Hollywood Beauty Salon.

"If I had an ideal life, it would be a life [with] no more pain, no more symptoms, not more stigma," Anthony Young says. He’s been diagnosed with stress and anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. But watching him walk through a garden, chatting with his fiancée Crystal Young—who also lives with mental illness—he certainly seems a little step closer to that ideal life.

Hollywood Beauty Salon, directed by Glenn Holsten and opening in New York Friday at Village East Cinema, gives us an intimate and compassionate glimpse into a sometimes heartbreaking, but ultimately inspiring, ecosystem of a community living with mental illness.

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This documentary takes places in, well, the Hollywood Beauty Salon, a small beauty parlor that’s part of the Northwestern Human Services Germantown Recovery Community, a Philadelphia-based recovery nonprofit. The parlor is run by a woman named Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timm, a recovery guide, certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner, and survivor of abuse herself, who emanates warmth and wisdom. Both the Hollywood Beauty Salon's staff and clients are people recovering from mental illness, ranging from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and depression.

It’s rare to see a film about mental illness that isn't exploitative. It’s even rarer to see a film that covers mental illness within a black community even though black American adults are 20% more likely to “report serious psychological distress” than their white counterparts. What’s even rarer still is seeing a joyful and optimistic portrayal of a thriving community of mostly black people dealing with mental illness.

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What sets Hollywood Beauty Salon apart even more is that its stars had a hand in making the film and telling their own stories: through a series of workshops, the personalities that we meet in the movie worked with filmmakers to tell their own stories on their own terms, through animation, staging hypothetical conversations with their younger selves, or even using a harness rig and a green screen to "fly."

“I just knew that there was untapped stories,” Holsten told me over the phone. “I knew there was a room full of men and women who aren’t normally asked to share their stories and there’s a power in that. I’m happy that that might open up, you know, someone’s perception of another human being and an increased understanding of humanity.”

In my conversation with Holsten we talked about how the film was made, what it’s like to portray mental health on screen, and what recovery really means.

How did you meet Rachel and come across Hollywood Beauty Salon?

Well, I’m a freelance filmmaker who makes a living by doing a lot of corporate work, and I was hired by the parent company of the Germantown Recovery Community, called NHS Services. And I’ve done a lot of interesting videos for their website that help raise awareness about their work and raise money for their foundation. So I was filming at the Germantown Recovery Community and they said we have a little beauty parlor, would you like to see it? And I said, of course. And that’s when I first met Rachel. I met Rachel and Senetta, whose nicknames are "Butterfly" and "Hollywood," and they were just amazing to me. I immediately connected with Rachel, but what I was really touched by was how both Rachel and Senetta both spoke about what happens to people in this really tiny beauty parlor.

I remember saying to the crew, I’m going to come back and make a film here because I want to know more. Quite honestly, the sense of love in that room was palpable. I wanted more.

So how did this film come together?

We had a 12-week workshop. It was supposed to be six weeks, but it ended up being 12 weeks one summer, where I met with men and women in the beauty salon. Anyone who wanted to come could come and we were always packed. And we started dreaming a little bit about what a movie could be like, how we would envision our stories. I would share samples of things that I’ve done before.

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I actually brought in a guest who’s been in one of my movies about mental issues who talked about what it’s like to have his own story talked about in public, because I wanted everyone to understand that that’s part of this project, that we create and share together but then we share it with the world outside. We were all embarking on something new together, and I think that is the glue that kept us together for four years.

You started this in 2012. So this really has been a few years in the making.

You know, if I had all the money at once and wanted to do the movie in one year, I don’t think the movie would have had as many levels as it does now, because we got to know each other so well over the time. And we really got to love and respect each other, so I think that is a vibe that comes through the film.

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It is definitely a very intimate look at these people—it does feel like you’re getting to really know them. How did you decide which stories were going to be made into the short films?

Well, that was a fairly organic process. In the film you see the first workshop and you see about 12 to 15 people in the room. It was just by the people who stayed with the project week after week. I went every Tuesday for a number of years to meet about this project. The people who stayed with it and who became very engaged with the storytelling aspect of it, those were the ones that we said we’re working on.

And there were other people who I would call the cheerleaders and the spirit behind the film, who may not have felt so comfortable being a featured player, but were there for many filming days and much of the editing. They were equally important because we really felt all along that this was a team effort. Rachel’s story bubbled up. Senetta told me on the first day her nickname was Butterfly and I wanted to find out about that. Crystal and Anthony were always there together. Crystal told me she was a blooming flower so I wanted to make that visual possible. They really happened organically, so it wasn’t like anyone’s story was left out in the end.

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I loved the movie-within-a-movie concept. How did you guide them and help them make the best possible story?

I made suggestions based on my filmmaking experience, and the best example of that is when Rachel wanted to tell her story of leaving her abusive relationship through reenactments. And I know that reenactments are really tricky to pull off and expensive if you want to do them well, and I thought that animation might be a better way to go. So I showed her and she just loved it.

The film is also really cool because there’s so much support from these outside people or organizations. Edward works with an actual professional flautist, you set up a flying rig for Senetta. Every time you brought someone new out that was like, “Hi, I’m going to help you,” I was like, "Oh my god, how did you get those people?!"

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That’s what all my energy was going to. It was a combination of individuals and foundations and it was not one-stop shopping. It was continual selling of the film and selling of the energy and passion of the film. But in some ways, that helps you make the movie. Because you’ve made commitments to people and you’ve made commitments to funders and there’s no way that I could let that not happen. And it’s also great when you find a match, when you find someone who says I really care about these issues and this is a perfect match for my resources. I always find that to be exciting.

What do you think can help shed light on these mental health issues?

I think one thing that Hollywood Beauty Salon does differently than a lot of films is that it’s really fun and it’s really happy. It’s a happy movie. I’ve been on panels with other filmmakers who’ve done films in the mental health world. And their films are beautiful and they’re honest and they’re grueling in some of their honesty. So what I love to do is just create entry points for people who don’t feel scared to step into the territory. And who cannot connect with Crystal’s giggle? She’s just delicious.

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In mainstream media, you never really see depictions of mental illness in people of color. Your cast is almost entirely black. Was that something that you consciously decided to do?

You know, it’s interesting. I’m a Caucasian male and I was working with a group of people who, well, the majority weren’t Caucasian. When you’re working on a project together, that’s the thing that binds you. I didn’t really set out to make a statement like that, but it’s just part of the story. We were just there together and I think the thing that united us was, frankly, our belief in each other and our mission. We got to know each other and our layers pretty deeply.

I am happy that this is part of sharing their story, that it might open up, you know, someone’s perception of another human being and an increased understanding of humanity. It wasn’t an agenda item, but it's definitely part of the fabric, isn’t it?

Did you have any expectations going into making this film?

No expectations. The whole thing was an adventure from the start. When I was doing those workshops, I wasn’t sure where we were going. I just knew that there were untapped stories. I knew there was a room full of men and women who aren’t normally asked to share their stories, and there’s a power in that. What I was most careful of was handling that with respect and not mistreating that and making everyone understand that I was being careful with the stories. In fact, I made everyone a promise at the beginning of the movie. I broke all filmmaker rules and said they would have absolute say in the final product. I had a group of them in the editing room with me four or five times looking at different cuts of the film and got their blessing on it before it went out.

How has the response been so far?

I haven’t gotten a ton of love from mainstream film festivals and that was a bit of a surprise to me and sadness to me, but you know the films tell you where they want to go. They start moving around the world and I have been pushing it and pushing it and now I’m going to follow it, if you know what I mean. I’m going to follow it to communities that want it. It always lights up a room wherever it is.

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There’s always tears, there’s always laughter. More often than not there’s a standing ovation, so I know the film is working. I have confidence in that. I just think the mainstream film festival world is, well, maybe a little scared by the content. Scared by mental health. I don’t know that for a fact but I know it’s not a single journey film. It’s a group portrait, and that’s also challenging for people to wrap their heads around, because it doesn’t fit into a lot of genres they already know and are comfortable with.

And has your idea of recovery changed from making this film?

Absolutely. I mean, recovery is a process. People can live full and meaningful lives while they’re recovering. Recovery is filled with setbacks and that’s just part of the journey forward. It’s a few steps back before you move forward, so we witness setbacks, we witness pauses in people’s energy and development, but if you stick with it in the long haul, you just see people progressing with people like Rachel around them. I mean her care and love for other people and her willing to be vulnerable are tremendous gifts.

What did you learn making the movie?

It was something I knew. It was more of a confirmation that every single one of us has this fabulous ability to be creative and that each one of our stories is as valuable as the next. What I got out of it was more encouragement and inspiration from these men and women that I ever had before, to sort of push those stories out into the world.