Ellen Lande
Film director and critic.

Even Jesus Was Bipolar succeeds in transcending its theme while posing critical questions about the demands placed on men by consumer society

THE ROLE OF MAN

A number of life-affirming movies are currently doing the rounds on Oslo’s more or less alternative scenes. Even Jesus Was Bipolar is an overcoming-all-the-odds story that really stands out, and has already garnered praise in Oslo’s literary and artistic circles through showings at the newly opened Kunstnernes Hus Kino and at Oslo Open.

Claustrophobic

Hypnotizing footage of the forest draws us in, anticipating the main character’s descent into blindness. The claustrophobic, steaming vegetation similarly provides an ominous warning of things to come. Tight, precise directorial moves like these set Even Jesus Was Bipolar apart from other, similar projects. This imaginative documentary about a man who goes blind and is diagnosed with bipolar disorder grabs the audience by the collar. Besides being both well composed and thoughtful, it has been made entirely outside the established system for financing movies. Has this type of financing liberated the directors from sticking rigidly to their topic? Has it led to a greater willingness to pursue a broader, strongly relevant theme?

In 2014, Yamile Calderón receives a phone call from Colombia while her parents are visiting her in Norway. Her brother isn’t only about to go blind, the placid Hernando has also started behaving like a raving lunatic. Not long after, Calderón decides to make a film about her brother and invites Edward Cunniffe to take part in a collaborative partnership of equals. The duo has worked together on different artistic projects since they met at Bergen’s Academy of Art and Design in 2006. Now they sit down to discuss the visual and narrative strategy for the film. Their project receives a small amount of funding from Billedkunstnernes Vederlagsfond–enough for plane tickets to Norway and some equipment. At this juncture the duo has already decided on the narrative frame for the movie: they only want to follow Hernando’s point of view, and they want to do so chronologically.

«Hand in hand and with walking sticks at the ready, they feel their way through the chaotic streets of Colombia.»

Sex and Sugar

The main protagonist is a timid, unassuming man who has lived a conventional life so far, including a university education and a girlfriend. Despite having regular facial features, he has never been happy with his physical appearance. On the contrary, he has strongly disliked it. Hernando goes through a transformative process. He seemingly accepts his coming blindness and leaves for a monastery to find solace in Zen Buddhism. Something is jarring here. Hasn’t the movie promised me a greater existential quest than this? Is Hernando just going to quietly sit there and lose his eyesight? Fortunately no.

Even Jesus Was Bipolar. Director: Yamile Calderón, Edward Cunniffe

The film jumps six months ahead, and Hernando has returned from the monastery. He misses sex and sugar, and it’s liberating to encounter a main character with the courage to “feel” and “act!” The man, who up to this point has come across as somewhat bland and conventional, straightens his back and emerges more fully. Through overcoming the obstacles created by his blindness and the violent mood swings that come with being bipolar, he can sense the presence of another “I”, a life he can only start living the moment he is freed from the deafening bombardment of the mass media. He starts hearing a new voice–his own–which was earlier drowned out by all the noise. Hernando recounts (freely paraphrased), “Only when I could no longer see the projected image–the projection of the ideal man–did I start loving myself. Earlier I’d always thought of myself as ugly.” The words seem absurd when contrasted with the young man in the photo. His features are regular and harmonious, an attractive, typically Latin American face. The blind man talking to the camera has a completely different charisma from his previous self. He’s striking and self-aware. The film depicts Hernando’s reluctance to take medication aimed at slowing down the arrival of his blindness and alleviating his mania. A deep gash can be seen where his eye once was; Hernando recounts in detail how he tried to remove it by digging it out.

Even Jesus Was Bipolar. Director: Yamile Calderón, Edward Cunniffe

Three Blind Men On A Night Out

The film next makes another quantum leap. Hernando relates how his mental disorder also results in an unsurpassed self-confidence and a strong aversion to accepting nourishment. He compares this phase of the disease to when Jesus came back from 40 days of fasting in the desert as the supremely confident Messiah. Hernando’s pattern of behaviour is typical of people with bipolar disorder. He confides that in one of these hubristic phases he felt a strong urge to explore gay eroticism. After the manic phase subsided, he decided to take the plunge.

 «Hernando uses his physical disability and mental illness to turn his life around.»

Hernando discovers that many blind people are isolated and without a social life. With characteristic resourcefulness he creates a support group for those wanting to go on a night out. Hand in hand and with walking sticks at the ready, they feel their way through the chaotic street. No assistants are required, a good thing as the blind don’t have assistants in Colombia. The scene captures Hernando’s lust for life and personal revolt in equal measure, while managing at the same time to convey the vulnerability of his situation.

Longing and Adventures

Hernando uses his physical disability and mental illness to turn his life around. He refuses to see himself as a victim. It’s nevertheless with a pang of sorrow that he acknowledges his desire to have children. It’s not the blindness, but the imbalance associated with bipolar disorder that convinces him that he isn’t suitable for fatherhood. He still dreams in colour and waking up in total darkness still hurts. At the same time, there’s so much that he wants to try out: a blind man in pursuit of love. A surprisingly fast-paced scene shows Hernando expertly throwing himself onto the back of a motorbike and speeding off, full of confidence, towards a lover that he has never seen and will never see. What courage!

 

 

 


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