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Mental health documentary showcases ‘disturbing history’ in NZ

A screenshot from the film Mental Notes, directed by Jim Marbrook

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Alex Perrottet of Pacific Media Watch

Premieres of a ground-breaking new film by New Zealander Jim Marbrook are currently being screened around the country, following its world premiere in Auckland on Saturday night.

Mental Notes is a documentary on the history of mental health care in New Zealand, with real characters telling the story in intricate detail.

Marbrook and five former mental health patients, who can best be described as “survivors”, revisited what many use to call the “Bins” – the asylums of Seacliffe, Cherry Farm, Oakley, Ngawhatu, Sunnyside, Porirua, Tokanui and the infamous Lake Alice.

The film was described by reviewer Graeme Tuckett on Radio New Zealand as “hands-down one of the half-dozen better New Zealand documentaries I’ve seen in the last decade”.

“This actually is an important film but it’s also one that really is worth seeing, and one that you will enjoy having seen.”

Filmmaker Jim Marbrook

World Premiere
At the world premiere at Rialto Cinemas in Newmarket on Saturday, four of the subjects were present to talk to the audience alongside Marbrook and Bill Gosden, the New Zealand International Film Festival director.

Gosden said he saw an earlier cut of the film that it was clear to him it was a work of “considerable strength” and of interest to people in various communities.

“One thing we’re very aware of is how few opportunities filmmakers have to get their films shown publicly, particularly in a theatrical situation, so it’s great to have the film showcased and to be able to render that service.”

The film tracks the dark and at times disturbing history of mental health care in New Zealand, through the words of the former patients of the institutions, some of whom take a humorous approach to their experiences, while others are candidly blunt, such as Anne Helm.

She spent years in institutions and experienced the worst that was on offer such as electro-convulsive therapy, lengthy periods of seclusion, as well as abuse.

Seeking acknowledgement
Helm was on the Confidential Forum of the Ministry of Internal Affairs which produced the Aiotanga report in 2007. She said her motivation to be involved in the film was to try again to get the New Zealand government to recognise the abuse of patients and apologise.

“You’ve seen five stories tonight, five very real, very touching, very gritty stories. The Confidential Forum heard 500 stories. The New Zealand government has still not formally acknowledged that report,” she said.

“I am ever an activist and I would say that Jim has done us an amazing favour in bringing this incredibly powerful documentary together because it will help raise the consciousness of what happened to so many of us.”

Marbrook told the audience he hoped the film would look more personally and journalistically at some of the issues around institutional care.

“It was our hope as well that it could become a yardstick to how we view institutional care today, so it’s an historical view that could have some use as we are looking at our mental health care system now.”

He said he had about 150 hours of footage which was sifted through to get 70 minutes.

“It was a big job, and took some time and some judgment.”

Lack of voices
Part of the task was to look at the history of the asylums, which in many cases were found to be lacking.

Marbrook said in the files of the oral history of Takanui he didn’t find any patients’ stories.

“They were clinical stories I found, clinical history. And that’s fine, but there was an element missing. A very crucial and important element – that’s the experiences of the people who went through those places.”

He said the official history of Porirua Hospital is a commissioned history and that doesn’t have any patient stories in it at all, and the history of Seaview is the same thing.

“I wait anxiously for the history of Sunnyside but I doubt whether that is going to have patient stories either.

“In a way, a lot of what we see here today is a reaction to some of those absences in the historical record so I hope that it can fulfil the gap that I saw in some of those public records.”

Psychiatrist David Codyre, who is interviewed in the film, said New Zealand still has to improve in its care of the mentally ill, and cautioned against ideas to return to the days of the asylums.

“I just want to say thanks. It’s a history that had to be done and really it’s the stories that carry the power,” he said. “But we do hear occasionally this refrain about returning to the asylums and that somehow they’re this magical cure. It’s not that all bad things happened there, but a lot of bad things did happen.

“I think there is no going back and it was really important to do this. We’ve come a long way, we’ve got an awfully long way to go.”

Seclusion still a practice
Helm recounted another of her recent experiences to prove the point.

“In 2010 I was taken by police and put in seclusion for six days. That experience was not that dissimilar to what happened years ago when I was taken by the police to Lake Alice. So I say to you that there are still practices that leave somebody with added trauma and complexity,” she said.

“And as far as I am concerned seclusion needs to be an eradicated practice, not a reduced practice, and eradicated practice.”

Former patient Roy Brown said society had come a long way since the days when he was first diagnosed.

A screenshot featuring Roy Brown from the film Mental Notes by Jim Marbrook

“When I was diagnosed with manic depression in 1986 in London, no one knew about it, no one knew what it was, no one wanted to talk about it,” he said.

“Nowadays it’s out in the open, people do talk about it, we are not in our closets anymore, we are part of you, we eat with you, we sleep with you, we drink with you, we’re in the streets.”

‘Worse things’ can happen
The final scene of the documentary features Brown recounting a doctor advising that his unborn son might have bipolar disorder. His response was to say: “Great, there are much worse things, much worse”.

Marbrook said it “just seemed like a fitting place to leave things”, along with a dedication at the end of the film to Brown’s son Wilco “Tex” Brown.

Brown responded: “That was just gorgeous man, there was a tear in my eye then.”

“Yeah, we want that actually. The crazy bone is connected to the genius bone, which is connected to the music bone. If you took out the crazy bone, where would we be?

“I love my crazy bone, it’s a part of who we are.”

All in the same waka
Helm continued: “We are all in the same waka because if you consider the things that drive people crazy, if you consider the life events and what people are going through, we can all relate to those experiences.”

“There’s not such a great divide between the mad and the unmad.”

Marbrook thanked all his collaborators, including producer Sean O’Donnell, who helped him establish a visual style, as well as his fellow staff at AUT University.

“Thank you very much. It’s nice to be able to work in a place where you are surrounded by professionals who also can add input into your work.”

Marbrook is also a research associate of the Pacific Media Centre and has been working on a documentary, Cap Bocage, on the struggles of a Kanak community in New Caledonia dealing with a nickel mine development.

  • Mental Notes, a film by Jim Marbrook, will be screened again in Auckland on 8 April. It premieres in Wellington on Friday 20 April, at Paramount; in Dunedin on Monday 23 April at Regent; and in Christchurch on Saturday 5 May at Hollywood. For more details, visit World Cinema Showcase.
  • Mental Notes was made with the financial support of the Frozen Funds Trust and a feature film finishing grant from the New Zealand Film Commission.
  • Watch the Mental Notes trailer: http://vimeo.com/38674385

Alex Perrottet is contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch

1 comment:

  1. Harold A. Maio, 6. April 2012, 2:21

    Worldwide the manner in which governments deal with mental ilnesses is lacking. Several documentaries have illustrated just how poorly.

    “Titicut Follies” is one, “Hurry Tomorrow” is another.The state of Massachusetss commission “Titicut Follies” to prove allegations of abuse in one of its mental institiutions were unfounded. When instead the documentary proved true, Masschusetts got a 20 year court injunction on showing the film. Abuse on film caused a psychiatrist in “Hurry Tomorrow” to be fired.

    Have you seen “Angel at My Table,” Janet Frame’s story?