For those of you that follow me on social media, you’ll remember that I had a rare solo evening out a couple of weeks ago to see a new independent film at Broadway, my local cinema and arts centre.
I went to see Irene’s Ghost, a feature length documentary following a son’s search to find the Mother he never knew. I didn’t know much about the film beforehand but, having read that it had been awarded Best Feature Documentary at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival in May this year, it seemed like a must-watch for me as a Mother and mental health advocate.
The screening was sold-out, which is a pretty impressive feat for a small indie documentary. But having watched the film, it’s not hard to see why. Moving, understated and warmly funny, Irene’s Ghost is a uniquely honest and personal story about family and community, with a painful subject at its core.
The film begins with Iain (director and son at the heart of the story) attempting to pluck up the courage to tell his Dad that he’s making a film about his Mother’s death. Iain’s reluctance, alongside his Father’s pained expression when Iain finally reveals his plan, is unsettling – neither Iain, nor the audience, know exactly what we will uncover but there’s a shared sense of foreboding.
The story unfolds as Iain tracks down old friends and family and slowly coaxes them to open up. Each new discovery takes us further down the rabbit hole of this family mystery, as we learn more about Irene’s deteriorating mental health and the subsequent denial that comes from the local community. Sensitively told, the film deftly weaves documentary and animation to fill in the gaps as both Iain and audience try to trace Irene’s past and uncover the truth.
To reveal any more would be robbing you of the journey that you and Iain take together but suffice to say that Irene’s Ghost is a heart-breaking but ultimately uplifting story of the impact that maternal mental illness, grief and pain has on family, and the wider community.
Please do go and see this film. In the midst of the current ‘mental health crisis,’ NHS funding cuts and societal and cultural instability, this film could not be more relevant or important. In fact, it feels like a game changer. You can look up your local screening here or even host your own screening in the community.
After the screening, I was honoured to secure an interview with the wonderfully talented Iain Cunningham so – once I’d wiped away the tears – I met him in the café bar for a drink and a chat.
What inspired you to start looking more closely at your family’s story?
I’ve always wanted to find out more about my Mum, or Irene, as she was to me before I started all this. I think the catalyst to finally do something about it was having my first child. Watching my daughter Isla grow through those first couple of years got me thinking more about my own babyhood, and all the unanswered questions. When Isla was 3, around the age that I was when I lost my Mum, I realised what an impact that loss would have made, and how tough it would be as a parent to not be known to your child when they grow up.
It’s clear that the truth about your Mum was concealed. How did your making the film, and revealing the truth, impact your family and the wider community?
It’s hard to talk about that. I think people did their best, and ultimately, they were trying to protect themselves and me, in the things they chose to talk about and not talk about as I was growing up. Within that, I think there was also an element of not wanting to talk about the mental health aspect, for whatever reason. Finding out the truth and sharing it in some ways has been cathartic, certainly in the closer family. I think lots of people – family and friends – still had questions about it too. It was a conversation that I think we needed to have as a family. When we screen the film with a Q and A, there are often people that tell me about similar things in their own families. I think it’s a catalyst for conversations for a lot of families about the things we keep hidden and why.
Through making the film, you not only learned about your Mum’s story, but come to better understand your Dad’s too. Has it changed your relationship? Has it changed your approach as a Father to your own children?
One of the more unexpected outcomes of this has been that my Dad and I have become closer. I learned things about him that he couldn’t tell me and began to understand what he’d been through and why he made the choices he did. As for my approach as a Father, I guess I am better equipped now to talk about mental health with my own children, and I think it’s really important to do that. I’ve always been interested in how we make memories as children and adults, and I think that is something that has been heightened by making this film. I probably interrogate my kids a bit too much about the things they remember!
What was your perception or understanding of mental illness before making the film? How did that change over the course of production?
Before making the film, I knew very little about mental health, and certainly had never heard of postpartum psychosis. I don’t think I’d even thought of the problems I’d had myself as mental health issues really until I started to learn more about the subject when making the film. Through reading, going to conferences and meeting health professionals and mums who’d experienced pp, I came to understand more about the experience of being mentally unwell. I learned a lot about that perinatal period, and how important it is that people have access to help. It’s the time of greatest risk for an episode of mental ill health. I learned a lot also about the importance of the first couple of years of a child’s life to their adult mental health.
How did your discoveries, and the long journey of making the film, affect your own mental health?
Making the film was a kind of therapy in itself really. It was a therapeutic experience for me and other people in the film too, I think. Filling in the gaps in my past gave me a more complete sense of self, which was really positive for my mental health. There were times I struggled with it, and with the information I found, but overall, it’s been a very good thing for my mental wellbeing.
The film was a labour of love, nearly 10 years in the making. How does it feel now that it’s completed and out there in the world – and garnering excellent reviews?
I’m really happy to be able to share my Mum’s story, and if it’s well received, it means it can be shared more widely. It’s lovely that people relate to it. I think in some ways it’s emblematic of a lot of women’s experiences, so I think it’s great that it’s a story that’s now being shared by others and talked about.
You’re becoming a great advocate and have teamed up with Eve Canavan, who said the film would make an excellent training tool for mental health professionals. Do you have any plans to pursue this?
We’re planning lots of screenings with health bodies and many other non-theatrical screenings and are using the film in training sessions and conferences for students, doctors, nurses, health visitors and other health professionals. There’s been broadly a great response to the film from mental health professionals. It’s a way in to talk about the whole family in relation to a mental health problem, and the many different stressors involved. We are supporting most of these screenings with talks or Q and As with people with lived experience talking about the current situation. Community screenings can also be arranged through the website.
What’s next for you?
I’m developing a new film, a documentary and fiction hybrid, and continuing to support Irene’s Ghost on its journey to find more audiences as we continue to screen the film in cinemas and release it on demand and on DVD later this year.
Images Copyright of Irene’s Ghost/Iain Cunningham