When straight-A student Jacob (Antoine L’Ecuyer) starts hearing voices and howling wolves in his head, he blames it on a bad trip. However, he and his family are quickly forced to accept a diagnosis of schizophrenia, an uncertain future.
“Mon Fils” (“Son of Mine”), one of the shows on display in the Series Market Selects section of the Berlinale this week, puts schizophrenia and mental illness front and center. The Quebecois mini-series was co-created by Anne Boyer and Michel D’Astous and first season aired its six episodes almost a year ago in Canada. Its producers are now hoping to drum up interest in the international sales department.
Variety spoke with Boyer via Zoom about the research she carried out and the families she spoke to in order to achieve an honest portrayal of what it’s like to be schizophrenic.
What does it mean for the series to be screening at Berlin?
International attention is very important for us, of course. We need to talk about this subject specifically, a taboo disease. Mental health issues, especially in times of a pandemic, are something that we need to shine a light on. Even before the pandemic, almost every day there was something in the newspaper here in Quebec about mental health issues.
Why did you want to make a series about schizophrenia?
Often Michel and I are writing about things that scare us. We chose schizophrenia because it’s a real mental issue, not a transition condition, and also because it’s so scary, and nobody really talks about that. We had a big story here about a guy who had university degrees but became homeless because of schizophrenia. He was killed by the police because he was perceived as being aggressive. We wanted to go inside this particular disease to see what’s the real deal here. 25 years ago, it was almost a death sentence to be schizophrenic, but now, there is a solution, you can live with it and have a life. That was important for us to talk about that through a family story.
Authenticity is so important when portraying mental illnesses. What research did you do for the series?
We talked to people with schizophrenia, psychiatrists, doctors, patient associations because there’s a lot of contestation to being medicated, some people don’t want to receive medication. We chose to put this family at the center because we didn’t want to show a main character from a disadvantaged background. It’s not an illness that touches specific people, it could touch anybody. Another big challenge was to show in an accelerated timeframe over six episodes, a complete course of the illness from A to Z: the beginning, the hospitalization, the refusal of treatment, the pitfalls, the difficulty linked to the health system, and then the recovery. We especially wanted to spend time on the recovery because we absolutely wanted to show that although schizophrenia is an incurable disease, it’s controllable, it’s not a conviction. We wanted a happy ending because it’s possible to have a happy ending to this disease.
You also spend a lot of time showing the parents’ perspective too.
They often don’t have any knowledge of this mental illness. At the beginning, in the first episodes they think it’s a bad trip, he’s weird, he’s sad because he broke up with his girlfriend. I think we all react like this. You don’t want to hear that your son has schizophrenia, it’s so scary. A lot of people wrote to us, people who have a mental illness in their family. I was happy about that because I think we did a good job of representing the challenge to families in that situation.
Would you make a second season?
No, I don’t think so. The only thing we thought about was maybe talking about another mental issue in another series and call it “My Daughter,” for example, or “My Father,” but there is no sequel planned.