Inflected with personal tragedies, stark voiceovers, and a gleaning, contemplative eye, Kathy Dudding’s fascinating documentary is a pointed, tragically delivered essay on mental illness.
Kathy Dudding’s Asylum Pieces is one of the unheralded films of this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival. This stunning documentary takes in its subject at micro-level—the abandoned architecture of a Porirua psychiatric institution—but uses subtle shifts throughout the twentieth century to comment on New Zealand (and the West’s) changing relationship to those suffering mental illness. Dudding eschews easy politics and obvious points for moments of great subtlety and contemplation. The result is one of the finest documentaries this country has produced, and one of the fiercest and most idiosyncratic documentaries of the year. It’s also an emotionally charged work—one which, if there’s any justice in the world, will receive the praise and recognition it deserves.
Asylum Pieces developed from initial discussions Dudding had with her late partner about a project concerning the Porirua Asylum. “We lived not far from the former site and he had started to take photographs. At the time we had no firm ideas of how it might take shape. After his death by suicide I began to look closely at issues surrounding mental illness, particularly depression. I decided to continue with the project, as my research into the subject led me to discover major concerns such as the lack of care for mental health patients post-deinstitutionalisation, and the adverse side effects of antidepressants—SSRIs.” However, she notes that, “although the film is a ‘personal’ essay film, I have also taken poetic license and fictionalised elements of this personal story, to universalise it.”
The film’s thesis is a powerful one, making it hard to deny the changes in our society’s perception of mental illness. As background research, Dudding read Michel Foucault’s History of Madness and Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness, texts that were influential in shaping her knowledge of the subject matter. One of the film’s key strengths though is its refrain from didacticism. “I think I was able to portray the changing practices in mental health treatment without being didactic,” she says. “The use of the archival footage, and the excerpts from literature, helped to present the information visually and narratively. My aim was to steer away from traditional documentary formats such as talking heads, and create a more artistic piece.”
Dudding’s previous film, The Return, is comparably structured, featuring a soundtrack composed of personal histories against images of a contemporary Wellington, plus archival footage of Wellington’s changing nature as a city. “Asylum Pieces is a follow on from the style that I began to develop with The Return,” she admits. “However, I feel that this latest film is more integrated, and engaged with the subject matter.” The filming, for one, was more involved. “When making The Return I began with the written text, then filmed the images in retrospect. With Asylum Pieces, I started gathering the images first, and then wrote the script, then continued filming the images. It was a kind of action-research way of working, but rather than moving forward only, it moves between the past and the present. The images and narrative/soundtrack came together in the editing process.”
Dudding’s films feature striking juxtapositions between their visual and aural elements; unlike many contemporary documentary makers, she creates space between image and sound for an audience to interpret the film. In Asylum Pieces, the compositions are still and thought-provoking. “The impression I was aiming for was one of contemplation and meditation in the images,” she explains. “Although these images may appear to visually romanticise the hospital, this is tempered by the stories that the past was not always particularly pleasant.” The soundtrack, meanwhile, is composed of multiple narrators and their ‘histories’, from the personal, to the managerial, to the archival. “The multiple voices of the actors give colour and provide different tones to the narrative pieces. They also help with the effect I wanted to create of juxtaposition of the separate ‘pieces’. And the narrator—Peter Hambleton—adds another dimension by carrying the main thread of the thesis.”
A cataloguer at The Film Archive, Dudding was also helped by circumstance when it came to finding archival footage. “All of the archival footage in the film is accessible at the Archive for viewing to the public. However, serendipitously I happened to catalogue 1980-1990s current affairs and news programmes this year, and in the course of my cataloguing job came across a couple of items that were pertinent to the film.”
As she did in The Return, Dudding uses the personal as illustrative of wider societal narratives. She also drew on two key texts documenting the earlier period of Porirua Hospital history: “Theodore Gray’s The Very Error of the Moon, an autobiographical account by the Director General of NZ Mental Hospitals Department 1927-47; and Marion Kennedy’s novel The Wrong Side of the Door, about her experiences working as a nurse in the 1940s in Porirua Hospital. Both these texts contained interesting comments and observations that fitted into my thesis.”
Through contemplative imagery and the nuanced merging of personal and official narratives, Dudding powerfully chronicles the effects of official policies towards mental health on individuals. As Bill Gosden’s programme notes conclude of the film’s loaded essay: will our attitude toward mental health treatment be seen as any less arbitrary or cruel than straitjackets and EST seem to us now? Dudding, however, is more optimistic than what her overall thesis suggests. “A film such as Asylum Pieces is never going to bring down the might of the pharmaceutical industry. My aim is to inform people of the issues, particularly the risks of SSRI antidepressants. My intention in making the film wasn’t to give the impression of being resigned. In fact, the last shot of the Museum Secretary opening the door to the sound of cicadas and letting light into the darkened corridor is symbolic of this ‘hope’.”