That’s a wrap: Medfest 2014 comes to a close

The 30th and final Medfest film event of 2014 took place last week. I had the privilege of being this year’s national lead, and wanted to take this opportunity to review the festival and to thank everyone.

Medfest is an annual series of evening events held at medical schools across the UK each spring. It’s funded by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and organised by trainee psychiatrists. A programme of medically-themed short films, clips and animations are shown and discussed with panels of distinguished names from psychiatry and related disciplines, with the aim of getting medical students interested in mental health.

Through our theme for the year, the catchy yet mysterious “Medicine from Cradle to Grave”, we aimed to show how film portrays medicine impacting upon the lives of people of all ages.

Our poster, for the third consecutive year, was designed by the marvellous David Shillinglaw.


Gradually, we found trainee psychiatrists and medical students all over the country who were interested in organising an event in their local medical school. Though we weren’t able to host an event everywhere, our final total of 30 events was an exponential increase on the previous years of 9, 16 and then 21 events. We also found no shortage of amazing pannellists, with the likes of Claire Gerada, Norman Lamb MP, David Nutt, Simon Wessely and Raj Persaud more than happy to give up their time to chat about how the various clips affected them.

We were lucky enough to find some wonderful films, which together formed a vibrant, varied programme:

Our first section, the health of children, was led by Shane Koyczan’s animated spoken-word poem To This Day, a viscerally eloquent tour through the hell of being bullied and the lifelong after-effects. The poem touched many audience members personally, but equally, some panels found that it tried too hard, or was even unnecessarily scary or defeatist.

To this day

We also compared two clips on Polio. The 1946 public education film His Fighting Chance, narrated by Eleanor Roosevelt and a real child of its time, was contrasted with the slick computer generated imagery of a commercial from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called Polio’s Last Percent. There were so many ways to compare the films – social attitudes, film making techniques, medical progress – it was a fertile ground for discussion. Overall, though audiences enjoyed watching both films they also remarked that they felt equally disingenuous, covering up aspects of the truth for different aims (morale and money).

Polio                             Polio2

In the second section, the heath of adults, we compared two more films. In a brave gamble we decided to include Dr Easy, a science fiction short about a robot doctor dealing with a mental health crisis. The dystopian tale and its unsettling ending left many an audience member torn – did they feel comfortable with liking the film in spite of its artificiality, and could they accept what it had to say about our own, supposedly uniquely human, communication skills?

In direct contrast, we showed a collection of clips from the recent Channel 4 series Bedlam. Lloyd, a man recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, was shown coming to terms with his diagnosis and the image of madness that he assumed society would now have of him. The audience comments on this film were far more widely appreciative, but also sometimes pessimistic – is this all good mental health care can really achieve?

   Dr Easy                Bedlam

In our final section, health in old age, we showed two more short films back to back. Irene, the story of a 92 year old Scottish lady suffering with Alzheimer dementia preparing for a week in respite care, was shot by her granddaughter director Lindsay Goodall. It was compelling, heart warming and truly brought out the personality of the titular character as she resiliently lived her life. Flatline, in a directly opposing style, was a brash American short film showing two pioneering heart surgeons recount their implantation of the first prosthetic heart into a human. Though no less captivating, audiences noticed that it lacked a rich narrative of the patient – something Irene did fantastically.

Other areas of discussion including whether Irene could give informed consent to be filmed (which Linday Goodall herself, as a pannellist in Edinburgh, assured us that she could), the increasing demonisation of the unavoidable process of death, and the need to consider a sick person in a social context.

Irene                     Flatline

Packed into around 2 hours, the programme was quite a challenge to co-ordinate and I’m sure many a local lead will have been glad when the time came to hand out the feedback forms and get started on the cheese and wine.

As reports came back to us from up and down the country, it was clear that thankfully, our hard work had paid off.  Films were hated and loved, but the pattern of attitudes varied across each event. We’d split people’s opinions, made them think and got them talking about mental heath.

Overall, the feedback we had was highly positive, which is very rewarding. It appears that well over 1000 medical students attended, and they seemed genuinely more attuned to mental health and more likely to consider it as a career as a result. You can read far more articulate reviews than mine by Desmond O’Neill in his BMJ blog and Anna Taylor in her Bristol University Psychiatry Society blog. We were also the cover feature of the most recent edition of Junior Dr magazine.

Clearly, the job of leading the whole festival was far too much for one person, certainly for me. The first thing I did after being given the role was to advertise for willing (naïve) helpers, and I need to thank them profusely – I was lucky enough to find an amazing group of committee members, and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for all their hard work.

Alex Blackman, under the nominal title of secretary, was a firm hand on the tiller of our website and co-ordinated the distribution of posters and DVDs with effortless precision.

Daniel Meek and Duke Nzekwue, as my co-leads, took a substantial amount of stress off my hands by liaising with a proportion of the local leads, and they also found extra sponsorship.

Louise Murphy, along with Helen Hutchings, organised a phenomenal art exhibition at the Royal College. It was the first time we’d branched out into art, and Louise and Helen took hold of our theme for the year brilliantly by displaying work from patients of all ages.

Kat Levick was our music lead, lending a hand to the team at the National Student Psychiatry Conference in organising their Medfest:Music night, and also putting together a night of medically-related music on a boat on the Thames too.

Karina Beinerte, our international lead, scoured the globe for potential host cities outside of the UK, and came up trumps with Canberra, Melbourne and Riga. Next year we’re looking good for Canada and more of Europe too, which is very exciting.

I also need to thank everyone who helped out at local events, everyone who sat on a panel, and of course, everyone who turned up to an event. I’m also grateful to The Royal College of Psychiatrists for funding the events, and I hope they agree that they’ll make their money back in terms of improved recruitment!

Medfest will be back for another round of mental health-inspired film, art and music in 2015. We don’t know the theme yet, we don’t even know who’ll be taking charge of it, but one thing is for sure – it’ll be bigger, brighter and better than ever. Lights, camera, action.

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