Dara Sanandaji is a documentary filmmaker with the courage to confront his own chronic illness of Bipolar Disorder and to recount the impact it has had on his life and career. His latest film, Breaking the Silence, is an intense journey into the mind – explaining how it can break and how it can heal. Produced by Golden Rule Films, LLC, Sanandaji tells his personal story of suffering, redemption, catharsis, release and healing in order to spread awareness about illnesses of the brain, the impact they have on the person and the family, and to give hope to others that greater knowledge about the workings of the brain and better treatments of its illness are coming.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was very pleased to visit with Dara Sanandaji at his home in Chicago for these Five Questions about his new film.

STAY THIRSTY: Your latest documentary entitled Breaking the Silence recounts your life’s journey as you confronted and dealt with Bipolar Disorder, a serious medical illness of the brain. What motivated you to make this film?

DARA SANANDAJI: Well, after my second inpatient stay in the hospital in late 2012, I decided to do some serious looking in the mirror. Although I had already engaged in a pretty considerable run of introspection over the preceding eight years or so, I still felt that I needed to take my thoughts, and more importantly, my actions, to the next level. Over the previous year, I had undertaken some substantial life changes, including quitting drinking completely and adhering to a strict, plant-based diet. But in mid-2013, I decided to shake things up even more. One day, I was just sitting down at the computer when I received one of those most elusive of creative sparks. Four short weeks later, I had poured my entire life’s story out onto the screen in front of me. I had finally, finally chosen to address my past, with all of its complex psychological underpinnings, without fear or reservation of any kind. I figured that, by telling my particular story in detail, I might actually be opening up something special within myself. And it was true. The catharsis was nothing if not astounding. I then shared the finished manuscript with my family and my two doctors, and later on with my new production partner, Freddie Bell, in early 2014.

Later that year, we were asked to film a documentary concept on the East Coast, and I ended up co-writing/directing/producing my first long-form project with Freddie. When we reached the final cut stage, though, it was on to ideas for the next project. And, after some more intense thinking, I presented Freddie with the concept of telling my own story on camera in another documentary. I thought that this type of film may actually serve to help people out there in one way or another. And I figured that the medium of film would be the perfect way to accomplish this task in as widespread a manner as possible. Maybe folks would realize that they’re not alone in these often-harrowing thoughts and experiences, maybe it would help their families and friends to understand them a bit better, and maybe it would even help to reduce the horrid stigma surrounding these phenomena within the general public as well. I thought that if I could sincerely connect with an audience, especially with young men and women who were experiencing these things for the very first time, then maybe they wouldn’t have to go through all of that misery, pain, and suffering I had gone through over the previous sixteen years. At least not for as long and as intensely as I had. And that, in essence, was the mission.   

Breaking the Silence trailer

STAY THIRSTY: How have your family and friends reacted to your very direct and forthright exploration of your illness?

DARA SANANDAJI: Overall, my family and friends have been super supportive and encouraging, to say the least. The manuscript I wrote in 2013 described my life’s experiences in great detail, and I was incredibly fortunate that my family and close friends took the time and effort to read it and to give me some amazing feedback, as well as some great vibes to boot. My parents and my brother and his family expressed incredible appreciation for me, as well astounding generosity in supporting me and our film efforts from the beginning. 

Specifically, when I presented the final proposal to my father at the kitchen table, he asserted in no uncertain terms that this project might be one of the most important things a Sanandaji had ever done. Now, coming from a family of high-status, essentially landed nobility in the old country, with many, many successful people in the mix (including himself) over the many years, that meant a helluva lot to me. Seriously. 

On location with the Sanandaji family

Then, during the actual production of the film itself, we had two festive get-togethers, one with extended family, and one with close friends, both of which were designed to reveal my experience to them and to film their spontaneous reactions to the new information. My cousin cried, we all did a lot of hugging, and my aunt and uncle proffered some wonderfully powerful words on camera. 

And, while enjoying a sunny gathering at my apartment in the Chicago, some of my friends expressed a bit of surprise at the reveal, some said that things now “made sense,” and some said that our film would undoubtedly help a lot of people out there. But they all let me know, in one way or another, that they were extremely proud of me and that they would be there for me in any way they could. In fact, almost all of my family and friends shared the same sentiment. 

So, I had found incontrovertibly that taking the chance on them turned out to be well worth the risk. In essence, I just feel incredibly grateful and lucky to even have this opportunity to begin with, especially because I know that not everyone has it. And, although that truly is a shame in many instances, I honestly believe that most folks out there actually do have similar opportunities, sometimes with family, sometimes with friends, and sometimes even with complete strangers. They just might not know it at first. It often just takes a little push in the right direction, and the will to use that inherent confidence in yourself and who you are, as well as that undying trust in others. Then doors begin to swing wide open. Things you never thought were possible suddenly start to come true. And then, the possibilities in life ultimately become limitless. 

STAY THIRSTY: Why is there a stigma surrounding Bipolar Disorder and how do you think your film will change that?

DARA SANANDAJI: I think part of the stigma surrounding psychiatric conditions comes from folks not truly understanding these internal phenomena and how they manifest themselves physically through thought and action. Due in large part to simple ignorance, others often label folks diagnosed with these conditions with the most condescending and hurtful of terms in the book, including “pscyho,” “wacko,” and “schizo,” among many other derogatory slurs. This, in my estimation, really boils down to a simple yet awkward and unfortunate fear of the “other.” Many people are really just afraid of ideas and behavior which do not conform to their own tailor-made versions of black-and-white reality and comfortable, cozy, “normality.” 

From Breaking the Silence

Not to mention that not many people out there actually take it upon themselves to do the hard work of confronting the unknown of this reality with the unbridled curiosity that keeps us sharp, creative, and innovating, from generation to generation, in perpetuity. Especially within the throes of this new technological revolution, we’ve undoubtedly lost the art of nuance, substance, and abstraction in favor of brevity, speed, and hard-and-fast “answers” on Google and Wikipedia. It’s much harder to conduct a thorough investigation about why people do what they do and how they do it than to just pass it off as aberrant behavior. It’s easier on our egos that way. Folks are often thankful that they’re “sane,” and they feel superior and better about themselves because of it, other folks with difficulties be damned. 

Many of us have just sat by while the empathy gap in our society has continued to expand and multiply and as veiled (and sometimes not-so-veiled) narcissism, greed, and mistrust have owned the day:

“Not my problem, and not in my backyard.”

“Oh, and stay away from me, my kids, my schools, and my places of work, fun, and worship while you’re at it.” 

“Keep those people off the streets.” 

Another part of the stigma may have to do with how the media generally portrays these experiences. Throughout the checkered landscape of our popular culture, especially in movies and television, the most shocking activities attributed to folks with these diagnoses are highlighted to provide “entertainment.” Daily struggles, humanism, and complexities are wholly tossed aside because these things are not as “sexy” and don’t sell as much advertising time and content as the raw shock and awe does. And every time we see someone lash out violently in the news who has a family history/diagnosis of a particular psychiatric condition, many folks immediately call for locking up the “crazies” or even putting them on some kind of ridiculous registry. They discuss “warning signs” and what it takes to intervene with involuntary commitment and/or or forced medication, rather than researching the true root of the problem, which, by the way, often has many deep-seated psychological components. Those affected are often written off entirely, and we neglect to look for creative solutions to actually preventing these crises rather than placing a punishment “band-aid” on the societal wound. 

Fortunately, though, I think that films like ours have some hefty potential to turn this dynamic completely on its head. And that’s because, through this process of scientific and introspective discovery, people can now see directly into the mind of someone who has suffered intensely with this type of condition. They can see that these folks are starkly human and that they brilliantly display the full tapestry of intricate feelings and emotions of the human condition, including the same joys and sorrows as everyone else here on this Earth. Further, they are our siblings, our parents, our friends, and our loved ones alike. They are often capable, intelligent, creative, and yes, ethical and empathetic. And, most importantly, they can, and do, overcome. They can, and do, attack these problems head-on, and through empowerment rather than victimization, they gain incredible mastery over these conditions to ultimately lead happy, healthy and productive lives. They aren’t always relegated to the macabre prisons of simply surviving and “kind of functioning,” but they can actually thrive and succeed in society as we know it. 

These types of stories can, and I do believe will, provide significant hope and awareness to those who are actually willing to explore these phenomena. Because I think we all know very, very well that unfettered exposure kills ignorance. Dead in its tracks. So, if we have the opportunity to walk through someone else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, and to truly, and I do mean truly, understand them and their plight, if only for a brief hour or so, then much of this stigma begins to wash away on its own. Then we can begin to help each other unconditionally in the spirit of unrestrained compassion, and to teach each other and treat each other much, much better at the same time. And, in a nutshell, promoting and catalyzing this type of healing is exactly the focus, purpose, and intent of Breaking the Silence. Hopefully, our efforts here will do at least some of this for some people, on whatever scale that may be.

STAY THIRSTY: In the film, you interview mental health professionals who treated you, as well as key scientists and government policymakers. Based on what you were able to uncover about the state of medical science today regarding Bipolar Disorder, how hopeful are you that better understandings of and better treatments for this illness are on the horizon?

DARA SANANDAJI: I tend to believe that the next great frontier for humanity is not actually space, the stars, or other planets; rather, in my estimation, the coming revelations for our people will sit unsuspectingly and wondrously in the network of connections and hallowed pathways deep within the human brain. Undoubtedly, we’re learning more and more every day about how this fabulously complex organ operates, and often more importantly, how our thoughts manifest themselves through our sense of consciousness. 

Dara Sanandaji - on location interview

Unfortunately, though, modern science at the present moment in time is well behind the curve when it comes to a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of these particular conditions. Specifically, although we do have a rough sketch of symptomology and some rudimentary understandings of the genetic underpinnings behind it, we are still really only at the tip of the iceberg (if that) when it comes to complex and subtle knowledge of any specific pathology in the brain and how mutations within our genetic code may actually lead to having these particular experiences. We have been effectively, until now, only compiling behavioral data and checking both proverbial and literal “boxes” to diagnose these conditions. We don’t have any semblance of a genetic/blood test or a brain scan that may give us any insight into these phenomena, really whatsoever.

And, with the advent of new pharmaceutical drugs, the trend over the past thirty years or so has been that of prescribing various pills based primarily upon how those standard boxes are summarily checked. Not to mention that many of the pills on the market have been developed wholly by accident, are being doled out in simple trial-and-error fashion, and are often riddled with debilitating side effects, many of which we’re still tragically unaware of to this day. Because of familial history when it comes to these experiences, we seem to be chasing genetics for answers, and because of economics and profit, we seem to be chasing the “right” pills to soften (and not necessarily to “cure”) these genetic conundrums.

We do have pretty solid data, though, when it comes to “triggers,” or psychological and environmental stressors, which almost always lead to these episodes, most often arising for the first time between the ages of 18-24. So, the prevailing wisdom in the psychiatric community as of now is that these external factors lead to a particular expression within the genes, which then ultimately leads to recognizable behavioral consequences. And the follow-up is that these conditions, because of their genetic roots, are essentially irreversible in nature and will have to be dealt with and painstakingly contained and monitored throughout a patient’s entire lifetime.

We also do see a cyclical component to many of these conditions, and the most salient perspective in the psychiatric community is that medication is the only true way to keep these potentially-recurring episodes at bay. However, although I don’t deny the hard-and-fast research in this arena by any stretch, my feverish hope lies almost entirely elsewhere. And that is nowhere other than in the magically potent realm of the mind. It is here where we begin to really and truly know ourselves, fundamentally and intimately. It is here where we find empowerment, stamina, determination, and resilience. It is in this sacred space where we can tap into the tools of diet, sleep, exercise, organization, virtue, positivity, and respect to find passion and meaning in life, as well as a deep and profound understanding of the workings of the world we all live in, within and without. It is in this humble introspection and the extremely hard work of discovering ourselves in our tendencies, personalities, and idiosyncrasies that we can begin to master them without fear or indecision. We can unleash the unbounded miracle of free will, and essentially, we can ultimately choose how we would like to think and act. 

Now, believe me, I know how hard this actually is, and I also know that we do have a genetic code we have to mitigate here as well. I also know very well that the pills can quite dramatically help to alleviate many of these behavioral symptoms, and thus prevent much suffering, and potentially even suicide. I do know that. However, when we finally decide to investigate how to unlock the raw power and potential of the human mind, we see that we, in reality, are undoubtedly the final arbiter of our own thoughts and actions. This, I believe, is where the true hope for human healing ultimately resides, whether it is linked to these types of conditions or not at all.

STAY THIRSTY: This was the second film that you co-produced with Freddie Bell. Your first was Two Weeks with Dada (2015). How different was your and Freddie Bell’s approach to filming your life’s story vs. filming an East Indian Guru’s visit to the United States? What hats did each of you wear in creating Breaking the Silence and what part of the film are you both most proud? What message do you hope people will leave with after viewing your film?

DARA SANANDAJI: Two Weeks with Dada was the very first long-form project that Freddie Bell and I embarked on together, so it effectively served as a dry run of sorts for us. During that process, we learned how to work together efficiently and effectively and discovered much of the craft of documentary filmmaking on the fly. Neither of us had had any real formal background or training in film, so we were forced to cobble together many of the skills and talents we had developed while working in other industries, as well as throughout life in general, to produce a creative work of substance and worth. To be sure, we both already had many tangible intellectual assets to bring to the table, and the creative synergies between us piled up early and often. And because we did gel so well, both as friends and as production partners, we managed to learn the intricacies of the filmmaking process together rather quickly in truth. 

So, throughout the two weeks of production in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area for Two Weeks with Dada, we did our best to capture the essence of each moment we spent covering the enigmatic guru through some self-taught, avant-garde camera techniques, unique angles and framing, and discerning scene selection. We both co-wrote/directed/produced the film, Freddie supervised and produced the score, and I edited the piece in its entirety. Overall, the experience was quite rich and eye-opening to say the least—in content, in life lessons, and in collaborative style alike. We weaved through a myriad of storyline ideas together in post-production, and we ultimately ended up compromising on a more objective-type piece of art, leaving many of the outright conclusions and final thoughts about the experience up to the eye of the beholder. 

In contrast, the making of Breaking the Silence turned out to be a considerably more remarkable animal. By that time, we had already braved many of the hard knocks of frame-rate issues, software navigation errors, and pouring over tens of hours of sometimes-questionable footage in real time. But this time, we wouldn’t settle for many amateurish mistakes. We prepared a proper, tailor-made documentary film proposal and treatment, we exhaustively researched the topic from each of our unique perspectives in pre-production (as well as throughout the entire process), and we came up with a solid overarching game-plan.

During the formal production of the film, we acted as co-directors and co-producers, and Freddie gave me more than a few much-needed nudges in the right direction to open myself up and to knock on every door out there, and then some. We traveled extensively together to all sorts of conferences, meetings, support groups, universities, and industry gatherings. We perfected the art of the interview “ask,” and I meticulously crafted countless lists of interview questions, consulting my iPad on my lap, 60 Minutes style, during the filmed moments of truth. We also captured some crafty behind-the-scenes footage, explored the limitless corners and crevices of both establishment and fringe psychology, and hired various crews on location, as well as a friendly camera-op in our home base of Chicago. 

Freddie Bell - on location

Freddie hosted an awareness concert at the House of Blues in the city, and we visited many of my family, friends, and doctors to discuss my life’s journey on camera. But the time eventually came where we had to realize that our concept had grown a bit too large for the bounds of our operation. We were then forced to come to terms with some of our creative differences, and Freddie and I decided to split amicably towards the end of production. I took over all of the operational duties of the project, completed production with a few final interviews on my own, wrapped filming, and then ran post-production. 

However, Freddie and I did still maintain the quality and character of our friendship, and I fortuitously contracted the entire score for the piece out to him so that he could work his undeniable magic in the studio. I also hired a wonderful graphics team and an unbeatable transcriber, and I soon began the painstaking process of storyline construction. I spent many exhausting months in the “lab,” pouring over every minute of footage and piecing the film together meticulously, frame by little frame. 

During that process, Freddie and I reconvened and once again revisited our synergistic meetings, which only served to strengthen our friendship more than ever before. He passed along some incredibly innovative ideas for narration, particular scenes of import to the piece, and, of course, some astounding music. He once again brought his sound editor from Los Angeles onboard to master the film’s sound, and we finally decided to screen the film for family and friends in Chicago. 

It would, however, still take another full year of fine-tuning (and actually overhauling some particular sequences and much of the score itself) before we were finally ready to download the last cut. In the end, Freddie not only pushed me to push my own boundaries in procuring interviews and expanding my horizons of potential, but also to do the deep, deep introspection to find my own unique and fresh voice throughout the film. In the end, I felt like we left nothing substantial on the table. In effect, we went all out, and were all in. And that made the whole thing worth every single moment.

Ultimately, we hope that folks out there who see this film will find some hope, solace, and a sense of connection with each other as they experience this intense journey with us. We hope that they will intellectually absorb the detailed information within and will at the same time yearn to explore and learn more of the unknown because of it. And finally, we hope that people who do see this film will, in the spirit of genuine compassion, think a bit more about treating each other better as fellow human beings. Because, when it really comes down to it, we all live on a tiny spinning rock smack-dab in the middle of cosmic nowhere. So, then, it’s always up to us, and us alone, how we choose to use our time here.

Our advice, then, to the world with our work is to try to make the most out of this wonderfully magical life while we still have the time.    


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.