All posts by Ken Paul Rosenthal

About Ken Paul Rosenthal

Ken Paul Rosenthal is an independent filmmaker, photographer, educator and activist. His films are visually sensual, emotionally intelligent works of art that also function as tools for personal and societal transformation. Ken’s current projects are poetic mental health documentaries that weave personal, societal, and musical narratives through natural and urban landscapes, home movies, and archival social hygiene films. He is the recipient of a Kodak Cinematography Award, numerous festival awards, and is widely recognized for his media work in mental health advocacy. His Mad Dance Mental Health Film Trilogy has collectively won seventeen awards, screened internationally in fifty-eight film festivals, is circulated by 236 academic libraries, and been presented at dozens of peer support networks, universities, mental health symposia and community events worldwide. Ken holds an MA in Creative & Interdisciplinary Arts, an MFA in Cinema Production, and has taught film as a means of cultivating personal vision in workshops and universities in North America and abroad.

December 12, 2017: Every Entrance Is An Exit

December 12, 2017: Every Entrance Is An Exit

In what is perhaps the most pivotal and provocative narrative chapter in Whisper Rapture, Madigan Shive refers to her lived experience with suicidal ideation as, “…a deep, deep urging for emergence.”

“It’s wanting to be another us.”

Of the many shades and polarities of emotional distress that challenge us, suicide is one of the most triggering, mysterious, and misunderstood. Through deeply revealing testimony and the power of metaphor, Madigan courageously offers fresh language to broaden our society’s reactive and reductive perspective on suicide.

I’d like to offer a preview of Madigan’s compassionately articulated re-framing of the dialogue around suicide to anyone who contributes any amount to our Indiegogo campaign during this week. I’ll send you a password-protected link to this narrative chapter within several hours of receiving your donation.

Everyone who has already donated will also be sent this very exclusive short-term perk. Please note that the link will only be accessible until Monday, December 18. Visit our campaign page for more exquisitely unique gifts!

And if you feel inspired by Bonfire Madigan Shive’s life as a trail-blazing visionary who offers an alternative way to think, feel, and speak authentically about our mental health so that all of our complexities are valued

…please share our Indiegogo campaign link on your favorite social media channels, especially Facebook and Twitter.

Warmly, Ken

December 8, 2017: Fresh Feedback on the 99% Complete Version of Whisper Rapture

December 8, 2017: Fresh Feedback on the 99% Complete Version of Whisper Rapture

After four years of waking, walking, breathing and dreaming nothing but Whispers & Raptures, I’m too close to the film to view it objectively. I can wield and witness the power of a single frame without batting an eye while editing. But I honestly cannot discern if the current, 99% complete version of Whisper Rapture measures up to the sum of its parts. So I’ve been previewing it for a handful of friends and colleagues, from artists to mental health professionals to documentarians, even a scientist who confessed to not understanding how to watch a film and never listening to music! And one and all have been ecstatically effusive in their praise.

One of the most complimentary pieces of feedback is from Joe Behan, the Director of the Counseling Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago:

You’ve done it again, Ken! Absolutely brilliant!! Crooked Beauty was so perfect that I was cautiously optimistic going into this viewing. I loved that film’s intellectual precision and gravity and just had never seen anything like it. But Whisper Rapture takes off from there and recaptures what was essential about Crooked Beauty and expands on it. I found it more deeply moving and emotional, certainly because the music has so much power but also because the images are so rich and soaked in color. And there is something so fascinating with what you do with these brilliant women subjects, capturing their essence and gifts. I’ll be thinking about this for awhile. Having done it once was special and unique, but twice is kind of profound. Bravo!! – Joe Behan

More praise:

Really beautiful narrative and music (Holy Shit, she’s good!) and rich, vivid images telling such a strong story of love and madness and hurt and pain and faith and hope and redemption and balance and life. This film will really help people trying to understand and accept people, places, and things that are different and scary but ultimately transformative—a greatly unique yet surprisingly universal big open story. It’s really a comfort. It’s like Koyaanisqatsi version 2, but with more heart and soul. – Kevin

Sensational. Hypnotic. What a unique story. Poetic, sensual and deeply meaningful. Her music is very satisfying and inspiring. Puts you into a spiritual space. – Dan

Whisper Rapture is a diamond.
– David

The visuals were so interactive. I felt the music through my eyes. – Liza

A powerful work to help us elucidate the truth about mental health, trauma, and redemption. Captures ethereal moments in time, with lighting and nuance that is sensual, sometimes stark, and disruptively beautiful. – Imei

Thank you all for being part of this community that is nurturing Whisper Rapture to its fully realized form.

Love, Ken
Final 1% Indiegogo Completion Campaign

December 5, 2017: A Vessel of Emotional Dialogue

December 5, 2017: A Vessel of Emotional Dialogue

“A vessel of emotional dialogue” is how Bonfire Madigan Shive refers to her cello and she could just as well be talking about Whisper Rapture.

“So you’ve become more than where you came from. I wish that I could meet the forest where my cello came from and thank the trees that are still there.”

These sentiments wrap up the chapter in Whisper Rapture where Madigan describes the multi-dimensional relationship she has with her instrument. And if you’d like to see how I’ve visualized her song, Slip, which follows this chapter…

I’m thrilled to offer Slip–as seen and heard in the completed film–as a thank you gift to anyone who contributes any amount to our Indiegogo campaign during this week! This visually lush segment of the film, coupled with Madigan’s soaring vocals truly puts the ‘opera’ in ‘doc-opera’. I’ll send you a password-protected link to this cinematic rhapsody within several hours of receiving your donation.

Everyone who has already donated will also be sent this very exclusive short-term perk. Please note that this is a one-time preview, and the link will only be accessible until Monday, December 11. Visit our campaign page for more exquisitely unique gifts!

And if you feel inspired by a music and mental health documentary that will:

  • Convey a hopeful message about personal resilience and the capacity for the human spirit to endure
  • Offer new language for how we think and speak about emotional distress
  • Open minds, spark conversations, and invoke tears…

…please share our Indiegogo campaign link on your favorite social media channels, especially Facebook and Twitter.

Many thanks, Ken

November 26, 2017: A Cinematic Balm for Your Heart

November 26, 2017: A Cinematic Balm for Your Heart

Dear Friends & Allies,

If you’ve been salivating for a beautiful work of art that also functions as a tool for personal and societal transformation, I’m happy to report that after four long years, Whisper Rapture has been completely filmed and edited! And we’d appreciate your help putting the final spit and shine on it by contributing to our Indiegogo campaign.

Whisper Rapture is a visionary documentary that addresses mental health issues through the universal language of music. It conveys a hopeful message about personal resilience and the capacity for the human spirit to endure. Offering new language for how we think and speak about emotional distress, this cinematic rhapsody will open minds, spark conversations, and invoke tears.

Please note that each perk level includes all of our exquisitely unique thank you gifts from each of the prior donation levels!

And if you can’t contribute financially, that’s okay. You can also help out by sharing our campaign link on your favorite social media channels, especially Facebook and Twitter.

‘Cure’ is at the root of ‘curious’.

So if you’re curious to learn more about Bonfire Madigan Shive’s story of trauma, transcendence, and redemption—and just what the heck a doc-opera is—please check out our Indiegogo campaign, as well as the blog entries below. I believe you’ll find the May 25 & 27 blog entries particularly illuminating.

With gratitude, Ken

June 23, 2017: A Hummingbird’s Heart is Half It’s Weight

June 23, 2017: A Hummingbird’s Heart Is Half It’s Weight

In the chapter on hearing voices, Madigan states:

As children, we’re allowed to create alternate realities in order to deal with emotions we have a hard time expressing. However, as an adult, if you hear voices, you’re immediately persecuted. Hearing voices can take many forms. Sometimes like Whisper, coming from somewhere outside of me. Sometimes an actual voice in my head. It can be something you’re seeing out of the corner of your eye, that may or may not be there. It can also be heightened sensitivity that’s providing you with new information for what may happen next.

As a backdrop to these reflections, I imagined an evocative, liminal space in which audio hallucinations could be considered as fluid, unfixed entities, free of corpus. I wanted Madigan to hover in mid-air, like a hummingbird, against a black background. So we filmed her jumping on a trampoline and positioned the camera so that she would reach the apex of her jump just beneath the top of the frame. On take after take, I directed her to look in one direction or the other, extend an arm, shake her head, or hold it between both hands.

It was an exhausting work out for Madigan, and particularly challenging for her to maintain her equilibrium while not looking at the trampoline. But she was a real trooper, sweating up a storm while leaping with endless combinations of gestures until she fell off the trampoline on the last jump, fortunately without injury. The camera was recording her in slow motion at 150 frames per second—more than six times the traditional analog film speed of 24fps—so we could preview via the playback monitor what otherwise appeared pretty ordinary to the naked eye.

However, to slow down the trajectory of Madigan’s leap to the point of appearing suspended without stuttering her movement like the motion studies of cinema pioneer Edward Muybridge, we needed to apply additional software in post-production. It was critical that her ‘flight’ appear as fluid as the gently fluttering hummingbird wings in my grade school science films. What a revelation! Madigan’s draped sleeves became billowy wings. And the fluctuations of her blouse became a canvas for the interplay of light and shadow as a metaphorical embodiment of emotional extremes, just as I’d conceived. Even the grimacing expressions of her physical exertion became more nuanced and emotive.

The following test image is slowed down to just 5% of the original filming speed. It is slightly soft when Madigan enters and exits the frame, and sharpens up as she reaches the apex of her leap. I will choose about six leaps from the dozens we recorded to dramatize her lived experience with hearing voices. Each and every one must embody a heightened sense of emotion, almost frozen in cinematic space, inviting us to listen with our eyes.

May 27, 2017: The Language of Extermination

May 27, 2017: The Language of Extermination

I don’t want to talk about winning the war on bi-polar, walking to end suicide, and eradicating mental illness. This language of extermination is very harmful. I see how we perpetuate this language of a fix, of curing something because we have no place for extreme emotional states in our consensus reality. Maybe we don’t want to recover into a world that we feel sick in. We actually want to actively create sustainable worlds where all of our complexities are valued.
– Bonfire Madigan Shive

Comment: Bravo if it works for you. For me, I’m still trying to figure out how to live in the middle of the extremes, because the extremes are not happy places for me or the people around me, and the creativity that came with the extremes took a huge toll on me. The last 30 years have been not much but misery, and at last I’m finding some sort of balance in the liminal space between ‘either’ and ‘or’. If one doesn’t have children or dependents it may be easier to justify living in an extreme emotional state for the sake of some idealised sense of purpose or higher spirituality; but I have two kids and the last thing I ever wanted to do was fuck them up. They didn’t ask to be born merely as witnesses to my madness; they don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve having a mother who views suicide as a ‘transformation’, or mania as ‘an emergence of flight’. So I will seek normalcy, or some semblance of stability, thank you, for their sakes as well as mine. – V.

Reply: Hello V. I’m very sorry to hear about your 30-year struggle, but glad that you are now finding some sort of balance. As with the suicide quote below, I am aware that it’s challenging to understand these statements as intended when removed from the broader context of the film and the lived experience of the character that Whisper Rapture portrays. Madigan not only has children of her own and experiences with suicide that I will leave for the completed film to detail, she was a founding collective member of The Icarus Project, of which a core value is navigating the space *between* brilliance and madness. I respect your opinions in regards to your life, but in relationship to my film or our movement they are entirely inaccurate.

In the above quote, Madigan is not saying she doesn’t want people to end their suffering! She is inferring that our societal narrative around recovery is about quick fixes independent of exploring the deeper roots of our problems and complexities. In fact, it’s the suppression of the latter that compounds our suffering. Many years ago, I too yearned for ‘normalcy’ to offset my internalized feelings of ‘abnormality’. But as a square peg, I’ve come to realize I’m too multi-faceted to fit into our culturally mediated round hole of normalcy. And for many of us, the harder we try and shove ourselves into that hole, the greater our suffering.

Madigan is challenging us to rise up and “…actively create sustainable worlds where all our complexities are valued.” This is neither an easy nor idealized path, but a crucial one to undertake because it flies in the face of the restrictive diagnose and drug mind set of mainstream psychiatry. We all yearn for stability, but how we define that is a unique experience for each of us. There are a lot of differently shaped pegs out there!

Whisper Rapture portrays a unique and courageous visionary who transposes her madness into music and mental health advocacy. I pray that Madigan’s journey and my film will inspire your path towards wellness, however that best unfolds for you. – Ken

May 25, 2017: An Urging for Emergence

May 25, 2017: An Urging for Emergence

To commemorate the home stretch of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ve been posting a few lines from the Whisper Rapture script on my Facebook timeline each day from May 22 to May 31. Some of the more provocative quotes have elicited comments that I in turn replied to with as much clarity and compassion as I could muster. I’d like to share some of the more insightful exchanges over the next few blog posts. Here’s the first:

I came to believe that suicide is a deep, deep urging for emergence. We want to be mid-wifed, we want to become another us, another possibility. So maybe it’s not just wanting to die, it’s wanting to be transformed. – Bonfire Madigan Shive

Comment: Madigan, is there some context that slightly changes the punch of this? I mean…I get it, but maybe I don’t get it coming from you. I understand pushing the natural tendency for self destruction that is a part of so many of us to be something that is not a flaw, but a function…maybe it just doesn’t jive with past conversations we’ve had. Maybe I need to ponder on it and write you later to integrate this statement into those in the past. – N.

Reply: Hello N. As the director of the film, I hope you don’t mind my responding to your concerns. I am aware that this is a very provocative statement. And even more so, when isolated from the broader context of the chapter in which Madigan further extemporizes on these reflections. In fact, during our interviews, I asked Madigan to readdress and temper her initial way of articulating suicide as a means of “wanting to change your identity as you’re living it in this moment” into a more accessible and expansive expression–to change the ‘punch’ as you aptly worded it. And she did so beautifully by including the words, ‘mid-wifed’, ‘possibility’, and ‘transformed’. The focus is on the path, not the end. I’m very conscious of language and my invitation into the progressive mental health movement, as exemplified by The Icarus Project, was to develop fresh language and metaphors to discuss extreme emotional states that were otherwise defined by the pathologizing constraints of mainstream psychiatry.

Radical mental health is not about romanticizing psychological distress in any shape or form! What we do is find authentic and inclusive ways to discuss experiences in a mad society that has traditionally not offered the tools and community to heal ourselves. My films are a conscious attempt to create compassionate, community based antidotes to the conventions of mainstream mental health care as well as the standard documentary form. In no manner whatsoever do I wish to deny the distress from anyone’s lived experience or the friends and families of those who suffer. This is intense stuff and it’s triggering for me even to make the films. So I really do respect your concerns and anyone who is sensitive to suicide, be it in the form of ideation or ending a life. Just as there may be many polarities of experience within a bi-polar diagnosis and hearing voices isn’t always about hearing an actual voice, one’s relationship to suicide can manifest in various forms and feelings apart from dying.

Upon reviewing all ten of Madigan’s quotes from the in-progress film, I hope you will recognize that our mission is to offer an alternative way to think, feel, and talk about our mental health so that all of our complexities are valued. – Ken

February 9, 2017: Macrobiotic Filmmaking

February 9, 2017: Macrobiotic Filmmaking

Like a macrobiotic diet, my film practice is sustained by harvesting images locally and seasonally. The term ‘macrobiotics’ means “big life”, from the Greek words “macro” and “bios”. The images I seek are all within gazing, walking, and biking distance of my front doorstep. When I film a Fall moon through barren branches, Winter rain trickling across a car hood, multi-hued reflections on a swollen Spring creek, and Summer fog tumbling over a hill, I’m ingesting images that live and grow in my region at a very specific time of year. Although the conditions that produce these images are much bigger than me, filming them is like taking a bite of the world so it can nourish me from within.

The time-lapse sequence below was gleaned from the window beside my dining room table, at a rate of one frame every twelve seconds over the course of three and a half hours. The animate interplay of dusty glass, metal fencing, and sun cast shadows is an intimate reflection of living in tune with nature—the core principal of macrobiotics. The music track is Madigan’s composition, Heart of Hearts, performed and recorded in Grace Cathedral Church, San Francisco. In the completed film, this sequence will function as an interstitial pause for the audience to sit with feelings stirred by the narrative. In/joy this at full screen by clicking on the arrow icon in the lower right hand corner.

January 9, 2017: Embodying Voice

January 9, 2017: Embodying Voice

The singular challenge of making a first person documentary in which the featured subject is not seen speaking is how to embody their voice. Positioning the interviewee in a setting that compliments their ideas or vocation as they direct their attention towards an unseen interviewer has always felt contrived to me. So what will we see when we hear Madigan narrate the story of her life?

Inspired by a fashion photographer’s video short that presented dancers moving through space in extreme slow motion, I envisioned a series of tableaus that would feature Madigan silently playing her cello in a variety of staged and natural environments. By slowing down her trademark kinetic performance style, the emotional fabric of Madigan’s inner world becomes graphically embodied in the undulating material of her clothing. I searched two dozen first and second hand stores for an outfit with a texture and weight that would allow light and shadow to slip and slide against one another like the surface of a tempestuous ocean. Slowing down Madigan’s wicked bowing, kicks, and cello spins also reveals a nuanced realm of facial expressions and physical gestures which I can align with key moments in her voice-over as I edit. Unlike conventional lip sync, I am animating Madigan’s voice and amplifying her spirit. This method of embodying voice becomes a more deeply felt experience for the viewer because they are actively connecting sound and image.

Whisper Rapture’s narrative arc follows a woman who moves from being overwhelmed by her shadow towards embracing it. As you can see from the frame stills below, the tableaus parallel this transformation over the course of a prologue and six chapters. Madigan is initially wearing white against a dark background to portray the shadow surrounding her. By the end of the film, she is wearing black against a luminous backdrop to portray the shadow nestled within her. Each tableau is followed by one of six original music compositions.

The Prologue introduces us to Madigan’s magical and itinerant childhood roots. She is playing cello in a lush cathedral of ivy-strewn trees on Mount Davidson, in San Francisco, California.

Mount Davidson

Chapter 1 recalls the traumas of Madigan’s mother, and Madigan meeting her childhood fantasy companion, Whisper. She is playing in a black box theater space.

Cello Arm Wrap

Chapter 2 presents Madigan’s discovery of the cello and her multi-dimensional relationship to her instrument.

Cello Kick 1

Chapter 3 explores Madigan’s experiences with the mainstream mental health system and hearing voices. She is jumping into the bottom of the frame with the aid of an off screen trampoline. This sequence will be twice as slow as the other tableaus so that Madigan will appear to hover like a hummingbird.

Jump 1

Chapter 4 addresses Madigan’s struggles with suicidal ideation. We lit her from the rear and sides to produce a thin silhouette.

Silhouette 1

Chapter 5 offers Madigan’s fresh language for discussing madness. She is on a cliff off Highway 1, south of Half Moon Bay, California overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Ocean Cliff Standing 1

Chapter 6 connects the survivorship of Madigan’s mother to her music and activism.

Ocean Cliff Sitting

Lastly, here’s an assortment of production stills from some of our tableau shoots.

Jason Black Box Shoot

Mt Davidson Shoot 1

Mt Davidson Shoot 2

Ocean Shoot