This article was a finalist and winner of the 2021 DC Student Arts Journalism Competition. Click here to learn more about the competition.
“Disturbed,” a new short film created by American University alumna Ismah Khan, is a brief look at the short-term troubles — and long-term effects — of living with mental illness. Unsettling and remarkably modern, the film makes right on a subject that has so long been misrepresented by Hollywood. The short follows protagonist Monica (Christina Coulter) as she battles insomnia caused by her mental illness — both of which are misunderstood by her friends. She carries the burden of her affliction while being further weighed down by the distrust and disappointment cast on her by the other individuals in her life.
Inspired by filmmaking icons Ari Aster, known most for “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” and Darren Aronofsky — known for “Pi” and “The Fountain” — the crowd-funded horror movie lives fundamentally in tones of blue, with the only source of warm coloring radiating from medication that Monica takes. And while the audience follows along directly with Monica’s journey, they are forced to confront whether they believe her lived experience or the judgement placed on her situation by other characters.
The viewers must also evaluate the source of the monster (Keon Jones) following Monica: is the figure real or fake? A figment of the imagination or a true demon? Khan makes it a point to leave the answer to these questions up to the interpretation of those watching. “I wanted it to be about the fact that we don’t really listen to people when they have pleas that are quite serious regarding how they feel,” Khan said. “I wanted [to have] these deeper conversations about how we participate in the conversation of mental illness, or how we perceive
For Khan, who has bipolar disorder, this project is an important one that has been in the making for over a year. Her personal relationship to the subject matter is particularly crucial when considering the tumultuous relationship that the filmmaking industry has historically had with accurately depicting mental illness and those impacted by it.
“One of the problems I came across — especially because I was on medication — was thinking: what role is medication going to play in this film? Is it going to be the typical ‘medicine makes this person crazy?’ I really didn’t want that, because that’s such an unhealthy narrative to put out there,” Khan said. “In fact, [medication] can do the opposite in a lot of cases.”
During the creation process, Khan said she wanted to make it clear that the medication being taken did nothing to impact the manifestation or resilience of the monster. It is another important step away from the Hollywood obsession with medication and the tendency it has to vilify it.
“It is medication: it works for what it’s intended for,” Khan said. “It’s not what causes the monster, it’s not what makes these nightmares happen. And I wanted to be very intentional about that.”
As for the technical side of production, Khan is not the only AU alum on the film: actor Valarie McFatter and tech members Fernando Rocha and Reignon Prillman all graduated from AU. The crew of the film is also predominantly BIPOC, a decision that Khan takes great pride in. “I feel like as a filmmaker and creator that it’s my duty to raise other BIPOC individuals with me,” Khan said. “Anything I do in terms of my career is always connected to people of color and making sure that we’re creating a network within ourselves.” Khan said she knows that “Disturbed” is just the beginning of the hard-hitting work she intends to create. “I would love to keep making films, and keep getting better, and tell more poignant stories,” Khan said. “I think ‘Disturbed’ is just right at the surface of all the things I want to say.”
Olivia Kozlevcar is a junior at American University studying Literature and Journalism with a minor in Legal Studies. She is in her third semester of working with the University’s award-winning newspaper “The Eagle” and second semester of functioning as the Arts & Entertainment editor. You can follow her writing on The Eagle and catch up with her on social media (@OliviaKozlevcar) to be alerted of all her adventures, writing or otherwise.