regional coordinators in addition to its central team, meaning that its events and messaging are tailored to connect with the specific needs of audiences across the country. In accordance with ongoing lockdown restrictions, SMHAF's 2021 programme will feature a mix of online and outdoors events, with highlights including six new artist commissions, to be announced later this month; a month-long project titled Gathering, led by SMHAF associate Emma Jayne Park, which will explore the importance of being together, whatever form that may take; Clare Robertson and Stefanie Blum's performance Home: A Performative Space, which will encourage audiences to create installations out of everyday objects; a discussion on 'climate grief' led by artists and filmmakers, and reflections upon how 'normal' methods of artmaking tend to exclude certain individuals; as well as the annual SMHAF Writing Competition, in association with Bipolar Scotland.

The festival's annual International Film Competition will be making a welcome return via the online platform INDY on Demand, with all films available to view for a full week on a pay-what-you-can basis, and will each include a live discussion with filmmakers and other guests. Audiences everywhere can catch screenings of Mike Hoolboom's documentary Judy Versus Capitalism, which centres upon the activist work of radical feminist Judy Rebick; the award winning Croatian documentary Neighbours, which follows a group of people re-adjusting to life after decades spent in a psychiatric institution; the UK premiere of Dead Souls' Vacation, an intimate portrait of the relationship between a Georgian musician and his elderly mother; and Egyptian filmmaker Hisham Saqr's debut film Certified Mail, about a young mother who struggles with depression while caring for her baby.

Running alongside SMHAF's roster of feature films is their short film programme, which will highlight the themes of 'Grief, Nature, Normality?' and 'Lived Experience', and feature the world premiere of debut films by acclaimed playwright Zinnie Harris and Greek playwright and actor Elpida Stathatou. Harris and Stathatou will also be running an online workshop about working across the stage and screen, chaired by poet and playwright Hannah Lavery. Moreover, audiences will be invited to participate in the documentary game DOCMA, which will see them contribute to the development of short films exploring issues around nature and normality.

Gail Aldam, the Arts and Events manager for the Mental Health Foundation, says of SMHAF's 2021 festival: 'This is our second online festival, and will be on a bigger and more ambitious scale than our programme in May 2020, as well as building on much of what we have learned during a year of global lockdown. Every year our festival theme is decided through a voting process by our team of regional coordinators across Scotland and 'Normality?' was a clear favourite this year.

The choice was inspired by a wave of media stories during lockdown that constantly referred to people adjusting to 'the new normal' or a desire for society to 'return to normal'. We want to challenge the value judgements often associated with the words 'normal' and 'normality'. What does 'normality' mean? And who is excluded from that? We're really looking forward to finding out how artists and events organisers all across Scotland respond to this theme.'

Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival will run from Mon 3–Sun 23 May. For more information, visit

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