A Summer in the Cage is a feature-length documentary about Sam’s battle with manic-depressive illness–a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function marked by manic highs and depressive lows, also known as bipolar disorder. The film begins before Sam’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder and follows him through his seven-year battle to repair the damage of delusional manic episodes, overcome paralyzing depressions, and escape the legacy of a bipolar father who committed suicide when Sam was eight. During the seven years of documenting this story, a tenuous triangle forms between Sam, the filmmaker, Ben Selkow, and the filmmaking process itself. Sam and Ben’s relationship is brought to a dramatic precipice by Sam’s cycle of manic episodes and a light is eventually cast on the ethical responsibilities of the filmmaker to his subject. While Sam’s life deteriorates on screen, the question is asked: “Are the wider benefits of showing an audience someone’s plight worthwhile if the very process of making the documentary may be damaging the subject?”
A Summer in the Cage began with a chance meeting between the filmmaker, Ben Selkow, and the subject, Sam, in the summer of 2000. What began as their collaboration to document life on and around the West 4th Street basketball courts in Manhattan – affectionately referred to as “the Cage” – evolved into a portrait of Sam’s battle with bipolar illness as seen through the lens of Ben’s camera. Using interviews and personal video diaries shot on mini-DV, Hi8 and Super 8mm cameras, as well as archival video and film footage from the last six years, A Summer in the Cage is highly subjective storytelling. The film begins by depicting the seeds of the original street basketball story, with Sam as collaborator and his photographs as the storytelling device. But once Ben (and, by extension, the audience) witnesses Sam’s increasingly manic behavior, caught by accident on video, the film transforms into the story of Sam’s illness. The film subsequently follows Sam over seven years as he lives with this disease, retraces his father’s battle with mental illness and his ultimate suicide, develops an intimate confidence with Ben through their periods of filming together, flirts with suicide himself, and tries to come to terms with the uncertainty of his future. The filmmaker-subject relationship explodes in 2006 with Sam’s third manic episode. Ultimately, the film asks the question, When do you turn the camera off?
I came to filmmaking after double-majoring in Film and African-American Studies at Wesleyan University. After college, I worked for two years on studio feature films. While I observed the collaboration between director, actors, writers and producers from a distance, I was not happy being so removed from the collaborators. I needed to be intimately involved with the storytelling process. I bought a video camera and headed down to “the Cage” on West 4th street in Greenwich Village to make a film about three generations of street basketball players. The film, and my relationship with my subjects, was derailed by my new friend Sam’s first manic episode. Initially, I was reluctant to switch subjects even with my original film in shambles. I couldn’t turn away from Sam as the subject; and he initially invited me to make a film about him. But, what was supposed to be one summer in the Cage has since become seven years chronicling my friend’s battle with manic-depression. It was a constant emotional and creative battle: a struggle to reconcile my responsibility to my friend with my desire to tell a gripping story. I tried to help Sam. Yet I believed, perhaps naively, that resolving the film would somehow create a happy, Hollywood-style ending for Sam. He seemed to believe this as well. Sam wanted to be a model for others afflicted with mental illness, and shouldered a tremendous burden in trying to play that role. His sense of obligation may, in part, have contributed to his recurring manic episodes, and it’s a burden he and I share. In 2002, before I really understood the disease, there were times when I kept filming and perhaps it contributed to his feelings of manic grandiosity. But, I was torn. The dogma of the documentary filmmaker is to never stop rolling camera. As Sam’s mania became dangerously apparent, I knew I needed to help Sam and put the camera down. When I recount the plane ride in 2002, undoubtedly my colleagues ask, Did you film it? As a friend, you know putting the camera down was the right thing to do. As a filmmaker, you grit your teeth at having turned away and missed something powerful, unique and dramatic. In the most recent mania in 2006, Sam shifted the blame to the filmmaking process and me for his paralysis in recovery. I think Sam’s struggle with accepting psycho-education, therapy and full compliance in taking his medications had more to do with his slow maintenance process than the stress from the filming. But that is such subjective ground and ripe for debate. Ultimately, I decided to stop filming Sam entirely because I wanted to remove the filmmaking as a possible scapegoat, variable and barrier to Sam’s healing. I want Sam to strike the balance of striving, being responsible in managing bipolar disorder, making art, and being independent. Like the ending of the film, the battle with the disease is an ellipse.
I hope audiences that see A Summer in the Cage will take away a better understanding of the symptoms and manifestations of manic-depressive illness. I also hope that by witnessing one person’s battle with manic-depressive illness, the audience will appreciate the patience, compassion and action necessary to help someone suffering from a mental illness. As a filmmaker, I want audiences to understand the inherent duty, respect and responsibility we ought to feel for our subjects whenever we pick up a camera.