Movie News & Reviews

Durham filmmaker’s film on depression to screen at Tribeca festival

“Fear,” a seven-minute animated film about depression and loneliness co-directed (with Andrea Love) by Durham’s Dawn Dreyer.
“Fear,” a seven-minute animated film about depression and loneliness co-directed (with Andrea Love) by Durham’s Dawn Dreyer.

Over 3,500 short films were submitted to this year’s edition of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. Only 72 made the final cut.

One of these, chosen by Whoopi Goldberg, who has curated a special animation program within the festival, was “Fear,” a seven-minute animated film about depression and loneliness co-directed (with Andrea Love) by Durham’s Dawn Dreyer.

“When I got the initial call” that the film had been accepted, says Dreyer, who describes herself as a “filmmaker/nanny,” the “woman said, ‘We like your film, and Whoopi Goldberg really likes it too.’ That’s when the level of surreal went through the roof. That’s when I screamed.”

“Fear,” which is an interesting combination of hand-drawn animation and stop-motion puppetry, examines the anxieties and suicidal thoughts of Dr. Zenglo Chen, a man Dreyer met in a therapy group, who lost his parents at a young age during China’s Cultural Revolution. The film is actually part of a bigger animated project, “Bipolar Girl Rules the World And Other Stories,” in which Dreyer recounts her and other people’s experiences with mental illness.

“The majority of the people I have as subjects in my film I have a personal connection with,” says Dreyer. “Zenglo had this wonderful energy. We were in a structured therapy group and he stood up and said ‘Dawn, you are my sister,’ and I was very struck by that. We are different people, from different cultures. I was curious, what did he see? One of the things that’s a joy about doing this work is I’m grateful when people are connecting with my story, and I felt that with him.”

“It’s interesting to see what I would term a documentary animation,” says Sharon Badal, Tribeca’s v.p. of Shorts Programming, about Dreyer’s film. “This is someone’s real voice telling their own story, and it’s a combination of hand-drawn animation and stop motion. And the stop motion has extraordinary detail, really extraordinary craft. And it’s an interesting story. It takes a unique perspective on something we don’t often see in animation: a story about suicide.”

Dreyer, 45, has worked as a teacher, mixed-media documentary filmmaker, writer and mental health advocate. She has been involved with the Durham documentary filmmaking community for years, and at one point coordinated public events for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. She has also been dealing with her own mental health issues for years, and sees filmmaking as a therapeutic process.

“People say to me, ‘I would never believe you’re depressed,’” she says. “It’s doesn’t mean you don’t have the capacity for a rich life, it just means my ability to engage that life disappears. I think when someone is willing to talk about having a mental illness, the more we talk about it, the stigma decreases. For me, doing this kind of work has been really helpful, in terms of reducing my healing process, and reducing my shame.”

But it’s also about something else: connecting with other mentally ill people, and letting them know that there are more like them.

“My number one audience for this film is people who have experienced mental illness,” says Dreyer. “If they can feel less alone, and that there’s the potential for connection with others, that is the most important thing. I don’t want people to feel alone.”

‘Fear’ at Tribeca

“Fear” will show at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 17. For more information, go to