Hip-hop artist collaborates with filmmaker to create a mental health discussion

Khari_Stewart_Mars_Project_still featured

The documentary tackles the complicated layers of Stewart’s life, including his experiences within the Canadian mental health system, addiction issues, his own spiritual diagnosis, and his art.

By: Michael Lyons

An epic battle between cosmic forces may be an unusual topic for a documentary, but for hip-hop artist Khari “Conspiracy” Stewart it’s a daily reality. Stewart is the subject of the Mars Project, a documentary by Toronto-based filmmaker Jonathan Balazs.

The film will be screening at a few Toronto Public Library branches, including the Parkdale location, as part of Make Some Noise, a series that promotes the library’s local music collection through events and concerts.

Balazs first became aware of Stewart’s work and befriended him over a decade ago, through the Edmonton hip-hop movement.

Balazs says inspiration for the project grew out of a piece he wrote for a rap magazine focusing on Stewart’s music career. “I featured him because I had talked to his brother, and I wanted to know more about his music, and I wanted to figure out why he had the reputation that he did,” Balazs says. “I discovered in the interview that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but he believed ardently that this was an external demonic possession.”

Mars Project intimately explores Stewart’s connection with Anacron, a demonic alien with a telepathic link into his mind. The documentary tackles the complicated layers of Stewart’s life, including his experiences within the Canadian mental health system, addiction issues, his own spiritual diagnosis, and his art. The film also focuses on Stewart’s difficult relationship with his family, especially his twin brother Addi Stewart, who describes early in the film the change that occurred a decade ago: “It was like chapter two of Khari,” Stewart says. “Just not the guy that I knew in my childhood. Not the guy that’s my identical twin, or who I rap with. A whole other person.”

The film began as a five-minute video project completed in 2008 for A History of Madness, an undergraduate disability studies course at Ryerson University and part of Balazs’ degree in fine arts. Balazs knew there was an important story to explore, so he continued to develop the piece, which included an Indiegogo fundraising campaign last year which raised almost $3000 and helped him complete the project. This original short grew into the feature length piece, first released in 2012, which will be screening as part of the Make Some Noise series.

Thomas Krzyzanowski, chair of the Make Some Noise Committee, says the film interested the organization because of Stewart’s unique story, especially within Toronto’s diverse artistic scene. Balazs first approached the Toronto Public Library with the film, including a conversation with a Make Some Noise committee member at the Parkdale branch.

“He was interested in screening it at Parkdale because Khari lives in the Parkdale community, and we wanted to make sure it was involved there because of the film’s subject matter,” Krzyzanowski says. “The Parkdale branch is very close to CAMH, and we wanted to make sure we represented that community in the library.”

Make Some Noise is a project that started in 2006, which presents concerts, film screenings and workshops promoting the local music collections at Toronto Public Libraries. On top of a screening at the Danforth/Coxwell library, in Balazs’ neighbourhood earlier in November, Mars Project will be screened at the Parkdale branch on November 29th, and at the Maria A. Shchuka library in early December.

A screening in Parkdale was crucial for Balazs, who cites the area’s longstanding relationship with mental health institutions. There has been a mental health facility at 1001 Queen Street West, minutes away from Parkdale, for over 150 years. Stewart is one of many within the Parkdale neighbourhood with negative mental health treatment experiences, which are explored in the film. “A lot of times people in these situations who want to get information, who want to get an alternative from the mainstream, have to dig for it,” Balazs says.

On its website, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s largest mental health hospital, describes the spectrum of symptoms people with schizophrenia have, “including periods when they cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Schizophrenia seriously disturbs the way people think, feel and relate to others.”

Mars Project challenges preconceptions of schizophrenia and complicates the idea of what mental illness is. It does so with quiet intensity and respect for Stewart’s unique, often dark experience. The film is as much a collaboration with him as an artist, as it is a documentary about him. Stewart is presented as someone with a unique and powerful perspective, rather than a victim or crazy person.

“I’m not thinking silently in my head anymore where no one knows,” Stewart says in the film, describing what some would consider a mental illness, but what he considers a spiritual battle. “What am I supposed to do? How do I explain this to somebody so they help me change it? How do I even figure this out? It’s so complex.”

Mars Project
61 minutes

Parkdale Library
1303 Queen Street W.
Fri, Nov 29, 6 p.m.

Maria A. Shchuka
1745 Eglinton Avenue W.
Mon, Dec 9, 6:30 p.m.


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