In Wonder of ‘In Wonder’

I’ve been a fangirl for longer than I can remember. A fangirl, by definition, takes it a notch further than just a fan, obsessing, swooning and often worshipping the person in question. I was a One Direction fangirl (still am, mind you), but after they disbanded and a reunion didn’t seem probable in the near future, I had this void in my life that I needed to fill. I had to replace hours and hours of boyband talk with something, or someone else. And thus began the Shawn Mendes Saga. Quite naturally then, I was elated when he announced the release of his Netflix Original documentary, In Wonder. “The documentary follows Shawn on his 104-show tour around the world after the release of his self-titled third album. It features concert footage interspersed with various other behind the scenes moments as the camera tags Shawn around hotels, backstage bathrooms, car rides and trips back home to his hometown of Toronto,” notes Haseeb Ahmed, a long time friend and my personal editor who painfully watched the documentary with me.

Born in Toronto and raised in Pickering, Canada, Shawn Mendes rose to fame (almost overnight) via the TikTok of 2014, Vine. As his wikipedia page will tell you – and I know this by heart – his six second covers of popular songs caught the attention of a certain Andrew Gertler, who was also new to the artist management industry. Mendes quickly went from performing cover songs in front of a handful of people to performing songs from his three studio albums in arenas and stadiums. In Wonder documents this journey, which by all means is an incredible feat, but nothing other more iconic artists have not partaken in. 

Mendes is barely 22, and already an A-lister celebrity. He owns a massive condo in Toronto that overlooks the Rogers Centre, a Tesla and at least 7 functioning pairs of airpods. He’s been invited to two MET Gala events, and has several Grammy nominations. He sold out Rogers Centre to 50,000 people. Mendes has endorsed brands like Emporio Armani, Calvin Klein and Roots Canada and has partnered with Tim Hortons. Mendes’ fame is not a joke, but whether it is worth enough to make a 90 minute documentary is highly debatable. 

“To me, the documentary shines the most when replaying those bits of concert footage. Mendes’ shows himself to be a decent performer on stage and the lighting, music and general concert atmosphere come together to create something quite nice,” says Haseeb.
As someone who has watched Mendes in concert, I can confirm. His showmanship is commendable, and it is meant to be enjoyable for an audience larger than deluge of teenage girls at his shows. His prowess was further proven by the live in concert movie netflix released the day after the documentary was released. Mendes had all 50,000 people at the Rogers Centre at his fingertips, making them dance, sing, jump and cry whenever he wanted. 

Mendes performing at Olympiahalle, Munich, Germany in March 2019. Photo By: Ushashi Basu

But Haseeb and I were, nonetheless, baffled at the need for the documentary. What was Mendes trying to convey to his audience? That he’s just another small town boy who accidentally fell into the rabbit hole of fame? If yes, then he gloriously failed. Not only because he admits in the documentary that he is terrified that one day, when he tells people he’s a normal boy, they will stop coming to his shows, but also because it is known among the fandom that he suffers – physically and mentally – from his constant need to be validated by his fans and the powerful personas within the music industry. He is loved by everyone in the industry, and all they ever have to say about him is that he has a heart of gold and that he is the most humble musician to exist. This documentary says otherwise. In Wonder is all too polished; the scene where Mendes is crying for having cancelled a show due to laryngitis seems entirely staged and a very poor effort at crying. Even the third person perspective on Mendes comes from either his family members, his best friend, or his girlfriend Camila Cabello. Mendes sounds extremely pretentious and tone-deaf on several occasions as well. 

“We never get to see anything other than the sanitized, ‘social-media friendly’ persona of Shawn that we’ve already seen on numerous occasions,” continues Haseeb. There is a certain level of jumping on the bandwagon and doing something productive during quarantine in the documentary, and it is far from being a raw, unfiltered insight into Mendes’ otherwise oh-so-normal life. 

In spite of having previously unseen footage from Mendes’s life that fans will thoroughly enjoy, the documentary, in its execution, is rather unremarkable. “Unfortunately, simply having well shot and edited concert footage cannot be all that a documentary has to offer and here is where things fall apart. The documentary goes over the major topics like his background, his relationship with his family, his anxiety and his relationship with Cabello, but it does so in such a shallow and surface level way that the viewer never really gains anything meaningful from them. There is a scene where Shawn walks through an open field of sorts with his sister, reminiscing about the past. The intention is to provide some insight into his origins but it simply feels too mawkish to elicit any emotion from the viewer other than amusement. Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the somewhat perplexing decision to shoot part of the documentary on film in a narrower 4:3 aspect ratio. Perhaps the goal was to bring a more retro, almost ‘vintage’ feel to certain parts of the documentary but the transitions between this and the wider aspect ratio footage shot digitally were so random at times, it ended up detracting from the experience rather than enhancing it,” says Haseeb.

Having been barraged with messages and voice-notes from a fan like me, Haseeb realized that he “didn’t really know much about the man going into this documentary. In fact, that was one of my primary reasons for watching it. I had hoped that by the end of it I would finally have some insight into who this plain scoop of vanilla really is. One can therefore imagine my disappointment when I realized that despite watching an almost 90 minute long documentary, I was still no closer to figuring him out than I was at the beginning.”

It doesn’t even feel like you’re watching a documentary but rather, a lengthy promotional video of sorts…let’s face it, that’s exactly what this is

Haseeb Ahmed on In Wonder

In Wonder leaves one in wonder of Mendes’ career trajectory, and whether it has nowhere to go anymore. Provided that he wishes to sell out even more stadiums, produce ten more studio albums and go many more world tours, wouldn’t it make sense to make a documentary some more years down the line, encompassing all his achievements? Perhaps shed light into a few scandals even? It seems rather unnecessary to have produced this documentary this early in his career. Unless, of course, he and his management believe that it is over for good. 

“At times, it doesn’t even feel like you’re watching a documentary but rather, a lengthy promotional video of sorts. This is rather fitting because let’s face it, that’s exactly what this is,” critiques Haseeb. To have released this documentary two weeks before his much awaited fourth studio album seems like nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Perhaps, an effort to make him relevant after the year-long break he took, frolicking in Miami with his high profile girlfriend and creating an album that has not rocketed into most charts, unlike his previous albums.

In our humble opinion, In Wonder a desperate attempt to be relatable, which makes the documentary all the more pretentious and contradictory. As the ardent Mendes’ fan that I am- or should I say, was – disappointment is rather an understatement. Mendes is talented, dedicated and hard working. He does a fantastic job of displaying his artistic skill, but this documentary is not it. 

In Wonder and Shawn Mendes: Live in Concert is available worldwide on Netflix.

Haseeb Ahmed is a 23 year old Meteorology student at the University of Trento in Italy. Having previously graduated with a BSc in Physics from Jacobs University Bremen, Haseeb is an avid film fan and enjoys photography, playing the Legend of Zelda and bopping to Carly Rae Jepsen. Read his In Conversation interview here.


The Venn Diagram of Mental Health

The symptoms of mental health conditions are often inter-sectional, and overlapping. They are rather general, and often not characteristic of the root cause of the condition. Therefore, it is essential to recognise specific marker symptoms so that correct help can sought early. Guest writer Scarlett Parr-Reid and I discuss these symptoms and our personal experiences of them in this blog post.

Trigger Warning: Some experiences mentioned in this post may be disturbing for certain readers. Please discontinue reading if you find yourself in such a position. Online resources for help and advice are linked at the end of this post.

Ushashi: Lately, I’ve realised how interconnected mental health issues are, especially when it comes to early symptoms. Just like a high fever is one of the earliest symptoms of the onset of any disease and doesn’t really tell you anything about the nature of the disease, some of the initial reactions of the body to anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic attacks are also incredibly similar. 

Scarlett: I understand you’ve personally experienced panic disorder and I am wondering what your experience of it has been like. Have you found ways to manage it?

Ushashi: I have been suffering from panic disorder for a while now, and it comes and goes. There have been long periods of time where I was feeling completely fine, but there also have been periods when it got rather awful. I’ve tried several things to address the issue, and as much as there are moments where they’ve worked wonders, sometimes they’re not as useful as I want them to be. 
And to this day, it is a mystery to me, how and why it all began. I’m generally happy with where I am in my life right now, in both professional as well as personal spheres. I have incredibly loving friends and family who are perpetually there for me and vice versa. I am also very meticulous about planning and organising; I have everything under control and duly scheduled almost all of the time. There is no reason for me to panic about anything. But the mind works in funny ways!

The first time I suffered one was in February this year, when someone I was very close to hadn’t replied to me all day! Not a single word, the whole day! So later in the evening, I started to get worried, and I had a panic attack, and since it was my first time, I was mortified and confused and absolutely helpless. It seems silly now, but it’s really the most random things that trigger a panic attack. Turns out he was sleeping the whole day. 

What about you? What has your journey been like? 

Scarlett: I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) three years ago. I had been feeling anxious for a while, but it had gradually worsened. I was recommended to take Sertraline, a type of drug called a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), an antidepressant that boosts levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the brain. What I experienced was this wave of fatigue, like I was carrying this weight on my body making. It really helped to stabilise my mood, which had previously been very erratic, swinging from highs to lows. However, as I was taking it at university, it became clear that it was a hindrance to my academic performance, as I started to lose my concentration. It was like all this extra serotonin had hazed over my brain and thinking was scattered and directionless. This meant doing work was really tough, because I had to try doubly as hard to think straight. I couldn’t tell whether I was just some strange anomalous case study or whether the sertraline was actually causing more problems that it was helping. 
I waited it out for a few more months with no real changes in the fatigue. I started to wonder whether it was worth the side-effects.

Part of my experience of GAD was social anxiety. At best I can describe it as feeling like I was an alien in a room full of humans. They were all getting on and talking merrily and having a fun time. Meanwhile I was wondering if my clothes looked a mess, if I should make more eye contact and if I was saying things that sounded stupid. 

Ushashi: I see so much of my experience in yours, in spite of having been diagnosed with something completely different. That haze, that fatigue you talk about; all too familiar. I’ve also found myself exhibiting obsessive-compulsive behaviours; one example would be constantly locking and unlocking my door. It’s so strange.
Social anxiety is also something I have experienced. It’s this irrational fear of being caught red handed having a panic attack; I don’t want them to see me while I’m vulnerable and confused. And obviously, it’s a really common feeling and everyone suffering from a mental health issue struggles with social anxiety to a certain degree. And it’s the same social anxiety that prevents people from seeking help. So social anxiety is a starting point in the diagnosis, but it’s hardly definitive. 

“At best I can describe it as feeling like I was an alien in a room full of humans.”

Scarlett, on her social anxiety

Scarlett: It sounds like social anxiety is a rather non-specific symptom of many conditions. Perhaps we would be better off looking for markers that really differentiate conditions from each other. Often the differences might be really subtle. 

Ushashi: It’s important to address the subtle differences in the symptoms, and even more important for people to actually know about these differences, and to believe someone when they talk about their symptoms. For instance, one of the prominent symptoms of a panic attack is the tightening of the chest, and this eerie feeling of death. Your body grows cold, top to bottom, and as the temperature drops, you feel like you’re dying. But when you describe it to someone, it all sounds very animated, because how does one know what dying feels like? And the worst part is that your thoughts and symptoms during a panic attack are in this cyclic relationship, where the more you think about how you’re feeling like you’re dying, the more panicky you get. And the more panicky you get, the colder you start feeling. It’s really hard to put a stop to those thoughts and take a deep breath and actively try to calm down. 

What I would also like to remind people is that the very early symptoms of COVID-19 and Panic attacks are surprisingly similar, and it is very easy to tumble down that rabbit hole. You can’t breathe, your chest is tightening, you can’t smell anything, and you think “Do I have COVID? Should I call someone?”, and then you panic about your health, but you’re actually having a panic attack about something else, but you can’t help it. And 2020 hasn’t been easy, so your panic attacks are justified. It takes so much time to recover from that. 

Ushashi: How do you think we can increase awareness of these symptoms? 

Scarlett: I think Improving education on ‘mental health first aid’ will help to increase awareness. Unfortunately, there is very little mental health in the medical curriculum. The more we know about the crossover between mental health conditions and the possible side-effects of medications, the better the decisions we make about our own well-being. For example, we can weigh up whether it is worth taking Sertraline and possibly experiencing fatigue and lack of concentration or trying another treatment. Early intervention is key to better long-term outcomes, which means knowing the markers of mental health conditions. 

For anxiety, the marker symptoms to look out for are a difficulty concentrating and a tendency to catastrophise which gradually mount over time. Whereas panic is a sudden and intense wave that tightens your chest, leaving you feeling like you are going to die. What we’ve seen is that anxiety can lead to panic and panic can lead to anxiety. They are not mutually exclusive. And OCD involves unwanted thoughts and compulsions leading to repetitive behaviours. It’s not simply a need for control, but a sense that there is safety in order. 

Ushashi: You’re quite vocal about mental health, its symptoms and how to ask for help. In all these years, what have you learnt about it?

Scarlett: What I’ve learnt from all this: mental health is a very fragile thing. And the work doesn’t just stop after a course of CBT. Mental health conditions are also very much intertwined. One can feed into another and one can also trigger another. Dealing with them begins with ruthless honesty and disciplined effort which has to happen every single day, not just when you have flare-ups. I remind myself of the Japanese word Kintsugi. Resilience. Cracks filled in with beautiful gold. This is what I try to embody when I approach my mental health. Whilst our mental health happens to us, it is not us. We are not defined by it. 

Ushashi: Yes, I agree. And help is everywhere, really. It’s only a matter of seeking for it. The earlier we recognise these symptoms, the easier it becomes to address them.

Scarlett Parr-Reid has a BSc in Medical Sciences from the University of Exeter and is currently an MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College London. She is passionate about the interrelationship of medical science and mental health. She has been volunteering with the Motor Neurone Disease Association for three years. For more from Scarlett, visit her website or her LinkedIn profile.

We understand that it is often difficult to talk about these things with people we might know, or for the fear of being judged. We have compiled these online resources for anyone to check out, should they in any way resonate with our conversation. Of course, nothing is better than professional help, and we highly recommend reaching out to someone if you experience any of the above mentioned symptoms.

Online Resources:

Silvercloud: an platform with evidence-based programmes and resources on mental health, including journaling for your wellbeing.

Mind Charity: a mental health charity providing support, information and resources on a range of mental health conditions, including helplines and self-care tips.

Nightline Association: an anonymous listening service run by students for students every night from 8pm-8am during term time. This includes phone lines, web chats, Skype and emailing.

Psych2Go: a YouTube channel specialising in mental health and psychology. There are great videos on mental health signs and symptoms.

Headspace: a guided meditation platform, especially useful for those with panic disorder. They have meditations available for all kinds of situations, such as for when one is feeling overwhelmed, or if one is burnt out. There is also music to calm down to. You can also get it for free with a Spotify premium account.