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Documentary gives voice to psychiatric hospital survivors

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

The secret, often shameful history of New Zealand's psychiatric hospitals is laid bare in Mental Notes, a new feature-length documentary by award-winning filmmaker Jim Marbrook.

Screening as part of the upcoming World Cinema Showcase, Mental Notes is a "gently affirmative" film, according to Bill Gosden, director of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Featuring the testimony of five survivors of the "very bad old days of mental health care in New Zealand", it "honours their endurance and enables their stories to emerge from the shadows and leave their indelible blemishes on our social history," says Gosden.

Jim Marbrook's interest in the subject was prompted by earlier work he'd done with people who'd experienced mental health difficulties, much of which he drew on for his award-winning 2005 documentary Dark Horse.

"I realised there was a kind of hidden social history in the memories of those who went through our old mental institutions, colloquially called 'the Bins'," says Marbrook. "These stories were so strong I realised I needed to find a way of telling them."

With a grant from the Frozen Funds Trust, Marbrook undertook a three-year odyssey during which he crisscrossed the country, visiting every 'Bin' ever built, ploughing through mountains of archival material, and interviewing survivors of what was an often inhumane system. The interviews, in which former patients recall their experiences with (in Gosden's words) "dismay, disbelief and a touch of gallows humour", form the heart of the film.

One of these survivors is Anne Helm, who observes that "for many, the path to healing is about accepting that things have happened". In 2005 Helm served as a panel member of a Government-appointed confidential forum for former patients that heard corroborated evidence of poor practice and abuse in the old psychiatric hospitals.

"The saddest thing about doing the Confidential Forum for me," says Helm, "was that at the end of that process, where people gave so much of their souls, really, we made a very thorough report.

"That report was given to the Government in a real hope that there would be some formal recognition and there never has been."

Mental Notes enables the voices of people too long ignored to finally be heard. It also provides a prism through which the success or failure of today's mental health services can be judged.

Watch the Mental Notes trailer:

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