Jim Marbrook on Mental Notes

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
At the World Cinema Showcase, acknowledging New Zealand’s atrocious history in mental health care through documentary and testimony.

Jim Marbrook takes on recent—and unfortunately forgotten history—with his compelling documentary Mental Notes. It’s a stark look at New Zealand’s institutional practice on mental health, and shows how raw and recent the wounds are. Composed of talking head accounts of the horrors of institutionalisation, it’s life-affirming and anger-inducing at the same time.

Marbrook originally began making fictional stories. “The move to documentary came when I found it hard to get any leeway with scripts and producers,” he recalls. “The thing I liked was the openness. It was easier to do; in that there were fewer budgetary restraints. When I moved into making documentaries, the technology became more affordable. I started working on a PD150, which was a really cool camera, and it was a nice little extension of this little tool I could use to tell these stories quite easily and functionally. When Final Cut Pro came along at the same time, that was another easy way of editing stuff together. I think in terms of documentary, I happened along at a good time.”

The concept for Mental Notes came from Marbrook meeting “a whole lot of people who were working in mental health. I really enjoyed hearing their stories. I thought they were telling me things I hadn’t really heard before, and that fascinated me. I did get some money to put in a shorter, advocacy documentary for a trust in Napier—it was called A Town Like Alice. It was a shorter work. Once I did A Town Like Alice, I knew what needed to be done was a longer feature length work that could talk in a little more depth and a little more breadth of the whole experience of institutionalisation in New Zealand.” Marbrook also worked on a thirty minute piece for TV1’s Sunday, on disgraced psychiatrist Selwyn Leeks. Leeks ran the infamous adolescent unit at Lake Alice.

“That wasn’t very satisfying as a documentatry for me, that was more journalism.” Marbrook says of the assignment. “What [do] I like about documentary? I think it can tell a more human story than a strictly news based stories. When the Frozen Funds stood up and made some money available for grants, the opportunity came along to push some longer projects.” Frozen Funds—a charitable trus providing grants for projects run by, and for, people who use mental health or intellectual disability service—was officially Marbrook’s funder. “They were set up to manage the interest on money that was confiscated from patients in psychiatric institutions while they were incarcerated. That money had gone to a Public Trust account and was gathering dust. It was really fortunate those guys came aboard and said, ‘we like this idea of yours, we really believe in it, here’s a sum of money to get you to the finish line.’”

Marbrook’s documentary still feels really close in terms of the proximity to the present day. “It does feel raw and there are still some unresolved issues that are really important for the New Zealand public to acknowledge,” he says. “You will have seen through the bar wire to the National Secure Unit at Lake Alice: that closed its doors in 1999. That’s pretty recent isn’t it? The paint is still wet on that piece of history. I talked to a lot of people in the documentary who have been inside as patients, or inmates I should say, and also the workers. It was a very much like [John Hillcoat’s] Ghosts of the Civil Dead. The cells were a block, like a cube, and you started naked in a cell with a Perspex door and it was run on the strictest behaviourist model. Do something good you can move up to the next rung. Do something better and so on. That was a really inhumane way of treating prisoners or patients. I guess it was very much treating them as prisoners, not as people who could be rehabilitated. It must have been a pretty complex group of people to manage, but nevertheless, it was pretty inhumane.”

In terms of finding subjects for the documentary, Marbrook says “there were a lot of people who felt that they had a real need to tell their stories. In the end, we had to choose people who could tell a wider story.” One former patient, Roy Brown, was particularly engaging. “I like Roy’s story, as he has reflected quite carefully on his experiences in his book. Roy’s also a funny guy, and I felt he could reflect on his experience with humour and with detachment, but we also got a lot of analysis from him. He was a great guy to spend time with too.”

With other survivors, the pain was more upfront. “Francis [Ruwhiu] had the most traumatised experience out of all four. I had interviewed countless wards of the state, and she was the youngest admission as a ward of the state into hospital at nine [years old]. I talked to a few who went in as early teens—twelve, thirteen, and who also had medication to control them with seclusion for long periods of time. I felt Francis was representative of that group of people. I also thought it was important to show Francis with a person who really made a difference to her—her psychiatrist, Julia Aronui-Faed. She was a really useful person in her life, which was lovely. We get both of their perspectives on the system of care and their reflections on their time together would only make them stronger.”

Given the recent and traumatic nature of their experiences, I ask Marbrook if it’s a fine line between getting a compelling story, and pushing the recollection too far. “Kind of. I was quite careful about checking with people about what the limits are, and with these kinds of subjects. I was quite careful about checking the areas we had gone into that they weren’t going to feel uncomfortable with. I did go back in several cases and say, ‘hey listen we talked about this. Let’s have a think about it. I’ll call you back later, and we’ll think about the implications that it may have on your life.’ It wouldn’t have been fair to just go in. I’m aware that TV journalism is ‘get the story and put it out.’ I didn’t want to work like that. I wanted to work in a more organic way. I tried to put the checks and balances in to guard against that stuff.”

Marbrook’s judicious treatment of the stories aside, it’s hard not to feel angry about what the people went through in the institutions. “I think it’s inevitable you get drawn in emotionally into these stories,” he admits. “We had to do a bit of a debrief after some of the stories. The first part of it, I was with Sean O’Donnell, the cameraman, who I’d worked with quite a bit before. When I was working by myself, it was a lot more difficult to do that. I kind of carried a bit of the anger in me. It was only when we started editing things together; I had left a lot of the initial organisation of the material with Prisca Bouchet, and then came back with a cooler head. Because it played out over a few years, the anger dissipated a little bit. When I look back at it now, I look back at it more pragmatically.”

Despite this, Marbrook admits that there is an element of activism in Mental Notes. “It’s interesting because we have been having some debates this weekend at the world premiere. We had Anne Helm there with Roy, and Peter [Finlay], and David [Codyre], and we publicly talked about the Confidential Forum (for Former In-Patients of Psychiatric Hospitals) and that lack of acknowledgement of the Confidential Forum Report. I think it’s important we acknowledge our history, and documentary is one of those ways. The government does have a responsibility to acknowledge some of those stories.”

“While I don’t see it as a militant documentary, I’d like to think there is a call to arms at the end of it. I’d like people to listen and put that into the context at the moment. There are some agreements and some deals being nutted out between the government and patients who are bringing lawsuits. It’s being managed by lawyers and the Crown Health Financing Agency. There are deals happening, and there are people getting paid out, and apology letters being sent out, so I am conscious of the fact that people are getting these letters that are meaningful for them and there are moves being made to address some of these issues, but I think in a way, what the documentary can do is say, ‘why don’t you do it publicly as well?’ Sometimes it is good to do that publicly, and we’re not afraid of legal action, and we’re prepared to say mistakes were made and this was bad clinical practice and we are sorry. If you read the Confidential Forum Report, it’s clear that [for] many of the five hundred participants who participated in it, their wish is that there is a public acknowledgment of what went on in psychiatric hospitals. Anne’s really clear about that, and she forms a really important part of the ending of that film.”

Marbrook also adds that it’s not just recognition that’s needed. “Roy’s thread is equally important. There are still people being stigmatised for who they are, even to the point of warning them not to have children. There are several aspects there at the end, that are a call to action on some level.”

Mental Notes is an impressive and thought-provoking account of a past we’re more than happy to sweep under the carpet. “We’ve been really encouraged by some of the support we’ve had,” Marbrook says of its reception to date. “The word has been getting out among more specialised audiences—mental health professionals, educators, that there is some value there. It’s a work that can stimulate some discussion. Artistic value aside—which is in the eye of the beholder anyway—it’s something that can sustain and provoke some discussion. We think there is some mileage there and could develop a small theatrical run here. I would love it to play in the smaller centres, like Wanganui, Napier, Palmerston North, that might be more a case-by-case basis.”

The World Cinema Showcase 2012 graces the following cities this autumn: Auckland, Rialto Newmarket/Bridgeway Cinemas, March 29-April 11; Wellington, Paramount, April 5-22; Dunedin, Regent Theatre, April 19-May 2; Christchurch, Hollywood Cinema, April 26-May 9. Full programme and schedule details at worldcinemashowcase.co.nz.