The documentary People Say I'm Crazy begins on a note of jarring desperation, with filmmaker/subject John Cadigan's face filling the frame like Heather Donahue's in The Blair Witch Project. In a breathy, frightened voice, Cadigan informs us that friends and strangers alike are trying to send him a message that they simply don't like him. And how can he be sure? Oh, that's easy. It's in the way they make their beds.
Cadigan is a paranoid schizophrenic and has been ever since he experienced a psychotic break at age 21. Though a talented woodcut artist, he's never been able to hold a regular job. He takes medication that has caused him to gain approximately 100 pounds. His days are a sadly predictable cycle of early-morning dreads, late-morning naps (gotta bed down when those drugs come a-callin') and afternoons of fleeting artistic productivity that he's sometimes too distracted to engage in at all. The best he can hope for out of life is to move into a better group home than the one he currently inhabits.
What he does have is a loving, supportive family, one willing to endure his occasional delusions that even they are out to get him. Cadigan usually knows when he's dipping into such dementia, but being able to stop himself is another matter entirely. His awareness of his constant plight is why, with the help of sister Katie, he has elected to document his affliction on video. People need to understand what he's going through and what nightmares face the numerous others who share his situation.
The movie focuses on its protagonist's life between the ages of 27 and 30, though there's also shocking footage of a younger, leaner Cadigan experiencing his first hospitalization. We see him being wheeled off to undergo the electro-convulsive therapy he endured at 24 (to no avail). The procedure itself, however, remains concealed from us, typical for a film that declines to show activity even less potentially inflammatory. (Every once in a while, you get the impression Cadigan couldn't secure permission to shoot certain events, like legal hearings, that would have further heightened the film's drama.) Most of the urgency is in the editing, with Cadigan's voice-over admissions of intense inner terror juxtaposed with visual evidence of homemaking banalities.
In one of the most engaging, unexpected turns, Cadigan's paranoia permeates the documentary process itself. He confesses to his doctor that he's afraid sister Katie is trying to cut him out of the film a suggestion that would be laughable were it not so tragically self-destructive (and, at the risk of sounding flippant, emblematic of general moviemaking psychology in the bargain).
As visually crude as any home movie, the doc has a guerrilla feel that helps sell its moments of extreme pathos. "I can't trust my own perceptions," Cadigan admits in one keynote monologue, putting the lie to the common fallacy that the mentally ill lack self-awareness. Often, they need to maintain more of it than the healthiest among us, merely to survive. That's what Cadigan is doing in his film: fighting heroically to exorcise a beast he knows will always be inside him.