By Anthony Orlando
Welcome to NYWIFT, Robyn Hussa Farrell! Robyn Hussa Farrell is an award-winning NYC writer, producer, and performer. She founded four companies, including Transport Group Theatre Company, which recently celebrated its 23rd year in Manhattan. Hussa specializes in producing and directing multi-media events and programs that highlight stories of empowerment and strength.
For the last 20 years, she has worked with over 200 interdisciplinary researchers to develop evidence-based mental health documentary film programs that have been shown to decrease stigma and improve behavioral health outcomes for communities. She has interviewed over 1,000 experts in mental health and individuals with lived experience and produced films on mental health topics ranging from eating disorders and suicide to veteran PTSD and childhood trauma and resilience.
She is a proud member of AEA, SAG/AFTRA, and NYWIFT.
Robyn spoke to us about her work at the intersection of mental health and the arts, her theatrical roots, and most meaningful projects.
Describe yourself. Give us your elevator pitch!
I created my production company to talk about the “elephant” in the room in terms of mental and emotional health. As a result, I have spent the last 20 years making educational documentary films about mental health disorders – having the honor and privilege of interviewing 1,000+ national experts and individuals with lived experience. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn from so many incredible humans.
In 2014, my husband and I launched a mental health streaming platform called Sharpen Minds in order to deploy age-appropriate films in a responsible/ethical way to support kids and families.
What brings you to NYWIFT?
I have never formally distributed any of the films I have made, which is kind of crazy. We have over 4,000 film segments/short films in our library, and clearly, there is now an urgent need for these materials. In particular, I’m directing a feature on childhood sexual assault and would love to learn all I can from this group about distribution.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
The best advice I received was from my voice teacher of seven years. She said that every decade, we should redefine ourselves in terms of our purpose.
You have had quite a prolific career, as you have spent 20 years working with multiple organizations to create and share research-based mental health prevention programs with schools and communities. What is your opinion on how society addresses and promotes good mental health in the present day?
Thank you! My greatest concern is that we must use evidence-based strategies to promote mental health. In my experience I have learned there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to address mental health (especially when involving young people).
My greatest hope is that our society respects the need to produce mental health programming responsibly. The wrong message at the wrong time could have devastating impacts.
In your career, you have co-directed many acclaimed documentaries educating audiences about mental health. How did your experiences co-founding Transport Group Theatre Company translate into creating these documentaries?
My roots stem from the theatre. It was my first love. The core of being a great collaborator stems from theatre. In the theatre, you can’t be the “only artist in the room.” You must share the space with others in order to serve a greater good (the theatrical piece). And that form is alive – even when it is finished, it still has a life force that requires multiple artists being present (in the present moment).
My work in Transport Group was alongside my closest friends on the planet. We shared a deep trust and belief in each other. This led to developing my first mental health project (back in the 90s and early 2000s), and the impact of that theatrical project opened my eyes to the greater need.
What is your favorite mental health documentary that you have created so far?
This is a tough one. The documentaries I create are each so special to me because – innately – documentary filmmaking is all about people trusting you enough to turn on a camera.
The first documentary I made was about women and mental health. This spoke to me deeply because I had watched my grandmother struggle for so long in silence. I also spent four years working with veterans and their families to capture stories of resilience and strength – there’s nothing more humbling.
The documentary films we created about foster parents were also extremely enlightening for me. I worked in collaboration with experts in childhood trauma and maltreatment, and I don’t think I will ever be the same.
So…as I said, this is a tough one for me to answer concretely. It is like they are all a piece of my heart and soul.
How and when did you develop a passion for mental health?
It has been around me in many forms throughout my life. The core passion stemmed from watching my grandmother suffer in silence for many years. I remember teaching her mindfulness and breathing techniques to assist with her panic attacks. I had two uncles who struggled with substance use disorders and saw what it did to our family. I also had many close friends in the theatre who suffered from addictions and mental health challenges.
There was a brief period when I was going to pursue a clinical degree, and while I was working in treatment centers for addictions and eating disorders, I realized that we needed to be doing more to get ahead of these crippling diseases. That’s when I knew prevention through documentary films was my calling. I started reaching out to every researcher I could get my hands on. Most of my work in the early days was funded by families who lost their children to suicide or mental disorders.
And the work is just getting started…so much more is needed.
How has the pandemic affected your career and your studies in mental health?
Back in the 2000s, we always said that we needed a paradigm shift in order for people to realize that mental health was a fundamental issue critical to overall health and well-being. The pandemic certainly accomplished that shift, but it has come at the cost of our children and adolescents in terms of the trauma they have experienced.
The medical field wasn’t ready for an awakening on this scale. As a result, we have had to work 24/7 to get more training programs out to the medical provider community. Federal funding has opened up (finally) to enable more research, so – I suppose – that is also some good news. Last year alone, we embarked on over 25 research studies with major institutions. But the field, in general, has so far to go.
What’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Aside from the Sylvia feature documentary, we are working on an amazing project to support LGBTQ+ BIPOC youth and are always eager to collaborate to reach more humans.
Welcome to NYWIFT, Jasmine Yeshan Zhang! Jasmine Yeshan Zhang was born and raised in Xinjiang, China and is now based in Brooklyn. She graduated from the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media department at School of Visual Arts in 2021. During her studies at SVA, she expanded her interests on making documentary films. She has been working as an Assistant Editor for documentaries since graduation and is currently working on an archival-heavy doc-series. She is always looking for more opportunities for documentary/film editing. Jasmine spoke to us about how her upbringing influenced her interest in other cultures, her transition from still photography to video, and what she hopes to achieve next.READ MORE
New York based filmmaker Melissa Morales is a first-generation Puerto Rican Latina alum from CUNY Brooklyn College with a BA in Film Production, holding a magna cum laude GPA. Melissa is an aspiring writer, director, producer and production designer, and multimedia content creator. She has written, directed, & produced four short films in 2022, with her thesis "Bigger" winning a NYWIFT Emerging Female Filmmaker Award at Brookly College and a NYIFA Best Student Director Award both in 2023! Melissa tells us about receiving the NYWIFT Emerging Female Filmmaker Award, her role as a writer, director, and producer, and more!READ MORE
Welcome to NYWIFT, Hyonok Kim! Hyonok is an award-winning filmmaker and choreographer who creates innovative and experimental film. Hyonok was born in South Korea, then studied film and dance in Paris and New York. Rather than dialogue, her films use dance to express interactions, bringing the emotional experience to the viewer. She choreographed and directed 15 dance films including Weeping Water, For Sunrise, Dance with Horses, Ode on a Korean Urn, Isle of Waiting Souls, Passion & Rebirth, South Sea to Isang Yun and L’Heure de Coq. Her films were shown at international film festivals and broadcasted in France, Germany, Australia, China, Korea, the Netherlands, and the USA. Now, she lives and works in the Bronx. Hyonok shares her inspirations in nature, as a choreographer and as a storyteller here!READ MORE
Introducing NYWIFT Member Sarah Eagle Heart! Sarah is a filmmaker and social justice storyteller from the Oglala Lakota tribe on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Sarah shares her creative journey from writing a book with her twin sister about reflections of identity, to working with musical icon John Legend, to her latest feature film.READ MORE