The bags under his eyes look pregnant, his fingers and mustache are stained orange by tobacco, and his smile looks to have been carved by a child on a jack-o-lantern. Zbignew Daniel Fiks, known as “Z,” is sixty years old, but looks to be significantly older. Despite his rough exterior he is tremendously engaging, very intelligent, an outstanding conversationalist. After emigrating from Poland at age thirteen, his family settled down in Chicago. He began showing signs of artistic ability at an early age and was considered by his peers to be a 'genius;' his early art and drawings were referred to as 'da Vinci-esc.' As a teen he experimented with drugs, which amplified his yet to be detected bipolar condition. A reaction to LSD landed him in a mental institution, marking a point when “things started to go wrong.”
Z's life to this point has consisted of wild fluctuations from madness to reclusive depression, and the brilliance it inspires in his art. His condition has taken a toll on his life and his relationships. Divorced and deemed unfit to care for his children, he has become estranged from his family, a burden he carries with heavy regret. His manic 'high' periods are marked by amazing creative output, but also by hospitalization and imprisonment. The opposite of the highs is a depression that causes near paralysis; in this state he rarely leaves his house, becoming a solitary person for extended periods of time. His struggles inspire his art; his story has many similarities to great reclusive artists Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, among others.
The film follows his three-year bipolar cycle, interwoven throughout are Z's personal home videos, films and audiotapes. The home video footage vividly narrates the high points of his once happy family, as well as its slow destruction, the aftermath of the divorce, his loneliness, insanity and depression. Z develops a relationship with his camera; he speaks to the camera often as if it were a friend, a muse. The footage is very raw and engaging, and the voyeuristic quality reveals a certain truth. Testimony from his friends and family add a rich layer to his personal history. His poetry throughout serves as the product of his illness, illustrating his passionate, tragic, and truly unforgettable story.
As filmmakers we did not want to make a broad statement about the effects of bipolar disorder as an illness, instead, we decided to use the film as a magnifying glass to this specific case. It was important to let Z's life present itself organically. It is the filmmakers desire that the film be a combination of entertainment and education. Currently 17 million Americans have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; the illness has touched most Americans directly or indirectly. Additionally the scenes and obstacles within the film are extreme, but not unique, they are universal dilemmas. Classical composer Hugo Wolf, who similarly suffered from bipolar disorder and battled the extreme highs and lows of the condition, writes, "Do not play a comedy round my grave. Look rather around you, and see if there are not other Wolfs who are struggling against your hostility or your indifference." The filmmaker’s goal is to inspire a message of awareness, understanding and appreciation. -Brad Besser