This Time Through Narrative: ART AND CRAFT

When one of the most prolific art forgers in US history is finally exposed, he must confront the legacy of his 30-year con

Sam Cullman, Art and Craft

Documentaries come in many flavors. Some are a call to action. Some exist just to entertain. Others exist to educate. And, of course, so many are a combo, as well. But, at minimum all good docs in some way or another invite us to look at our world in new ways so that we might be changed by the experience of watching them.

From IF A TREE FALLS to THE HOUSE I LIVE IN and now ART AND CRAFT, I’ve been very lucky to have my hands full these last few years working on three very different films about three very different subjects. And while each film was designed to engage, to inform and to compel viewers, each required a very different approach to the subject matter and material.

ART AND CRAFT, my latest project with Jennifer Grausman, stands at the unlikely intersection of three key issues: philanthropy, fine art, and mental health. But unlike the others, the model for this film was to start first and foremost with character and story — and then let narrative invite viewers to confront the key social issues at play.

The film follows prolific art forger Mark Landis just at the moment his elaborate thirty-year con is exposed. We found the story in 2011 when The New York Times published an early and largely incomplete article about him. But we were hooked from the start by it’s unusual premise: Mark Landis wasn’t in it for the money — in fact, he’d given his fakes away to staggering list of museums across the US.  And when The Times described him as essentially “at large,” we knew we had to track him down.

Landis it turns out was hiding in plain sight at his mother’s house in Laurel, Mississippi. He was immediately captivating and after winning his trust, we received unfettered access, filming him at work both as forger and “philanthropist.” But as we began to unpack Landis’ complex motivations and the impulses that brought him to where he is today, we soon saw that this story was bigger than its fascinating art-world framework.

When we first began researching the film, we did not yet know that Landis suffered from mental illness. And while the art-caper elements of his story originally drew us in, when Landis told us early on that he was a diagnosed schizophrenic, we knew that, amidst everything else, we had an incredible opportunity to address issues of mental health through narrative.

I don’t want to give away too many plot points, but the film begins in the early days of Landis’ public outing and is structured to follow him through a period of great productivity and also pressure as he is forced to confront his victims and the legacy of his actions. And with intimate access to Landis as he wrestles with the consequences of his deception, we gain a deep understanding of his hopes, desires and also his very real struggles with mental illness.

The film, for the most part, avoids talking head experts, but we took care to include the perspectives of health care providers who are  directly connected to Landis by filming with caregivers at his mental health center and documenting his relationship with his former social worker. This very personal aspect of the film works to open up a window into Landis’ inner world and once in the edit room and working with our editor and co-director, Mark Becker, we began to see how Landis’ elaborate con was at its core a means to cultivate connection and respect. In the end ART AND CRAFT emerges as an unflinching exploration of life with mental illness and the universal need for community and purpose. And it is our hope that the experience of watching this film will invite viewers to pose a nuanced question not often asked: Are Mark Landis’ desires and needs in the world much different from mine, yours, or really anyone else’s? And, after discussions with mental healthcare workers, we came to see that this message could serve their cause well too.

Though the film does of course eschew directed exposition and prescription, ART AND CRAFT presents an opportunity to rally support for a mental health policy that’s more robust and prioritizes community for patients as a central tenant of treatment. The chance to cultivate meaning and connection in life has proven invaluable to patients’ ability to avoid isolation and alleviate stresses that can cause them to become ensnared in the criminal justice system.

In an era when debate over mental health policy is often tied to gun control, Landis’ story offers a complex and decidedly not-violent portrait of a man who harnessed his disabilities rather than becoming consumed by them. ART AND CRAFT is not a-call-to-action film but viewers will be challenged to reconsider pre-conceived notions about diseases of the mind, patients’ rights and the very real dangers that so many face in falling through the cracks of our mental healthcare system.

ART AND CRAFT is almost finished and nearly ready for the world. The film is picture-locked and with just a few days now left to go on our Kickstarter campaign, we’re fundraising for finishing costs and aiming to reach as many people as possible. One of the rewards on our page that we’re most excited about is a discounted screening and talkback package for non-profits, community groups and others. The film offers an unusual portrait of modern mental healthcare and to see it become part of the conversation and be useful to people working in this very challenging field would be a true honor.

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