Film Review: A Summer in the Cage

There are some films that are just so powerful, sensitive and challenging that it hard to restrict the adjectives used to describe them and still convey their impact.  A Summer in the Cage, by Ben Selkow, is one such film.  The subject matter – a seven-year documentary journey following Selkow’s friend Sam – is a difficult one to broach.  But as the narrative unfolds, the filmmaker’s skill, empathy and objectivity makes for compulsive viewing as Sam’s mental health degenerates as the multifaceted effects of bipolar disorder/manic depression manifest themselves.  The result is a compassionate yet painfully honest depiction of one man’s suffering, charting the impact of his delusional manic episodes, paralyzing depressions, and his struggle to come to terms with the legacy of his father.

Selkow himself states on the film’s website that ‘by showing the difficult emotional impact of being bipolar on Sam, his family, and the filmmaker, A Summer in the Cage hopes to put a human face on an illness that affects millions of American families. But as this dramatic story unfolds, it also becomes a unique tale about friendship and the ethical responsibilities of a documentary filmmaker. The intent was to make a film about successfully living with, and managing, a mental illness. Throughout the process and when the Hollywood ending proves too elusive, the filmmaker and the subject are forced to ask themselves, “When do you turn off the camera?“‘

What Selkow does is to present bipolar disorder to the wider world in a way that exposes the devastating impact of this relatively common, but largely hidden disease, on the suffer and those around them.  In doing so, Selkow brings to the wider public consciousness the issue of mental health and presents a cogent case for it to be talked about and understood, breaking free from the stifling shackles of stigma and prejudice.  But that’s not all – in the film’s main protagonist Sam, with his tremendous talent for photography, his clear intelligence and supportive family – the film talks to us all about the importance of enduring hope and familial love.  In that respect, ‘A Summer in the Cage‘ is not simply a film about bipolar disorder, or even mental health for that matter – rather it encourages us to think of universal values and how these relate to our own particular lives and how we live them out.

In addition to the narrative, which is moving and piercingly insightful in its own right, the DVD contains, as an extra, a full-length interview with the Psychiatry Professor, author and advocate for bipolar disorder sufferers, Kay Redfield Jamison.  Prof. Jamison, as a bipolar suffer herself, gives a candid, concise and empathetic overview of the condition and what it feels like to suffer from the devastating depression and mania/hypomania that characterizes it.  Not only that, she presents some stark and deeply shocking statistics that should prompt wider society to reflect on how it views a condition that all too often ends in suicide and leaves a legacy of widespread emotional wreckage, ruined lives and unfulfilled potential.  That said, as with the film itself, the interview with Jamison is infused with hope. With the correct treatment and support, bipolar sufferers can lead productive and fulfilling lives, as evidence by Jamison herself.

Serkow’s film is a tremendous achievement that deserves a wide audience.  Watch it and you won’t be disappointed!  You can order your own copy of the film, and watch a preview, by visiting  You can also watch the official trailer below (courtesy of youtube):

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