Nov. 8, 2021
Filmmaker, storyteller, neuroscientist: Charlotte Wincott’s latest project is a reflection of her many skills
In “The Issue with Elvis,” the VCU grad’s many talents are on full display, as she weaves together a story about people, science and mental health in a way few others can.
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Charlotte Wincott is looking forward to her return to Richmond’s Byrd Theatre on Nov. 14 to watch a nine-minute selection of clips from her first narrative film, “The Issue with Elvis.” The film is being featured as part of the Poe Film Festival, which runs Nov. 12-18.
Wincott’s memories of the Byrd Theatre date back to her youth when her father would take her and her two brothers to see movies there. The most memorable for Wincott, who graduated from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in chemistry, was “The Secret of NIMH,” an animated film featuring a family of mice and rats who gain super powers after being studied by the National Institute of Mental Health.
“The Byrd is so special to me,” Wincott said, noting that seeing “The Secret of NIMH” in that grand theater on Cary Street was a salient memory from her childhood. “Years later during grad school, I was on a training grant from [the National Institute of Mental Health] where I did animal research and that put the film into context for me.”
Her father, Bryant Mangum, Ph.D., a Fitzgerald scholar who has taught in VCU’s Department of English for 50 years, never realized the effect that film had on his daughter.
“It’s like deja vu,” he said. “She has those childhood memories and now her own film is being shown at the Byrd.”
Wincott’s films have received various awards
Wincott has completed a total of three shorts and two feature films that have garnered over a dozen awards. “The Issue with Elvis,” which will be shown at the Poe Film Festival in its entirety Nov. 13 through a virtual link and will have its worldwide release in spring 2022, is doing extremely well at film festivals, she said.
The fictional story set in West Virginia tells of a fungi biologist who encounters a child who has run away to escape traumatic circumstances related to his father’s mental health. The two main characters quickly form a bond.
The end of the film features the song “Planet G Spot” by Frog Legs. One of Wincott’s brothers, Wrenn Mangum, who graduated from the visual arts program at the VCU School of the Arts, played in the bands Frog Legs and Boneanchor.
“My dad’s harmonica rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ opens the film,” Wincott said. “The whole movie was a family affair.”
The film is a feel-good movie, she added.
“This is a sweet movie where the main characters save each other. It also shows that we need to be compassionate toward people who struggle with mental illness,” she said. “The film is getting this incredible response. It’s really exciting.”
This year Wincott also released a documentary on substance use disorders, “Fall Fight Shine,” which had its Los Angeles premiere on Oct. 23. She received the prestigious Activism Award, Filmmaker, from the Hollywood Women’s Film Institute for her work in the addiction space. She was also tapped as the keynote speaker for the Hollywood Women’s International Film Festival.
In “Fall Fight Shine,” Wincott’s husband, Jeff, who is in recovery himself, shares his personal story.
“We also weave in the science of addiction, which is told through scientists who talk about the studies and what’s happening in the brain,” she said. “We wanted to educate people on the science of addiction and also show that you can recover. We all have the ability to overcome huge challenges like substance use disorder.”
A life-changing experience at VCU
A Richmond native, Wincott grew up with a mother who struggled with alcohol use disorder. She lived with her mom for a brief period before moving to King William County with her father and brothers and later to Henrico County with her father to attend Godwin High School.
“I was interested in performing arts in general. I attended the Henrico County Center for the Arts program for half a day during my senior year,” she said. “I realized I love bringing stories to the stage. I really liked the idea of performing in a way that moves people.”
After graduating from high school, she attended Boston University to study performing arts but dropped out after a year and moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a musician and performer.
“I was a struggling artist for 10 years,” she said. “I found out how hard it was to do much with the arts in Los Angeles even though I did connect with my audiences through music.”
She decided to leave California and move back to Richmond after her mother died suddenly. It was “an awakening,” Wincott said. She enrolled at VCU at the age of 30.
“I wanted to understand the brain and why some people struggle with mental health disorders like addiction — how some can recover while others continue to have difficulty,” she said.
Wincott wanted to attend VCU not only to learn psychology but also because the university had been a second home to her and her brothers growing up.
“I grew up on the campus while dad was a professor there,” she said. “We would play in the hallways of the Hibbs Building.”
Wincott started taking pre-med classes at VCU and found that she really enjoyed her clinical neuroscience course with psychology professor Joseph Porter, Ph.D.
“I loved it. I loved the textbook. I still have it,” she said. “I also loved chemistry with assistant professor Ruth Topich. She inspired and believed in me. She was so wonderful. As women and girls, we don’t envision ourselves as being good in science. She really made me believe in myself.”
As a student, Wincott was active in Psi Chi, the international honor society in psychology, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She also student taught at the Campus Learning Center and won an award as a supplemental instruction leader in 2007.
VCU was a life-changing experience for Wincott, her dad said.
“I can’t say exactly why or how that happened, though I think the influence of Ruth Topich was a major factor,” he said. “When Charlotte came to VCU, something in the spirit of VCU spoke to her.”
“I thought it would be helpful to use film to tell stories with scientific undertones. I’m able to teach people even though they don’t know they are learning. I feel we need to share our knowledge and science with the world so everybody can understand it.”Charlotte Wincott
After graduating, Wincott went to New York University where she entered the Ph.D. program in neuroscience, graduating in 2015. Her performance earned her an opportunity to do a postdoc in addiction studies at The Rockefeller University.
Today, she works as a medical scientist and serves on the advisory council for the Addiction Policy Forum, a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating addiction as a major health problem.
Her work is ongoing, but several years ago she felt compelled to turn part of her attention to her artistic side and began teaching herself how to make films, learning how to use the camera, edit, and even weave in her own music.
“I thought it would be helpful to use film to tell stories with scientific undertones,” she said. “I’m able to teach people even though they don’t know they are learning. I feel we need to share our knowledge and science with the world so everybody can understand it.”
Wincott is humble about her accomplishments and that quality impresses her father.
“In my experience with her, she has always been more interested in the accomplishments of others than in her own success. She rarely talks about it,” he said.
She feels that her work is making a difference in the world, and that makes her happy.
“I watched ‘The Issue with Elvis’ at a West Virginia film festival and one lady in the audience was crying at the end. That’s what it’s all about,” Wincott said. “It’s about doing something that will touch someone or move them to change.”
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