After uncovering archival footage filmed by her psychologist father in ’90s Germany, director Zora Kuettner began investigating his radical treatment of mental illness, and the stories she spent her entire life listening to. The result is “Don’t Call Me Mad,” an examination of not only Dr. Kuettner’s visionary treatment methods, but how his past influenced his relationship with his daughter.
The project, selected as part of the IDFA Forum Pitch program, is Kuettner’s first feature film and is produced by BFI Vision Award-winning Loran Dunn of Delaval Film, and executive produced by Charlie Phillips, former head of video at the Guardian, and Sandpaper Film’s Henry Singer.
“I think this film has always been inside of me and now felt like the right moment to make it happen,” Kuettner says. “I believe that, as a woman, if you are even remotely organized and have a good head on your shoulders, you very quickly go into the role of producer, and it can be quite hard to make the jump to directing. With this film, no one else could tell this story. I am my father’s daughter, so I felt justified as the director, so to speak.”
Loran, who is also working on a fiction film starring “Stranger Things” actor Joseph Quinn, adds: “I’ve known Zora for almost 10 years, and have known she’s been working on this story for a long time. We started talking about it right before the pandemic and it developed in a way that was very interesting to me. To see Zora recognize her voice within the film was something I truly responded to as a producer, and I wanted to help her get the story told.”
On the toll the film might take on her relationship with her dad, Zora says: “There is a fear of not only exposing him but exposing myself. I think it’s quite natural to have doubts as a filmmaker because some people look at the story of my dad and ask: why do I care about it? And then you dig deeper and the fact he was a reformer is not actually the story; the story is trying to find the truth: what happened? I hope that people come to the story because of this personal dynamic and are lured into thinking about serious mental illness.”
“I started talking to my dad about the film around 10 years ago, in 2013,” she continues, dwelling on the lengthy preparation process she has undergone with her father. “I think he felt uneasy about embarking on the journey. He was interested and he had this longing to see his patients again and find out what happened, but I think he also felt quite nervous and anxious about what confronting that part of his life would mean to him.
“The other thing is that I am finding myself as a filmmaker. When I started making this film, I thought it was going to be about these amazing stories my dad always told, and that we would meet his patients and he would be this great hero. The film turned out to be a sort of reckoning that dreams might not always be quite what we thought, and some things can be very different. It feels like the ultimate stage of adulthood, coming to that point,” she adds.
Speaking on the importance of making “Don’t Call Me Mad,” Kuettner says: “There’s a certain amount of irony in the fact that I’m sort of stuck in this idealistic hope of this film, of wanting to tell this story in the right way. Filmmaking is also a form of idealism, so you have a dream of what the film can be, and this is one of my driving forces. When I first started working on the film, I had never heard a story that was remotely joyful or positive about what you can do with someone who has schizophrenia or hears voices. Even though the truth that I found is more complex than what my dad originally proposed, I think I still want to capture some of that beauty, some of that magic and some of that hope.”