Private Project


MADNESS is a three-channel video installation featuring archival video, moving imagery from mental institution cemeteries, and text-on-screen detailing the number of graves present at each gravesite. The archival video is taken from a series of films produced in the early 1950s featuring Dr. Heinz Lehmann describing eight forms of "mental symptoms" as they appear in the mentally ill. Mental institution and state school cemeteries exist in every state in the contiguous United States.

MADNESS is designed to be presented using three separate monitors, with two monitors in sync, and a speaker mounted on a wall. This is the method of presentation shown in the documentation of the installation uploaded to the "trailer" section. However, the piece can also be presented using a single projector and speaker if necessary, projected onto a blank wall in a darkened area. MADNESS features looping archival video in juxtaposition with the cemetery imagery and numbers on screen, resulting in a unique experience for each viewer. Channel 1 is 16 minutes. Channels 2 and 3 are 24 minutes.

  • Heather Cassano
    The Limits of My World
  • Heather Cassano
    The Limits of My World
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Experimental, Short, Other
  • Genres:
    Video Art, documentary
  • Runtime:
    16 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    October 15, 2022
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
    UHD, 16mm
  • Film Color:
    Black & White and Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Heather Cassano

Heather Cassano is a documentary film and media artist working at the intersection of observational and poetic documentary. Her work often frames narratives through her personal experiences, exploring the idea of “otherness” as it relates to mental health, disability, and established social norms. She has presented work in the form of documentary films, multi-channel video installations, and still photography.

Heather’s first feature documentary THE LIMITS OF MY WORLD (2018) screened at numerous film festivals in the U.S. and internationally, winning three Best Documentary Awards and a Jury Prize. Heather is currently working on her second feature-length documentary THE FATE OF HUMAN BEINGS, which has received support from UnionDocs, Massachusetts Humanities, the LEF Foundation, and the Center for Independent Documentary, among others.

Heather has received recognition for her work through the UConn Humanities Institute Faculty Fellowship, MASS MoCA’s Assets for Artists Program, and the Emerging Documentarian Award from her alma mater Elon University. She is also an Assistant Professor of film/video at the University of Connecticut.

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Director Statement

“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”
– R. D. Laing

Insanity has historically been understood as a medical condition – a problem with the body or the brain that should be solved through extreme forms of therapy or medication. From hydrotherapy and insulin-induced comas to lobotomies and electroshock therapy, doctors treated madness as a disease that must be eradicated at all costs. If the disease could not be eradicated, then it should be contained inside the walls of an institution segregated from sane society.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people with mental illnesses were labeled as “mad.” A mad person was thought to be dangerous, defective, and unfit for public life. Just as they were excluded from society, they were excluded from the historical record. Because they were treated as medical subjects, information about their lives is difficult, if not impossible, to find today. When they died their stories were buried with them, leaving us with an incomplete picture of what life was like inside institution walls.

The stigma surrounding mental illness persists in our contemporary collective psyche. Hidden deep in the woods, behind prison walls, or completely unmarked; most mental institution cemeteries are inaccessible and forgotten. The documentation of these cemeteries is tangible, indelible evidence that these people lived and died while in the care of the state. The cemeteries exist, even if the burial records do not. The gravestones remain, even if the institution buildings have been demolished long ago. The people mattered, even if we will never know their names.

MADNESS reflects on the dehumanization of people with mental illnesses through a historical lens. The work challenges the viewer to consider the implications of segregation and stigmatization by presenting these mass gravesites as evidence of an overlooked history.