Alfonso Johnson at ABFF 2018
Alfonso Johnson at ABFF 2018


Moths & Butterflies Director Talks Depicting Mental Illness

By Olivia Armstrong

Alfonso Johnson, this year’s ABFF Short Film Competition winner, took a visual approach to shed light on the sensitive topic.


After Moths & Butterflies screened at the 2018 American Black Film Festival in Miami, Short Film Competition moderator Bevy Smith invited director Alfonso Johnson to the stage. “Other than Silver Linings Playbook,” Smith began, “I don’t recall a film that follows a mentally ill person who finds love — and has that love reciprocated.” Johnson’s 17-minute drama, which won the festival’s top prize, is an exploration of mental illness, the stigma that surrounds it and the effect it has on our relationships.

Moths & Butterflies follows Lenny (played by Amari Cheatom), who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, and has recently been discharged from rehab. Determined to keep his 9-5 routine undisturbed and excitement-free (aside from the blaring alarm that reminds him to take his daily meds), Lenny doesn’t get out much. It isn’t until he encounters the bubbly and daring Cherisse (Gillian Glasco) — who recognizes him from their rehab days — that he goes out on a limb to forge a friendship, or possibly something more.

Johnson feels a personal connection to the subject matter, having suffered from anxiety attacks and lost a friend to suicide. “I talked with psychologists and doctors to make sure I had the execution correct,” he said about doing right by his characters. “Lenny’s hallucinations have to be about something and move the story forward.” The depicted hallucinations range in intensity (the roar of an animal or an intrusion on the TV) and act as a portrait into Lenny’s psyche. “I used them to give the audience a peek into who he is and what he’s longing for,” Johnson explained.

Despite his yearning for a connection with Cherisse, Lenny has trouble living in the moment for fear of relapse. Johnson wanted to illustrate this internal struggle while still offering hope, particularly through the character of Cherisse.

“I’ve seen so many movies that perpetuate negative stereotypes and the worst aspects of mental illness,” said the director. “I wanted to know what’s going on that we’re not quite discussing.” To that end, Cherisse not only embraces her bipolar disorder diagnosis, she actively tries to create a dialogue with Lenny about it. Her post-rehab progress fuels her healthy lifestyle, which includes visiting her therapist and playing gigs with her all-female punk band.

Johnson hopes Moths & Butterflies and its success at ABFF will keep the conversation going. “I want to destigmatize what it’s like to live with mental illness,” he said. “I want people to try and exercise empathy.”


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