Monday 19 March 2018

Movies on the mind - giving a voice to the disenfranchised

Illuminate is a programme of films on mental health showing at the Cork Film Festival this week. Ailin Quinlan talks to those involved about giving a voice to the disenfranchised.

A still from Rocks in My Pockets, a feature-length film which deals with the influence of genetics on suicide and depression
A still from Rocks in My Pockets, a feature-length film which deals with the influence of genetics on suicide and depression
A still from Out of Mind, Out of Sight, Rocks in My Pockets, a feature length film which deals with the influence of genetics on suicide and depression

Ailin Quinlan

Next Wednesday Professor Harry Kennedy, clinical director of the Central Mental Hospital, will travel to a former Cork church to watch a film.

Kennedy, one of Ireland's top psychiatrists, is making the journey to the Triskel Christchurch Centre for the Arts to view an award-winning documentary about a top forensic psychiatric hospital and its patients as part of the Cork Film Festival.

Afterwards, he will join in a panel discussion on the award-winning, if disquieting film, Out of Mind, Out of Sight.

Brockville Mental Health Centre is a forensic psychiatric hospital for people who have committed violent crimes.

The documentary goes behind the walls of the institution to focus on four patients who struggle with severe mental illness, and who are trying to re-gain control of their lives so that they can eventually return to a society, which so often stigmatises and demonises them.

Four-times Emmy award-winner John Kastner was granted unprecedented access to the Canadian facility for 18 months to create Out of Mind, Out of Sight. The documentary, in which 46 patients and 75 staff members share their experiences with an often shocking bluntness, won Best Canadian Feature at the Hot Dog International Film Festival in Toronto in May 2014 and received a glowing review from the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet.

The screening of the film in Cork this week - and Kennedy's visit on Wednesday - is part of a new programme under the Cork Film Festival which specifically focuses on mental health.

The Illuminate programme will showcase four Irish and international films dealing with the huge issues posed by severe mental health problems.

Each will be followed by panel discussions featuring audience interaction and involving lawyers, film-makers, clinicians, philosophers and leading psychiatrists such as Professor Harry Kennedy and Dr Ivor Browne, former chief psychiatrist of the Eastern Health Board and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at UCD.

The programme, which aims to spark debate and conversation on mental health, is supported by the HSE and the Arts and Minds Cork group, and comes about as a direct result of the hugely positive audience reaction to the screening, at last year's Cork Film Festival, of another documentary by Kastner - NCR; Not Criminally Responsible.

This film follows the attempts of a former inmate of Brockville to re-integrate into society following his release.

A screening of this documentary in the UK in the summer of 2013 earned it four pages in The Guardian newspaper.

Kennedy has also invited John Kastner to screen the 87-minute Out of Mind, Out of Sight for patients and staff of the Central Mental Hospital.

"I feel very strongly that the issue of mental health needs to be discussed more," he says.

"We spend a lot of time talking about anxiety and depression and that's not the same as talking about severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar affective disorder (formerly known as manic depression)." It is, Kennedy points out, "extremely unusual" to hear much in the mainstream media about severe mental illness.

"I think we're missing out on a subject that will come back to haunt us if we don't get to grips with it," he warns.

He believes that the screening of a documentary of this high quality about the experience of people suffering from severe mental health difficulties, and the experiences of those trying to help them, is a "very positive thing."

"There should be more promotion of the awareness of severe mental illness," he observes, adding that in his view, good quality documentary-making as demonstrated in Kastner's film is "the high road" into public attitudes and awareness.

Terry McMahon, the Mullingar-Westmeath-born director of another of the films being shown as part of Illuminate, the 103-minute, multi-award-winning Patrick's Day, says the Irish mental health services have been savagely treated:

"Every day in the newspapers we read about the reality of mental health and the tragic consequences of it not being taken care of," says McMahon, whose film focuses on the affair between a young male schizophrenic on birthday leave from hospital, and a troubled flight attendant.

"The savagery of the cuts and the level of doubt and fear created by government policy is very serious.

"There is a culture of fear and doubt which is propagated by government policy," he says, adding that he believes the Illuminate programme is a "brilliant" concept:

"Anything that begins a conversation about a taboo or about something we are ashamed of or afraid of is good."

Increased public awareness is sorely needed for the services which treat severe mental illness. Kennedy warns: "The budget for severe mental illness has been falling dramatically since the 80s. The money is being diverted to other purposes.

"What has happened is the asylums have been closed but have not been replaced with equivalent facilities.

"At the moment we're seeing a large number of severely mentally ill people in prison because there is nowhere else for them - so prison is essentially now acting as A&E trollies for people awaiting treatment for severe mental illness.

The biggest problem affecting services for people with severe mental illness is the involvement of idealists, he believes:

"Too much idealism and not enough realism is a major problem with the services for people with severe mental illness.

"If you blindly believe that by closing the old asylums you'll end severe mental illness you are seriously mistaken.

"Closing the asylums without replacing them with the equivalent resource in the community is an example of idealism conquering realism."

Kastner too believes more public awareness of severe mental illness is required - not just in Ireland, but throughout the Western World.

"Last year the reaction (in Cork) was wonderful because you never know how a film like this travels," he recalls.

"In the western world, when people with mental illness commit serious acts of violence, feelings run very high against them."

The decision to screen NCR; Not Criminally Responsible in Cork last year was an experiment, he recalls:

"You never know how universal the situation is.

"I was taken aback by the interest in the film in Cork. There was such a strong reaction that we're back again this year.

"I think mental illness is now bubbling up in the same way breast cancer has received attention in the last 20 years.

"Mental patients are hidden away and the upshot is that they're demonised in our minds. This is widespread in western countries, so we never get to meet these people.

"However, in the film you're going into the institution and meeting these people."

The two films have shown an incredible capacity to change attitudes towards mental illness in Canada, he believes.

"There is a greater understand that the person is not evil but just very ill."

The catalyst for the Illuminate programme, says its producer Fiona Hegarty, Talent and Audience Development Coordinator with the Cork Film Festival, was NCR; Not Criminally Responsible.

"The film went down extremely well with the audience. We felt people wanted to talk about the issue, so this year we introduced a whole new programme within the festival, focusing on the different themes surrounding mental health.

"We watched a lot of films to narrow it down to four which were selected. Each film is followed by a lengthy panel discussion. Each of the panels discuss the issues raised by the film.

"The idea of the project is to start a discussion around mental health. We have Out of Mind, Out of Sight, Rocks in My Pockets, a feature length film which deals with the influence of genetics on suicide and depression, Patrick's Day and Disappearing Act, a series of six short films, which focus on topics such as Alzheimer's and Dementia.

Two of the shorts were produced in Cork by mental health arts organisations and service users.

"The films are very hopeful. It's not all doom and gloom, it's about exploring issues that everyone deals with at some stage."

"The main aim is to start a conversation and use film to explore these issues and take them out of the clinical and university or academic settings," she explains.

"It's about providing a space where people can get information, share experiences and remove some of the stigma around mental health.

"There is a real cult of silence around mental health issues in Ireland, which is senseless."

The Illuminate Programme runs from Wednesday November 12 to Saturday November 15. Visit

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