Dr Jess Heron interviews Iain Cunningham about his experience of making the film 'Irene's Ghost'
Why did you decide to make the film, Irene’s Ghost?
It was only really when I had my daughter Isla that I started to properly question what went on and to try and reconcile things. I watched her grow and develop and it was amazing to me how fully rounded a very small child can be. I started to think about myself at that age, and what I had experienced. I started to see the world through the eyes of a 2 or 3 year old. I imagined disappearing out of Isla’s life without a trace and it was completely heart breaking. I also started to wonder what the connection might be between Irene and my own experiences, my own mental ill health a couple of years before. I started to feel it was my responsibility to Irene to find her in the way that I could. So that’s what I set out to do.
The most moving scenes in the film involve your father. Given the era’s stigma and lack of information- which were so beautifully conveyed in the film, what impact has the film has had on him?
I always respected the fact that my Dad didn’t want to talk about things, but when I started to find out things about Irene, I felt like I’d been propelled out of a cannon, that’s how compelled I was to do it. I was incredibly nervous about talking to him for the first time, I had to build myself up to do it. It felt like he’d held a lot of emotion inside him for a long time. As the search progressed, we started to understand each other more and more. I think somehow we met in the middle. I started to understand what he had been through, the pain and confusion, and the despair really. I think since making the film, and with a bit of time to digest the experience, our relationship has improved a lot. We can talk more openly than before, and I think we take the time to look after each other a bit more as well. He’s very keen now to try and help men in a similar situation to the place he found himself in, and might even train as a peer supporter for APP.
The film flits between real people and dreamlike animations. Why did you use this device?
I had always thought animation could be a way to help visualise the imaginative world I had as a child, and my slightly unreal or magical memories of my Mother. I had an illustrated baby book, and the palette came from that, those muted 70s tones. Mixing reality and animation hints at the way we construct stories from memories - our memories are not entirely truthful, and that felt like a nice visual metaphor. There’s also a naivety to the style which again echoes the world of a child
You demonstrate in the film that there is pleasure to be gained from open discussions with children about life’s difficult issues. Was it difficult to face the family ‘skeletons’ head on, in order to be able to do this?
When I started out, I realised that it would be important to my daughter to know her Grandmother as much as it was for me to know my Mother. Partly because of my own experiences as a child, I wanted to be as honest as I could with Isla about what I was doing and why. It’s been an incredibly valuable experience to go through together and has enabled us to talk about grief, mental health and well being, relationships and lots of other very important stuff that would have perhaps been more difficult without this real life adventure unfolding around us. People were very generous with me because they could sense how important it was to me, and I’m grateful for that.
What was your experience of meeting women and families through “Action on Postpartum Psychosis”? Did it help you or your family personally?
I vividly remember the first time I met with women from APP and started to realise that this illness could explain the things I had been hearing about from people. Developing relationships with some of those women has been one of the most rewarding and incredible parts of this process. I was able to understand the illness first hand, and felt a kinship with them somehow. They were very welcoming. Hearing about the bond they felt with their children, even in the grip of illness was very important to me personally. Meeting their partners helped me to understand more about my Dad’s position. Also, introducing Isla to the families that meet through APP helped me to talk to her about it all in a way she could understand.
Like many, you hadn’t heard of Postpartum Psychosis before making this film. Has finding out about PP helped or has it increased your sadness or anger at the loss of your mother?
I was very ignorant about mental health in general I think, before making the film, even though I probably felt I was quite clued up. I was incredibly ignorant about the postpartum period in particular, and yes, I hadn’t heard of PP. It’s quite complex how I feel about her PP, tied as it is to an era when treatment wasn’t as good as it is now and awareness was very low. I think people working in psychiatric care have a very tough job to do, and they probably did their best with the tools they had available to them. I wish there had been a different outcome, but it’s impossible to know if there were issues with her treatment beyond the large doses of drugs mentioned in her notes, which were commonplace at the time, but we now know can be harmful. I was angry that her illness seemed to have made it more difficult for people to talk about her after she was gone. Hopefully that stigma is changing.
What would you most like to change in the future for other families affected by PP?
I think more knowledge about PP in the wider community in future will mean that it will be picked up earlier and treatment given earlier. I think also that the broader understanding we have about mental health seems to be growing, so hopefully that will continue. I hope families can feel supported as a whole - partners and children too - and that there are the proper facilities, including more MBUs, so that the right care can be given to everyone regardless of where they live.
Has the making of the film and its wonderful reception helped you personally? Do you see its success as honouring your mother?
It does make me feel a sense of pride that I am able to share her story with people, and I will be able to share it with more people if the film has a good reception. In extreme cases, mental illness can rob someone of their life, and even of the way they are remembered. I hope that I’m changing the balance for my Mother a bit. I want people to hear about her, ordinary and extraordinary in her own way, as we all are.
What’s next for you and for the film?
We want to talk to people at screenings and give them more info about PP, and a space to share their experiences about mental health, supported by APP.
I want to make a tool to help families who want to start a difficult conversation about mental health, by creating a 360 degree video, which is a media I work in outside of this film. The film will show the way other families talk, with natural conversations between parents and children about PP and other issues around mental health.
After that, I’m keen to do something different, and have been developing some fiction projects, but I’m still drawn to stories which relate in some way to mental health and identity. I’m sure Irene’s Ghost will keep me busy for a while yet though!
'Irene's Ghost' screenings:
LONDON PREVIEW | Bertha DocHouse | 30/04/2019 | Buy Tickets
LONDON | Bertha DocHouse | 03 & 04/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
GLASGOW | Glasgow Film Theatre | 04/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
NEWCASTLE | Tyneside Cinema | 04/05/2019 | Buy Tickets
LONDON | Bertha DocHouse | 05 to 09/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
MANCHESTER | HOME | 10/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
BELFAST | Strand Arts Centre | 15/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
BIRMINGHAM | Midlands Arts Centre | 16/05/2019 | Buy Tickets
EDINBURGH | Filmhouse | 19/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
LONDON | Curzon Soho | 20/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
NUNEATON | Abbey Theatre | 29/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
HALIFAX | Square Chapel | 25/06/2019 | Buy Tickets
For more information, visit irenesghost.com
If you have experienced PP and are interested in helping Iain film discussions about mental health between parents and children, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org