Jim Marbrook’s Mental Notes, fka Duty of Care, receives its world premiere at this year’s World Cinema Showcase this weekend.
Built around the issue of the treatment of people diagnosed with mental illness in NZ’s psychiatric institutions, or “bins”, the film offers a predominantly patient-focused experience of being “cared for” by the hands of the state.
It’s not Marbrook’s first film around the subject of mental illness. In 2005, his Dark Horse won the Best Feature Documentary award at the first edition of DOCNZ’s documentary festival.
Following Dark Horse, Marbrook pitched a broader documentary about mental health institutuions to TVNZ in 2007, which didn’t go ahead but led to his participation on a Sunday piece specifically about treatment of patients/inmates at the Lake Alice institution.
Marbrook decided that he still wanted to make something that was “personal rather than journalistic” about the subject matter.
In late 2008, a $90,000 grant from Frozen Funds enabled him to get started on shooting, using an EX3, initially with Sean O’Donnell as another cameraman. Marbrook ended up doing most of the camerawork himself over the next two and a half years, finishing shooting just over a year ago in February 2011.
Fitting the shooting around his teaching work at AUT was “a bit of a luxury, not having a broadcast deadline.” Inevitably, the project took longer than originally anticipated, not helped by the fact that Marbrook was simultaneously shooting a New Caledonian-set documentary, Cap Bocage.
Screentime’s Margaret Kelly, with whom Marbrook had worked previously, did a pre-edit, allowing Marbrook to shape the film while still shooting. Marbrook knew from the beginning that it would be “an interview film”, but the pre-edit gave him a good feel for what else would be required.
The final editor, Prisca Bouchet, had just come off Briar March’s There Once was an Island: Te Henua e Nnoho, for which she won the Best Editing: Documentary/Factual Programme gong at the 2010 Qantas Film & TV Awards.
Initially, the fact that she was a native French speaker (as well as a damn fine editor) attracted Marbrook since Cap Bocage’s New Caledonia is French-speaking, but they worked well together and so using her for Mental Notes was a natural choice.
Earlier this year, after Marbrook had put together a marketing plan for the film, the NZFC came on board with finishing funding to support the film.
With around 150 hours of footage, plus interview transcripts, Marbrook was able to pick the eyes out for the final cut, but has ended up with a very restrained piece of work, eschewing any temptation to go for the jugular with sensationalist or tabloid exposé material.
Interview subjects had approval of the cut, and some were not used because they or Marbrook determined their material too personal, potentially damaging to them in their daily life.
The decision is a good fit with the ethos of the film, that community-based care, treatment and solutions better meet the needs of people with mental health problems than institutional provision.
Marbrook also felt that, although institutional treatment of the mentally-ill has had plenty of bad press in recent years, almost all the material publicly available records the opinions (personal or professional) of staff, not patients.
Those from the other side of the locked doors provide clear objective context, without defending the institutions or the decisions and practices common within them.
The restraint works in the film’s favour, because – here as elsewhere – times have changed since the heyday of the vast, cloistered Victorian edifices. The treatment they offered was, at best, offered according to the prevailing wisdom of the day, as described by psychiatrist David Codyre (The Nutters Club) and medical historian Warwick Brunton.
Their clinical explanations of historical thinking, such as the belief that mental illnesses were lifelong and incurable, are mirrored emotionally – although with surprisingly little bitterness – in the personal experiences of the former patients. If what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger Marbrook’s subjects, despite in some cases seeming physically frail, come across as having their heads screwed on far better than many people who’ve never been committed.
Time has moved on and with it the practices of many types of institutional support services, but Marbrook feels that there’s still work to do and that there’s a value in having an historical yardstick to measure current practice against.
As one psychiatrist told him, although it didn’t make the final cut, he would accept that practices were as good as they could be if he felt comfortable delivering a family member, should they experience a mental health issue, to an acute care unit. Despite all that has changed over the last 15 or so years, he didn’t feel ready to do that yet.
But the film is about patients’ voices and stories, and Marbrook allows them the space to breathe and play out, mostly to happier endings than beginnings.
After the WCS, Marbrook hopes to see the film accepted into other international festivals. He’s targeting festivals in general in mostly Commonwealth countries with a similar experience and practice of mental health care provision, and doco-specific festivals such as IDFA and Dok Leipzig.
He’ll also complete Cap Bocage which, after six shooting trips to New Caledonia, has now finished a second rough cut.
Mental Notes has four screenings in Auckland, kicked off by its world premiere tomorrow night at Rialto, and two each in Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch as part of the 14th World Cinema Showcase.