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High Anxiety: A Memoir of Genetic Karma

A film by Julie Gustafson

This new film by award-winning filmmaker Julie Gustafson explores her Scandinavian family’s “no good, bad luck genetic karma,” which is how she describes the mental health challenges that have plagued her family in the US and in Sweden for over half a century. Three generations have diagnoses that include anxiety, depression, manic depression, bipolar 2, and/or neurosis; no one has escaped it.

The second of four daughters and the family filmmaker, Julie has been contemplating this film for most of her life. She has hundreds of family photos and interview footage shot with her mother over the years, for her earlier films including Politics of Intimacy (1973), Home (1979), and Desire (2005).  Now, as the camera rolls, she gently prods her sisters and children to talk about their own experiences. With remarkable candor and humor we hear about their conflicting views of their parents, their mostly bad experiences with mental health professionals, and their complicated but loving relationships with each other. Each of them has tried to address their demons in unique ways; Julie’s way is to make this film.

While the lens is intensely personal, the story is not: it is a universal story about how society treats those with mental illnesses, often making them feel like moral failures. Julie has seen this first-hand, and her hope in weaving together her family’s story is to encourage and help others who deal with similar mental health challenges. 

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