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Review: Irene’s Ghost


- Mixing animation with documentary, director Iain Cunningham searches for answers about his biological mother

Review: Irene’s Ghost

It was not until director Iain Cunningham was 18 years old that his father decided to impart detailed information to him about his biological mother, Irene. Finally, Iain had more than the courteous mention that she had died when he was three, but it was still not much more than that, and a sense of mystery lingered. Irene’s Ghost, documenting Cunningham’s search for answers, is being released in the UK on 3 May.

That status quo was good enough for the director until he had a child of his own, which was the spark for him to start wondering what makes a parent drift away from their offspring. He decides to find out more by asking his daughter, Isla, what she would do to find out more. She suggests putting up “lost cat”-style posters on lampposts and placing an advert in a local paper in the Midlands.

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Why it has taken Iain decades to confront his father becomes clear from his reluctance to broach the subject with him. Instead, he films him mowing the lawn and making cups of tea. When he eventually asks, the father’s unwillingness to delve into a traumatic period of his own life becomes very apparent.

The documentary is cleverly interlocked with animation. Because so much of the film is made up of people’s memories, including those inside Cunningham’s own head, the filmmaker called upon animation director Ellie Land (Centrefold) to lead on the animated part of the movie. Land teamed up with Siobhan Fenton, of Teesside University’s School of Computing and Digital Technologies, to produce images that look like they have been drawn for a classy children’s book.

There is an element of Carol Morley’s spectacular documentary Dreams of a Life in how the story unravels – a story that, in essence, is the biography of a dead person who is not an obvious subject for a film. What Cunningham discovers about his mother is heart-warming thanks to the affection that so many people still have for her, but also tragic, as the source of his mother’s condition would today be seen as postpartum psychosis – a topic not very well understood at the time of her death in the 1970s.

The film poses questions about mental health, at one point wondering if feelings of anxiety and depression can be passed on from one generation to the next. Cunningham also tracks down the psychologist’s reports on his mother from her time in treatment, and through discussions with psychologists and by looking at photos in a box unearthed in his father’s attic, he also begins to learn about his own early life and how mental-health problems can start when we are babies, absorbing everything around us but having no memory of it. Anyone interested in stories about mental health – which really should be everyone – should see this film.

While the filming and talking-heads approach is fairly straightforward, it’s the tone of the movie – the melancholy mixed with moments of happiness – as well as the observation of family dynamics, that is most impressive and allows us to really empathise with the director as he embarks on his quest.

Irene’s Ghost was produced by the UK’s Forward Slash Films and Tyke Films. The movie was supported by the BFI, Creative England, Creative Scotland, the Wellcome Trust and the Maudsley Charity.

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