Irene's Ghost, winner of the Best Documentary Feature award at SMHAF 2019, is the moving story of a man's attempt to discover the truth about the mother who died when he was three. In our latest filmmaker Q&A,director Iain Cunningham tells us the story behind the film, and explains why we need to talk more openly about mental health.
Congratulations on winning Best Feature Documentary at SMHAF. Does bringing this film to a mental health arts festival feel different to other screenings?
Thanks, it does actually. The past few years have been an education for me, and as I’ve learned more, from speaking to people who’ve experienced mental ill health and from going to talks and conferences, I’ve become more and more keen to help amplify the voice of mental health campaigners in any way I can. Screenings and Q and As we’ve done so far have helped to raise awareness of postpartum psychosis, and have also helped to encourage the idea that talking and sharing can help. After watching the film, people often share similar experiences, of loss, or about identity, or stories about mental health, and I think screenings can be quite cathartic for the audience. I’m looking forward to sharing the film alongside other people who might have travelled similar paths.
In the film you describe how, at the age of 18, you discovered your mother’s baby book and they were full of strange statements about blood and god. Had you ever suspected before then that she might have had a mental illness?
Growing up, Irene was a complete mystery to me, and what happened wasn't really spoken about. Even at 18 when I saw the writing in the book, I still didn’t think of mental illness. I had very little knowledge of mental illness at the age of 18, and as far as I had been told, she had been in a coma, so the idea of writing strange things in a book wasn’t inconsistent with that. I guess I imagined that she had suffered maybe some kind of brain injury which might have led to the writing. It was only really once I started to look into it more after the birth of my first child that I began to suspect mental illness more strongly, and that feeling grew as I learned more about her experiences. Before this film, like many people, I hadn’t ever heard of postpartum psychosis, and had very little knowledge of bipolar disorder.
You’ve said that, for many years, it was difficult to talk to your family about Irene. What would be the response when her name came up?
I think lots of families have sensitive subjects that people tread carefully around, and ours was no different. During my childhood, her name didn’t really come up at all to be honest. It was something I spoke to my Nan about and not really anyone else. If ever I mentioned it to my Dad, it was clearly a painful subject, and I didn’t want to upset him.
A big part of the film is your attempt to persuade your dad to talk about Irene, something he is clearly reluctant to do. Was that the most challenging part of the process? It’s uncomfortable to watch at times. How has making the film changed your relationship with your family? Does your dad, in particular, seem different now?
At the start of this process I didn’t know what my Dad had experienced as the partner of someone who became suddenly and drastically ill with mania and delusions, and subsequent severe depression. Directly after having a baby, which is supposed to be a time of joy, it’s unfathomable to me how he coped. If I had known those things, perhaps I wouldn’t have pushed things with him in the way that I did. It was certainly challenging, although there is humour in the film and in our relationship too.
In the end I think it was a conversation that was necessary for us. Children need to know about their parents, and about mental health too. Our natural instinct is to protect and shield, but with mental illness, I think talking and sharing about it within families can demystify and destigmatise, particularly when someone like your Mum or Dad or brother or sister has direct experience. It encourages understanding.
Since the film I think my Dad and I have come to understand each other in a way that we just hadn’t before. I think we have a deeper emotional relationship, having been on this journey together. We still like to talk about football though, you need a safe middle ground.
When you reached the age Irene was when she died you experienced your own mental health issues but didn’t seek help. Can you tell us more about that? How do you look back on that now?
I often thought growing up that I might die early. I think it’s partly due to uncertainty about my Mum and what had happened. As I reached the age she was when she died I started to feel physical symptoms of illness including daily headaches and sickness. I got very anxious that something was wrong with me. It began to dominate my thoughts, and eventually I started to suffer what I can now recognise as anxiety or panic attacks. It affected my work and it affected how I felt around other people for a long time. Eventually I got better, but not until I had changed my diet and routines and working life, and tried to reduce stress as much as possible. I’d always been very strong and confident, so it was a shock to me how vulnerable I became. At the time I didn’t really consider it a mental thing. I went to the GP about some of it, but mental health was never really a part of the conversation, that element was overlooked really. Now I look back I think it was pretty clearly related to my state of mind and the unresolved things from when I was younger.
What are you working on next?
I’m busy with the release of the film, which will be on a cinema tour throughout the UK in May, June and July with Q and As. Information about where can be found at www.irenesghost.com/screenings
Winner of the Best Feature Documentary award at SMHAF 2019, Irene's Ghost screens at Glasgow Film Theatre at 1.15pm on Saturday 4th May, followed by a Q&A with director Iain Cunningham, Catharine Carver from Action on Postpartum Psychosis and Clare Thompson from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance. Click here to book tickets for the screening.
Winner of the 2018 Mental Health Fringe Award, we are delighted to welcome Electrolyte back to Scotland for a week of dates as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2019. We spoke to writer James Meteyard about what inspired him to create the show, the collaborative process that brought it to life, and the success it's had so far...
Electrolyte is a show about somebody experiencing a psychotic episode. What made you want to tell that story?
A close family member of mine went through a psychotic breakdown. This was exceptionally difficult as we lost them inside their own mind and fantasy for a while and we were scared we wouldn't get them back. The episode was brought on by a series of tragic events that came in close succession to one another and it made me think that this is something that could happen to anyone. My family member was lucky as they had a lot of people around them who supported them and lucky they have made a full recovery. But I realised that there must be so many people who don't have that support network or perhaps don't realise that they are someone's support network. I wanted to write a piece that both showed the power of the mind through one person's experience but also championed the importance of community and togetherness in combating poor mental health.
Have a lot of audience members wanted to share their own stories with you? What has that been like?
Yes. After almost every show in Edinburgh last year. The way the piece is presented is quite unconventional, it's very much a group of friends playing a music gig as a way to tell you a story. It's informal and doesn't feel like a traditional theatre show so by the end of the 70 minutes the audience really feel that they have met and got to know the characters, whilst going on Jessie's (the main character) journey. This led people to come up to us straight after the show had finished and share their experiences with depression, anxiety, self harm, suicide, psychosis - the list goes on. This was incredibly powerful as it goes to show how common mental health problems are! The stigma that suggests mental health problems are abnormal is not only damaging but it simply isn't true. Hearing different people's stories has been remarkable and the impact that the show has had on people is extraordinary. I can't wait to share this story further and to continue encouraging conversation around mental health.
It seems like creating Electrolyte was a very collaborative process – can you tell us a bit about how the show came together?
I wrote the script with Olivia Sweeney in mind for the lead character Jessie. We talked a lot about my personal reasons for wanting to tell a story about mental health and also hers. I wrote a first draft, bouncing ideas off her along the way. I then approached Maimuna Memon to play Allie Touch and to write the songs this character sings as well as take a lead on developing the underscore. We then brought Ben Simon & Chris Georgiou on board and together we all developed the score, through a lot of trial and error, play and conversation. It was important that the score was always an extension of Jessie's experience and never just there for the sake of it. We were supported by The Watermill Theatre and Theatre Clwyd with a week of free development space at each theatre to do this. We then had a four week rehearsal process in London where we were joined by Megan Ashley and our director Donnacadh O'Briain. It was here we finished the development of the score and did most of the redrafts on the script. Donnacadh pushed to strip back the story so it rips along with the pace of a live gig, sweeping the audience up. We developed a style of playing the piece which feels very 'knockabout' but underneath the pretence is an extremely tight production that took weeks of rehearsal to realise.
What did winning the 2018 Mental Health Fringe Award – among numerous other prizes - mean to you?
It was a real honour. Through the process of developing the show and the difficulties of getting something so 'tech heavy' to Edinburgh, in some ways, I'd forgotten the intention behind why I'd written it. But the moment audience members started reacting to the piece so strongly I started to remembered that at its heart it's about the importance of starting a conversation with those around you. But mental health is a difficult and delicate subject and, if dealt with badly, it can be quite damaging or not useful to develop a show around certain themes. So there was always a fear in the back of my mind that maybe Electrolyte was bad - or even worse - damaging to those people it was trying to speak to. The audience reactions were a phenomenal reassurance that this wasn't the case but to win the Mental Health Fringe Award was then the ultimate legitimisation that this story is one that should be told.
You’re about to set off on a huge tour of the UK and Ireland. How are you feeling about it?
Stressed! Nervous! Excited! A mixture of all three? It's truly overwhelming. Anyone who knows me knows that I set out to tour this piece when I started writing it. I said I wanted to do the Edinburgh Fringe 2018 and then tour it in 2019 with an outreach programme attached providing free workshops and discussions around mental health. We're now doing that... to 32 different places across the UK and Ireland and it's honestly one of the most amazing/difficult/incredible things I've ever done. As I write this we're in rehearsals and it's such an honour to work with these talented people again. I just can't wait to get on the road with the group of people who I have the privilege to do this show for the next ten weeks with!
Do you know what you’re going to do next?
We're returning to the Edinburgh Fringe with Electrolyte this year and I'm developing a new production with a theatre company called The Big House which we're looking to tour next year. I also really want to develop a piece of gig theatre exploring male suicide in the Autumn - possibly for Edinburgh next year although who knows!
Electrolyte is a multi-award winning piece of gig theatre that powerfully explores mental health for a contemporary audience. Written in spoken word poetry and underscored by original music ranging from “blasts of sound to lyrical sweetness” (★★★★★ The Scotsman), this exhilarating and powerful show is performed by six multi-instrumentalists who seamlessly integrate live music with expert storytelling. We're delighted to welcome the show back to Scotland for a week of dates at the Traverse Theatre and Tron Theatre.
Hannah Currie’s documentary We Are All Here – showing alongside Canadian film The Song and the Sorrow - is one of several films at SMHAF 2019 to explore the impact of suicide. In the first of a series of Q&As with filmmakers and performers at this year’s festival, she tells us the story behind the film…
How did you begin the process of making We Are All Here? It obviously tackles a very difficult and sensitive subject.
Shortly after Calum passed away I read a newspaper article by the Scottish rapper Darren 'Loki' McGarvey that struck me on many levels. Lumo's youth and talent, the fact that he volunteered for a mental health charity to raise awareness, and generally the sinking familiarity we have come to feel in Scotland with young men going missing and ending their own lives - gave me an overwhelming sense that this was a story that needed to be told, and made me dig deeper. I listened to Lumo's entire back catalogue of music and was struck by the searing honesty in his lyrics, so from early on the plan was to allow Lumo to tell his own story through his lyrics. And then when I eventually met his family, they gave me video diaries that they'd found after he died, and that cemented him as the narrator of his own story. The support of his friends and family and their determination to make a difference drove me throughout the entire process.
You’ve said that your aim with the film is to promote suicide awareness – what do you hope audiences will take from the film?
Awareness is key. For younger viewers, I hope Lumo's story and the aftermath contribute to removing the shame surrounding mental illness and opening up the conversation to create a space for young people to work through their issues. And for all viewers, I hope the film plans the seed that mental health is something we need to take seriously, and recognise that mental illness could be impacting our family and friends in serious ways that we may not have considered. One male friend sent me a message a couple of months after seeing the film and said that he'd noticed his friend acting differently and reached out to him, and the friend had told him he'd been contemplating suicide and that he was the first person who'd asked if he was OK. They are a pretty 'macho' group of friends and the film had made him act differently in that scenario, and that is exactly what I hope it will continue to do.
One striking aspect of the film is the way it’s divided into chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of Lumo’s identity – reflected in the different names he chose for himself. Can you tell us about why you made that decision and how it shaped the film?
As I was interviewing Lumo's friends and family and watching his video diaries, a very clear picture emerged of a young man who was struggling to find his place and grappling with his identity - which is a struggle I think a lot of us can relate to, especially throughout our teens and early twenties. Lumo was only 21. He was a perfectionist and often took the pressures of the world very personally, and felt a responsibility to himself and to others to 'be' a certain way, and I think that became an added pressure in itself. Having said that each of these identities - Calum, Lumo and Mohsen - were all very important to him, so it was important to me to give them each their place in the story. He really was all of these people at once but he thought he had to choose. I feel it's a tragedy that this happened before he got to realise that it's OK to be layered in this way.
Tell us something about the Scottish hip-hop scene that would surprise people.
It's full of exceptionally lovely and intelligent people. Some of the nicest people I know in the music industry are hip hop heads. And the standard of lyricism is so high. A lot of the lyrics are borne from difficult backgrounds and personal struggles and I think it's incredibly inspiring that people can express themselves in this way. I wish more people would pay attention. Sadly Scottish hip hop still gets massively overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully the film helps bring it to a new audience.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from making We Are All Here? And what impact has making the film had on you?
I became a stronger person making this film. People always ask me 'was it difficult to make' but any challenge I had pales into insignificance when placed next to the daily struggle of losing someone so young. I spent so much time in the company of Lumo's amazing friends and family and I drew a lot from their strength. Of course, doing documentary and telling a story from someone's life is a daunting process, and there were definitely bumps along the way - but I never felt derailed by them. From the moment I read his story I knew it was special and I recognised its potential to help people.
What’s been the most memorable response to the film?
The recognition the film has received has been totally unexpected and overwhelming - winning the Audience Award at Glasgow Short Film Festival was really special. But the most meaningful responses are the people who find me after the film to tell me their story: whether they are struggling personally or bereaved by suicide or inspired to make a change, that totally fills up my heart.
Your first involvement in SMHAF was volunteering for the festival as a teenager. What do you remember about that experience? And how does it feel to be returning as an award-winning filmmaker?
It was one of my first jobs and I remember feeling so fortunate to be part of such a progressive festival; I wanted to be a journalist and my job was to write the brochure and I just loved it. I'd get to attend the events and I saw so much amazing, important work. I'm so glad to see the festival thriving because I really believe the arts can turn the tide of stigma - it's already happening and seeping into the mainstream, so it's moving in the right direction. As for returning as an award-winning filmmaker - words can't describe. I've attended the film awards religiously for the past 10 years - the work on display is always amazing and I can't believe our film will be amongst the entries this year.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm buried deep working to deadline on a new documentary commissioned by Bridging the Gap, which is the Scottish Documentary Institute's new talent initiative. It's about my wonderful aunt and uncle (who has a brain injury) and it will premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June.
Hannah Currie's We Are All Here is the winner of the Best Short Documentary prize at SMHAF 2019. It screens alongside The Song and the Sorrow at Flourish House on Sunday 5th May. Click here to book tickets for the screening. Hannah Currie is also taking part in We Are All Connected, which gives you an opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation with some of our award-winning filmmakers. Click here to book a slot.