An East Toronto filmmaker is nearing completion of a film exploring themes of mental illness, race and culture, and their relation to society, through a profile of rapper Khari ‘Conspiracy’ Stewart.
Khari partnered with his twin brother Addi ‘Mindbender’ Stewart as the hip hop group Supreme Being Unit, an underground crew that made minor waves when they broke out in 1996. Jonathan Balazs, originally from Edmonton but now living on the Danforth, first met Khari during an interview for an online magazine; the two later collaborated as partners on music and a short film.
Balazs said though the duo never became superstars, a small but dedicated scene of esoteric hip hop fans embraced what the brothers were doing.
“They didn’t really take the world by storm, but there was almost a universal feeling that what these guys were doing was sort of really unique and worthwhile,” he said.
Balazs became interested in the ideas surrounding mental illness, and schizophrenia in particular, and as his friendship with Khari grew, he came up with the idea to create a film about the rapper’s experiences in life and in the mental health system.
“I was friends with Khari long before I even thought about doing a film about him,” said Balazs. He decided to look at not only his friend, but also the mental health establishment, and question whether Khari was truly sick, or whether he just didn’t fit traditional definitions of ‘normal’.
“I want to avoid grinding axes, but I do want to raise some questions, maybe questions that we don’t want to raise, or maybe questions that we haven’t even thought about because there’s so much in life that we just take for granted,” said Balazs, pointing out that many people have a tendency to oversimplify things, particularly mental illness. “Does this fellow have some sort of hidden brilliance, or is he just a wing nut?”
The first shot was taken almost five years ago. Since then, Balazs has gathered footage with both Khari and Addi, as well as their mother Mertella Montague. Two psychiatrists – Dr. Kwame McKenzie and Dr. Gordon Warme – as well as disabilities scholar Erick Fabris have also been interviewed for the film, titled The Mars Project.
Along the way, Balazs has seen much of the mental health system through Khari’s experiences. In an earlier fundraising pitch, he wrote, “He has (probably unwittingly) made me more cognizant of the mental health ‘survivor’ experience; those individuals who have been misunderstood, negatively labeled and who have had treatment plans thrust upon them. Khari’s claims of an intergalactic space demon may be far-fetched to some, but so, perhaps is the bold assertion that his brain is some how inherently abnormal (I might add that his genetically identical twin-brother has never received a similar diagnosis).”
Some of the scenes were filmed in East York and along the Danforth, as well as throughout Toronto, and in Edmonton, where the brothers also lived for a time.
Filming is now almost complete, thanks to several thousand dollars raised online, as well as a small grant from the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto. Balazs is hoping to have the final product edited and ready for shopping to distributors some time in the coming months. After half a decade of filming, he knows he’s put together a labour of love, but he’s hoping his passion for the subject will shine through a professional finished film.
“I don’t expect to make any money off of it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn a lot and develop this movie with its own kind of identity,” he said.