Irene’s Ghost – interview with director

A moving film exploring loss and relationships, Irene’s Ghost is a standout documentary.

We interviewed director Iain Cunningham at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield about this deeply personal story.
See our full review of the film >here<.


Reel Steel: I read that this film was inspired by the birth of your daughter — what was it about that which made you want to make this film?

Iain Cunningham: So, just a kind of potted history of the film: my mum passed away when I was three and it wasn’t something that was talked about so growing up, my mum was just this figure in my imagination really until I was 18 and I was given some of her things. Then I knew a bit more about her but not a great deal. I think I just sort of boxed it away, and then when I had my own daughter, my own child — I think firstly having a child in itself made me think back to my own babyhood and the fact that I didn’t know who my mother was really at that point when I had my own child. And then as she grew and you could watch the world through a child’s eyes, through my daughter’s eyes, I saw that a three year old is pretty well formed emotionally, and you start to realise the impact it would have made on me as a child and also what impact it would make if I were to suddenly disappear out of her life and how difficult that would be for me to come to terms with as a parent.

RS: Is it true you didn’t see a picture [of your mother] until you were 18?

IC: Yeah!

RS: I’m curious as to how, making the film, you’ll have been surrounded by all of these things you’ll have never seen before and all these people you’d never met before. How was that, was it quite overwhelming?

IC: It was, the first person that I found really was my mum’s best friend and I went into her house and she had albums of photographs, and some of them had me in it. To go into a complete stranger’s house and find they’ve got pictures of your whole family is a strange thing. And the same with my cousin on my mum’s side of the family — I didn’t have any connection with my mum’s family so to see these lives that are going on which you’re a part of but have no knowledge of is a kind of interesting thing. And also I think to find these memories — that was what I first wanted to do, was to harvest these memories to try and build a picture of her. There’s memories of us all in our friend’s heads and in our family’s heads that aren’t quite us but are us and that was a really interesting thing.

RS: Is that why you decided to make it semi-animated?

IC: I think yeah, that’s part of it. There is no one truth to who you are and what your life is, you’re a collection of these things. I think animation is a creative thing, it allows you to sort of say ‘we’re not quite in the world of the real here, but there are real elements’. It’s part also because a lot of the things I had in my head about my mum were quite fantastical and sort of imagery that a child might think of, so it lent itself to animation.

RS: Without giving anything away, were there any significant points during the process of making the film? Or was it all very significant?

IC: Well it all felt very significant. I don’t know how an audience feels about what’s significant and what isn’t. It starts as this sort of emotional detective story and there were lots of emotional discoveries and then some of asked questions that you then had to find out. I don’t mind giving things away — there were discoveries about where she worked, it was a simple thing but she worked in a tights factory which was quite funny to me, I thought it was quite a funny thing. And then she had this particular illness, and that became a focus of the film because people described it in a different way and almost everybody that I spoke to couldn’t really say what it was and what had happened, and that was very confusing to me about why it was like that.
So she had something called postpartum psychosis, and that was the discovery that I made during the making of the film. I don’t think my dad even really know. So piecing that together was the major factual find that was a surprising thing. But just emotionally, making that connection to my mum was the most important thing and that was through lots of people’s stories.

RS: Do you think, or do you hope, that the film is going to make any kind of impact in terms of informing people about this illness?

IC: Absolutely. Very early on, we got in touch with a charity called Action on Postpartum Psychosis and I met with ladies who had experienced this illness and recovered and families, and that really helped to fill in the picture for me, about what my dad and my mum must have went through. We’re working with them on screenings, someone from Action on Postpartum Psychosis is going to be there to talk to people afterwards if they want to know more about it. Sometimes we’ve had people with lived experience giving their own version of their illness as part of the Q&A. It’s not as rare an illness as people think — it’s one in 500 births which are affected by it, so it’s important to know about it because it happens in the days after births and often the families don’t know about it or know what’s going on and struggle to know what to do.

RS: It’s interesting that you talk about a lived experience, because usually when you talk about a lived experience it’s something that is kind of well documented. Whereas her life, you didn’t really know about did you? So what do you think about your mum now — is she completely different to what you thought she was going to be?

IC: I don’t know, just from talking to people, when you lose a parent at a young age, you do fill the gap a bit with something fantastical. I don’t know why that desire is to do that. But actually she was just a normal person like we all are, with extraordinary parts to her and ordinary. The important thing was that I felt like I knew her as my mum. At the beginning of it she was Irene, she wasn’t my mum, and now that’s just a natural thing for me to say that and feel that so that’s a really special thing.

RS: How was it making something that’s so personal — do you feel comfortable marketing it in that way?

IC: No, is the short answer! When I first started making it, I had a camera and my background is in documentary so it was very easy for me to pick up the camera and do some filming, and I hadn’t really thought about me being part of the story, it was just something I wanted to do about my mum and about her. Gradually, I became more part of the story and that’s when I started to feel a bit more comfortable. When I started to want to make it into a bigger film and make animation and that kind of thing, you need to raise money and to do you need to do things like pitching to people and to funders, and I was quite uncomfortable doing that about such a personal thing at the time as it’s quite difficult for me to talk about. So yeah, that was a tricky thing. But luckily there wasn’t too much of that.
Now I’ve gone through the process, I don’t feel uncomfortable talking about it because it’s a story that I want to share. I want to tell the story, and I think it’s a story that relates to a lot of people where there might be mental illness or it might be some other issue that’s in a family that people find hard to talk about. So seeing a film or reading an article can give people a way in to having that conversation, so I think it can be a very useful thing.

RS: Do you think it was the process of making the documentary that made you more comfortable?

IC: Definitely, in lots of ways. Firstly, I think it was a therapeutic thing to do, for me. It’s had that impact. Secondly, the process of doing something and being surrounded by something for five or six years, eventually you become more comfortable talking about it. Just that exposure has done that. That’s the personality of most documentary makers, they’re curious people and they’re comfortable talking about those things that are uncomfortable for others to talk about.

RS: Was it always going to be a feature length?

IC: I thought about it as a feature length film. I don’t know why, because I hadn’t ever done anything like that before. Not necessarily feature length, but definitely longer than a short. But I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started so I didn’t really know where it would go.

RS: But then when you started gathering more material, it made sense for it to be a feature?

IC: Yeah, I knew enough about filmmaking as my background as I said is in documentary television, to know that at a certain point of filming, where I felt that filming was going, could support that length of time. And I don’t think I would have gone to funding bodies if I didn’t think that, I would’ve just made it for me and my family.