Al Bernstein is a first-time filmmaker who debuted his short film, WalledIn, at the Toronto Independent Film Festival last September.
As lead actor, writer and executive producer, Bernstein dived into the arena of mental illness. With a running time of 8 1/2 minutes, WalledIn is a project that took Bernstein four years to complete. The film depicts a powerful performance by Bernstein, playing a high school principal who meets with a troubled and potentially homicidal teen who he fears may go on a shooting spree, in his office one morning. An unsettling dialogue ensues.
The film also premiered in Louisville, England, and will be screened in Ottawa, New York, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Bulgaria by the end of the year.
“I am very proud and so excited of where WalledIn has gone so far. There is a growing awareness surrounding mental health and a greater openness among people for discussion, allowing for more stories to emerge,” said Bernstein.
What would you do if you found yourself in a moment where you possibly have a chance to save the lives of dozens of children? “This is the question that my character is facing. I have created a very specific backstory with multiple layers,” he said.
Bernstein’s character is loosely based on himself and his own mental health issues.
“The principal has depression and anxiety, but he’s learning about it for the first time, while the student has been living with it most of her life, having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The student teaches the principal lesson after lesson, telling him she doesn’t need to be fixed, to accept her for who she is, to stop judging her. She also tells him, ‘Just because you found a gun (in my locker), doesn’t mean I’m going to kill anyone,’ ” said Bernstein’.
“there is growing awareness surrounding mental health”
In the principal’s office, the student has a flashback to a presentation she delivered to her classmates.
“The mysterious priestess is a character created by the student while in her mania, a place where she feels empowered. She delivers messages to the students about discrimination versus stigma and tolerance. It took me a long time to write that presentation in a way that I think turned out really beautiful,” he said.
Bernstein ends the film with a cliffhanger: “I purposely left no definitive ending to the film, because I knew the audience would be intrigued, and possibly even frustrated. I want people to think and talk about it.”
Bernstein’s goal is to spark a dialogue within the mental health community.
“I want it to be a part of the conversation about mental health in our youth and the role of the educator. I want the film to be shown at schools, youth outreach programs, community centres and in therapists’ offices, as a doorway to a bigger conversation,” said Bernstein.
Bernstein, 49, grew up in Toronto. He attended York University, studying English literature by day, while pursuing acting classes in the evening at Ryerson University.
When he started out, Bernstein set his sights on working as an actor in New York City. He performed on the New York stage for several years, until he was accepted into his dream program at the Actors Studio Drama School at the New School University, where he earned his master’s degree. He studied with theatre’s top coaches, including Elizabeth Kemp, David Gideon, Arthur Penn, Ellen Burstyn, Susan Batson and many more. By 2008, Bernstein had moved to Los Angeles, where he lived for nine years, but he recently moved back to Toronto.
Some of Bernstein’s film, television, and theatre roles include: Godsend with Robert DeNiro, How to lose a Guy in 10 Days with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, Nip/Tuck and Nikita. His off-Broadway roles include The Interrogation, The Dance of Chance and Have you Heard Uncle Dan Sing?
Director Elia Kazan, whose films dealt with personal and social issues, is Bernstein’s inspiration. Kazan memorably wrote, “I don’t move unless I have some empathy with the basic theme.
“Elia Kazan did everything from producing and writing to acting. He eventually found his niche as a director. He was very talented and so much of an influence on me. I always felt that it would be lovely to have a life like that,” said Bernstein.
“I’m working on the treatment of a feature film version of WalledIn,” he said. “I am going to tell the story of how the principal and the student arrived that day in the principal’s office by going back to the past – about six months.”