A new documentary film by Temple University professor Eran Preis explores the impact of severe mental illness on an entire family. The focus of the documentary is his own family.
Jonathan Preis, the youngest of three boys, was “never OK,” as his mother, artist Andrea Preis, puts it. Trouble in school, defiant behavior, drinking, drugs, run-ins with the law. As a young man, he returned to Israel, where he was born, to join the army.
At first, he seemed to thrive. Then, as his parents recall in the opening scenes of the documentary “Jonathan’s Return,” things fell apart.
Jonathan had left the military, suffered a mental breakdown, was in a psychiatric hospital, and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He eventually returned to the United States, where he shuffled from one hospital to the next. In between hospital stays, he lived in his parents’ home, rarely leaving his bedroom.
For filmmaker Eran Preis, his profession and craft became a coping mechanism, and a way to communicate with his son. “Jonathan and I made films before, we taped each other, when he was 13, he was taping himself, and we felt very honest with the camera,” said Preis.
The film follows Jonathan Preis back to Israel, where he revisits the locations of his mental breakdown.
We see Jonathan during more hopeful periods. During times of deep paranoia, the screen fills with images of a manic Jonathan ranting, creating the experience of hearing voices.
Eran Preis walks a difficult line being both father and filmmaker, and at times, it seems as if he is grateful for the distance the camera creates between his son’s suffering and himself.
In one scene, his son Abner lashes out at him for filming Jonathan acting up at a family function, accusing his father of taking advantage of Jonathan, and hiding behind the camera.
Andrea Preis says she was often conflicted about her husband’s project. “I felt that some of it was inappropriate, and sometimes that having the camera on site, sometimes really provoked a lot of anger and arguing in the family.”
Now that the documentary is finished, she says it was worth it, as long as it helps educate people about the struggles faced by families living with mental illness.
Eran Preis says the film’s most important message is not one of hope; it is no “triumph of the human spirit” tale. He wants to prepare other families for the frequent changes that mental illness brings.
‘Constant ups and downs’
“It’s the constant ups and downs, that’s what we have learned,” said Preis. “For a while, he goes to school, and he is doing very well, and then it just cannot hold, and it falls apart, that’s the constant struggle.”
Andrea Preis says that many mental health experts talk about “recovery” from mental illness, which she says gives families false hope.
“There are periods of recovery and there are periods of regression, and I think it’s very misleading,” she said. “And it creates a false sense of how this is going to end.”
Eran Preis said even his own visions of how the project was going to end were false–he had hoped his son would attend the premiere of the film.
“That was my dream, that he was going to be with us, that people would watch the film, they would clap, and he’d say ‘my name is Jonathan, I am a musician, but I also suffer from mental illness,’ ” said Eran Preis.
Jonathan was not present for the film’s first public screening. He is currently in rehab for substance abuse, but is doing better.
Eran Preis plans to make another film on this subject, about community inclusion for people living with mental ilness.