Unlikely friends take documentary look at mental illness – Mars Project

mars project trailer

 Article in Toronto Star 19 Jan 2013 telling the story of friends Jonathan Balazs and Khari “Conspiracy” Stewart and the film they have been making together that tells of  Khari’s story, and how his encounters with the mental health system have been less than helpful.

Khari hears voices and sometimes finds that a struggle to live with, but also rejects medicine’s story that he has a mental illness – he regards it as a metaphysical, spiritual experience.  

Khari is a musician and entertainer and his voices inform his music and help him “produce some amazing stuff”.

…as indeed many other voice hearers do, from Lord Byron, to Brian Wilson.

We featured the Mars Project in July 2012 and helped have a trailer  shown during Mad Pride Toronto at the event  Inquiry into Schizophrenia Label .
Their movie is  now finished and the that team made it are hoping to have it screened it at Hot Docs. Look out for it -it’s gonna be a cracker.

See also

I hear what you don’t hear

A similar story of  another musician who struggled with the voices he heard but found support from his local hearing voices network  and learned ways to live with the voices.  This one is from The Netherlands and features Robin Timmers and his music – it was featured at the World Hearing Voices Congress in Sep 2012. 

related stories

the star

Unlikely friends take documentary look at mental illness

Jim Coyle Feature Writer.

Published on Saturday January 19, 2013

Photo : Rick Madonik/Toronto Star Rapper Khari (Conspiracy) Stewart, left, and filmmaker John Balazs, seen outside Ryerson, collaborated on the Mars Project, a provocative look at mental illness and the mental health system in Canada. 



Jonathan Balazs and Khari “Conspiracy” Stewart make one of the unlikelier pairs anyone is ever apt to encounter.

Balazs, a compact 27-year-old of Hungarian descent, is a recent fine arts graduate from Ryerson University who, with his trimmed beard and waxed moustache, soft voice and thoughtful demeanour, seems every bit the Euro-artiste.

Stewart, tall, black and 35, with a large stud in his nose, an address in Parkdale and the layered, baggy uniform and hood of the street, cuts a much more imposing figure.

But the two men are friends. Close friends. Closer, probably, than most men ever get.

They are also collaborators — both as partners in a hip-hop album and, most recently, as filmmaker and subject in a documentary called Mars Project, an unsettling and provocative look at madness and the mental health system in Canada.

The two men first crossed paths 10 years ago in Edmonton. Balazs and Stewart were both part of the local hip-hop scene. So compelling was Stewart’s work — and so eccentric his behaviour — that Balazs noticed him “long before we ever uttered a word to each other.”

Eventually, they started hanging out. Balazs interviewed first Khari’s twin brother and musical partner, Addi, then Khari himself for an article published by an online hip-hop magazine.

That’s how he learned the Stewarts’ story. And that’s where Balazs’s vision took root.

The Stewart boys were born in August 1977 in Toronto. Soon, they moved with their Jamaican-born mother, Mertella, to Edmonton, where they were straight-A students through elementary school. “We were regular kids,” Addi says.

After high school, Khari moved back to Ontario. And there, in 1996, while living in Ottawa, he started hearing voices.

There were two, he says, one male, one female. He calls them “Anacron” and “Anacrona.” He couldn’t function, couldn’t get a job. He became terrified, moving back to Edmonton in 2000 to live with his mother.

“I was a normal kid before (the voices) came and when they came I turned all weird, all negative and stuff, because they’re bothering me, they’re causing me to lash out and hate life.”

He was ultimately taken to the Alberta Mental Hospital. There, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent more than a year as an in-patient. He was heavily medicated, he says, but the treatment didn’t accomplish much.

Khari was eventually released after telling psychiatrists the voices had stopped. But they never did, he said. He just figured out that compliance was the quickest road out.

He never bought the diagnosis of schizophrenia. He believes he is cursed by “devil magic,” that his condition is metaphysical, his solution to be found in psychics and the spiritual realm.

He still hears the voices every day, he says. “I could be sitting here at peace and then, like, the voices will just materialize and they’ll distract my concentration.” And he knows it “affects my friends, my family.

“I want to get back to the normal kid before (the voices) were in my life,” he says. But the only way to silence those voices, the voices themselves tell Khari, is for him to “blow his brains out.”

As for Balazs, he left Edmonton to attend Ryerson. But Khari and his struggles were seldom far from the aspiring filmmaker’s thoughts.

From Khari’s theories of demonic possession, and his less than productive encounter with the mental health system, Balazs made a short piece about him for a school assignment. Later, still trying to answer some of the questions his friendship with Khari had raised, he enrolled in a Ryerson course on the “history of madness.”

Balazs showed his short film to a professor, made another and, after graduation in 2010, decided to “go full at it” and make a documentary.

The film, shot mostly in Toronto, flits between Khari’s lavish wreaths of marijuana smoke and interviews with psychiatrists discussing schizophrenia, between characterizations of the bizarre internal world Stewart inhabits and the baleful impact his condition and behaviour have on others.

“He looks like my brother, but he doesn’t act like my brother,” says Addi Stewart, with whom Khari has occasionally lived and who took, during such periods, to sleeping with a knife under his pillow.

Balazs raises intriguing questions about the limits of psychiatry, the limits of medication, and the efficacy of community treatment orders. In some segments, Khari plays a wizard to symbolize “the mysterious side of psychiatry and spirits and everything that’s unknown.”

Danielle Landry, a teaching assistant at Ryerson and associate producer on the film, says Khari’s story “doesn’t really fit your traditional mental health narrative. It’s not a recovery story. He’s not all cured.”

But it’s important, Landry says, to look at some of the issues his experience raises, “to look at why he’s more likely to be on a community treatment order than a white man his age, why he’d be more likely to be locked up.”

In fact, Khari is effortlessly articulate and entertaining, even more effortlessly profane. He lives on disability support and what he makes performing, having made visits, as many mental patients do, to jails. He also receives mandatory biweekly injections at St. Michael’s Hospital to retain his support payments.

On the positive side, the voices have informed his music, he says, and infused it with wild darkness. “I make music about my life. This is what I’m going through. So I write songs about them.”

The film “really looks at Khari’s social world and everything going on in his world,” Landry says. “And it’s important that we feature a lot of his music because it shows that mad people, even though they’re mad, they can work and they can produce some amazing stuff.”

Balazs and Stewart laugh now at some of their experiences.

“Imagine you’re talking to a psychiatrist and try to tell them that you’re a rap star and that somebody’s making a movie about you,” says Balazs. “You think that’s gonna fly?”

Even Khari’s mother was initially apprehensive.

“She thought he was trying to rip me off,” Khari laughs. “She said, ‘Is this guy gonna take your story and make a bunch of money off you?’

“But I felt a vibe. I trust this guy. He’s got a good heart.”

Now, Balazs hopes to have the documentary screened at a festival like Hot Docs in Toronto this spring and to win wider distribution.

And what did Khari think of the finished product?

“I think my life is one wild and exciting adventure.”

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