A son's journey

Iain Cunningham on searching for his mother and making Irene's Ghost

by Jane Fae

Irene's Ghost
Irene's Ghost Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

Director Iain Cunningham responds to audience questions about the background to and making of his recently released film, Irene's Ghost. Please note: this interview contains information that could be regarded as spoilers with respect to the film. So if you wish to watch the film “cold”, you should do so before reading this.

Behind the story is the fact that Iain's mother vanished from his life early and was not even mentioned again until he was 18. Central to the film, therefore, is his search for the truth about what happened to her. Yet perhaps even more interesting is the fact that that search, over a period of five years, opened up a whole new network of family/relatives he had never known to exist, as well as friends and neighbours of his mother. He was, he says, amazed to find how eager people were to open up and talk with him: and while at times the process was a little painful, it also became very much a celebration. This is highlighted at the end of the film, when Iain throws a party for all those who have been involved.

Old photographs
Old photographs Photo: Tyke Film

“People,” he says, “were generally positive and we were lucky that so many were so open, so generous. The best bit was how once word got around, people just turned up unannounced.”

Responding to questions, he explains how, at some level, he had hoped for memories to be unlocked - but in the end, there was never any single eureka moment. Rather, there is a strong sense of community re-surfacing.

Along the way there were many revelations. But the single biggest one that had been airbrushed from family history – and came as genuine surprise - was that his mother's illness was not quite as he had been told. She had suffered from severe postpartum psychosis (PPP). This, and the serious, life-threatening impact it can have on all whom it touches sits at the very heart of this story. Iain agreed that not enough is known and that was a major reason why his father found it so hard to talk about.

The film has since been very well received by mental health charities, including the dedicated peer network Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP).

That positivity has since expanded into a request for Iain to do a tour for Mental Health professionals.

His growing familiarity with PPP, has made him more aware of mental health issues that can affect women, and this, in turn, has also affected his relationship with his daughter: there is a risk that she might be susceptible to PPP herself and while it is neither inevitable nor quite so dangerous as it once was, it is an issue where being forewarned is very definitely forearmed.

Irene's Ghost poster
Irene's Ghost poster

Iain did not feel he encountered any major obstacles along the way.

Funding was not an issue to begin with, as this project started out as a simple love letter to his mum. As he says: he started filming and funding only became an issue further down the line, at which point it had become necessary. It was, though, he adds, amazing to get the level of interest they did.

Partners were also hugely important. From start to finish it took five years and as film-makers they were not expecting to make money. That is why so many people give up on projects of this kind: and why support was so important.

Also important, he says “was the input from my father.”

He goes on: “He described the filmmaking as an 'interesting experience', but I think behind that lies the fact that he was pleased both with the result and the journey that this project took us on. Often, people want to start a conversation but have no idea how. This gave us the opportunity to explore wider issues.

“You often do not know your parents' stories and an important aspect of this process was the tapping into their experiences.”

An embrace captured in time
An embrace captured in time

Perhaps the biggest obstacle along the way was getting access to his mother's health records. It took about two years from start to end and while most of those he contacted attempted to be helpful, he found difficulties due to the re-organisation of health trusts in the intervening years. In fact, he speculates, while this re-organisation may have been problematic, it was also, most likely, why the records did survive. They should have been destroyed but...it seems that no-one had got around to doing so.

As for technique, Iain adds a couple of key footnotes: “the use of animation in the film was very important. At first, I only had an imagined version of my mother, so this was a way to generate a childlike view of her.”

It was also a way of establishing time within the film – and perhaps even adding balance to his own input that is at times present in voice-over. Wryly he observes that he comes over as “level,” but that at times that opens him to criticism that flatness of voice equates to lack of emotion. Not so.

Iain is now looking forward to exploring further. His hope is that the screening will see other people coming forward, adding to the story.

This interview took place at a special screening of Irene's Ghost at the Letchworth Broadway on 30 June 2019.

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