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Documentary brings filmmaker and faculty member together

Bebe Smith and Dawn Dreyer not only have a common interest in mental health advocacy work, they also have a deep appreciation for storytelling and its ability to empower individuals living with mental illness.
Thanks to that shared passion, Smith, a clinical assistant professor at the School of Social Work, and Dreyer, a UNC graduate, writer and mixed media documentary maker, are now working together to promote, “Fear,” an animated film that targets the stigma and shame of mental illness. Dreyer, who lives in Durham, produced and co-directed the 7-minute short story with Andrea Love, a freelance animator and artist in Port Townsend, Wash. Fear recently had its world premiere screening at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Smith, who met Dreyer at a conference on mental health last year, served as a consultant on the film. Such a role mainly allowed her to act as a source of support, including around media promotion, she said.
“I think the part that’s been really powerful in getting to know Dawn and in doing this work together is that her work is all about how through collaboration, you end up with this product that is more powerful and more beautiful,” Smith said.
Fear is a stand-alone short film embedded within Dreyer’s animated feature-length documentary, “Bipolar Girl Rules the World and Other Stories,” which also focuses on Dreyer’s own experiences of living with mental illness. Dreyer recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the full film, which is still in production.
Fear uses hand drawn and stop motion animation to tell the story of Dr. Zenglo Chen. Chen’s parents, who were victims of China’s Cultural Revolution, disappeared when he was 4-years-old. Through Chen’s own words, Fear weighs “the tension between fear and safety; faith and psychology; Chinese and American identity; and acceptance and healing.”
Dreyer and Smith see Chen’s story and the experiences of others whose stories will be shared as part of the feature-length film, as a compelling way to spread awareness about mental illness.
“For me, connecting with people through this kind of work has really provided a huge relief,” Dreyer explained. “So much of my work is based on a sincere and deep belief that people who feel a sense of isolation want connection, and this is not unusual to people who live with mental illness. That’s just a human thing. So, for me, telling my story and hearing other people’s stories provide an enormous sense of joy and connection, including across cultural boundaries, gender and age. Telling stories has become a big part of my own healing.”
Collaborating with Smith has also been rewarding, Dreyer added.
“What Bebe brings to everything is this incredible amount of experience pretty much at every level of the mental health system,” she said. “She engages the systematic problems that are in the mental health system, and somehow she retains her sense of humanity and caring spirit.  And as I’ve come up against walls around my own fears, she’s also been there to cheer me on.”
Smith said she connected to Dreyer and to her work largely because of how both embrace the importance of helping people find their own voices, especially those with the most stigmatized illnesses. By sharing their own experiences with mental illness, individuals help to create empathy and give strength to those who may be struggling, she said.
“When one person shares their story, it let’s someone else know, they are not alone. They can resonate with that story,” Smith said. “With Dawn’s films and her way of communicating these stories, the visual artistry is beautiful. The stories themselves are very compelling, and they bring a universal humanity into the lived experience of mental illness. I think that’s where the power lies.”