Eric Osborne portraying the character Matteo.

Photo courtesy: Subaqua Productions

RTA thesis film shines light on stigma surrounding mental illness

In Arts & Culture1 Comment

Reading Time: 2 minutes

By Lauryn Pierro

A group of fourth-year RTA students highlight the difficulties of coping with mental illness in a small town in their thesis film, “If a Bird Cannot Swim.”

Set in Midland, Ont., the story captures the struggles of a broken French Canadian family crippled and silenced by the stigma surrounding mental health and gender identity.

Coylan Subben, the writer and director, based many elements of the film on different periods of his life and many of the characters on people he grew up surrounded by.

“I kept discussing [the thesis film] last summer and started envisioning characters. There was this one incident that marked me — this girl was having a panic attack and her family [wasn’t] pulling through for her and that started building up the inspiration for the main character, Noemi,” said Subben. “I saw a lot of these elements of depression and not being able to control your life in myself and my friends growing up.”

Their choice behind Midland as the setting is due to the large population of French Canadian families there. Danielle Pirita, one of two producers, wanted a rural setting to further highlight the family’s struggles.

“The idea of mental illness in a big metropolitan city makes it slightly easier to deal with in the sense that you have so much access to resources and support,” said Pirita. “However, in a small town with people who have a more traditional way of thinking, it’s stereotypically harder for people to deal with someone having a mental illness.”

Art Director Gabriella Bevilacqua was in charge of the film’s overall appearance and decided to base it in an old Victorian home in Midland.

“For the film, we did a 1960s aesthetic, a very vintage sort of feel,” said Bevilacqua. “Because we were filming in Midland, it has a nostalgic, charming feel and I thought it complimented the setting.”

The film took five days of shooting to realize Subben’s vision, and the group is now in the process of applying for festivals around Canada and Europe to showcase. To fund their project the group hosted a Halloween party at BLND TGER on College St. and a portion of the proceeds went towards production, while approximately $1,000 was donated to the Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere (FAME).

Subbon hopes that after seeing the film, viewers will realize that mental illness is complex and not only effects the suffering individual, but everyone around them.  

Mental illness is not something that should be kept inside or [act as a] solo downfall on somebody,said Subbon. Mental illness not only affects the person suffering, but everyone surrounding them and people will definitely see that through the character in the film.

The title of the film is a reflection of just that, if a bird cannot swim, it can either fly or die, which is a representation of the family in the film. The team felt that the overarching message is the need to speak about mental illness with your family and those close to you.

We are not glamorizing mental illness like Hollywood does, we really want to show the truth of it,said Pirita. If this helps one person step out and realize they need help and a support system, and helps the people around them learn how to be a support system, then I think that in itself will be the greatest thing that could come from our film.


  1. —Ryerson Television Arts students thesis film shines light on stigma surrounding mental Illness

    May I open your eyes: Rather than shine a light on their prejudice, shine a light on those people who practice that prejudice. We are well acquainted with the prejudice, let’s focus on educating those who practice it.

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