Katya Kaminsky’s “Despondent” shines technicolor light on mental health

An inside look at the award-winning filmmaker’s passion project

Amidst a palette of electric colors flashing to the beat of a breathy tune, the camera pans to a young woman lying on the floor shrouded in a blanket of piercing blue light. With a disheartened, anguished expression on her face, she struggles to stand on her own two feet. Loved ones enter the frame one after another to comfort and support her, bringing with them warm hues that illuminate the dark space she occupies; but just as quickly as they appear, they vanish, leaving her alone on the floor once again.

This roller-coaster of emotions is the depiction of depression in Despondent, a short film written and directed by award-winning, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Katya Kaminsky. Stemming from an activist background, Kaminsky’s art is created with the focus of educating and helping people. Despondent, which explores the heavy, cynical nature of depression is no outlier. 

A joint effort between Unemployed Productions and Katya Kaminsky Productions, the film is inspired by the visual language of HBO’s Euphoria and utilizes color, light, camera movements, music, and human interaction in a whimsical manner to showcase how challenging it is to lift the weight of depression off one’s shoulders. 

“It’s not necessarily a happy film, but what was important to me was shedding light onto what depression really feels like,” Kaminsky said. “It’s not something that goes away. It’s something that feels better sometimes, but also something that you have to constantly deal with.”

Kaminsky, who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression back in high school, pulled inspiration for the film from her own experiences with mental health. After completing a degree in visual media arts from Emerson College in 2018, she was faced with the pressure of deciding where to go and what to do next. It was during this period that depression reared its ugly head once again.

“I didn’t have anything to distract from my symptoms, so I felt like it was taking over my entire life. I couldn’t really exist as a human being or as a creative person,” Kaminsky said. “I knew I had to find a way to get these feelings out, and this was kind of my way of doing that.”

Kaminsky worked for the New York Film Academy at Harvard University last summer and had access to a variety of film equipment, which served as the perfect opportunity to pursue a passion project. Once her heart was set on shooting a short film, she called Natalie Brady, a colleague and friend with whom she has worked with for many years, to help co-write. 

“Katya is a best friend, but she’s also very much a mentor to me when it comes to filmmaking specifically,” Brady said. “I had never co-written something but it’s very easy for us to have a conversation together and be like, ‘Oh, this makes sense, let’s do this’ or ‘Oh, that doesn’t make sense, we should change things up.’ So after sitting there on Facetime for like five hours, we came up with this idea.”

The process of bringing Despondent to life—from writing, to casting, to shooting—took less than a week to complete. Kaminsky, Brady, the actors, and a crew consisting of Kaminsky’s coworkers and students at the New York Film Academy started filming on a Wednesday afternoon and wrapped at 1:30 a.m. the following morning. 

“Despite the quick turnaround, we were very meticulous when it came to the makeup that everyone was wearing, the color that everyone had on, and the hue of light that was associated with each character because we know that it all means something to the story,” Brady said. “I hope that people will pick up on that and see the design aspect connected to the storyline because we put a lot of effort into that.”

Since the film doesn’t have any dialogue, it is extremely reliant on facial expressions and body language. Although that could pose a challenge for some performers, producer and lead actor Federica Schiano Lomoriello didn’t find portraying her character to be difficult thanks to personal connections she has to the topic and Kaminsky’s skilled direction. 

“I drew upon my own experiences with mental health and how I would feel when I was in the downs of it, and tried to make my face emulate that headspace,” Lomoriello said. “It also helped that Katya was a great director. She didn’t instruct me on specifics, but rather painted a picture for me of how my character is feeling and I was able to go off that.”

The absence of dialogue also shone a spotlight onto the score composed by Santiago Arias-Rozo, a recent graduate of Berklee College of Music.

“There’s a song from Euphoria that we really liked, so we used that as our base and choreographed the camera movements and the shots to it,” Brady said. “Once we gave the video file to the composer, we explained that the beats had to be similar and he created the original that we have now. He did an amazing job.”

The team’s next steps were to submit Despondent to film festivals and do a festival run beginning in March, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their plans are currently at a standstill. With festivals postponed or canceled altogether, the team is unsure of what the future holds for Despondent.

“The film has been done for a while now, but the issue is that we can’t release it because the rule with festivals is that the entry can’t be accessed by the general public beforehand,” Brady said.

Regardless, this roadblock doesn’t detract from the team’s overall positive experience making Despondent. 

“This has been really cathartic, and the feedback that I’ve gotten from other people who’ve dealt with similar things is that they also feel a little bit of catharsis from watching this,” Kaminsky said. “That’s all I kind of hoped for. Seeing that my film is helping and resonating with people, I feel like that’s the most rewarding thing.”

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