Makers of Modern Asylum

Makers of Modern Asylum from Hannah Chamberlain on Vimeo.

Makers of Modern Asylum was commissioned by the British Library as part of a series of film commissions to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the making of Testimony, a huge video resource of interviews with service users who survived and lived in the Victorian asylums. This massive piece of work forms a large part of the mental health section of their oral history archive, and was a race against time to get the stories of the service users, most elderly, some of whom went into the asylum system in the 1930’s and stayed there all their lives. It was a chilling reminder of how far we’ve come in the mental health movement over the last 100 years, but also a spur as to how far we have to go.

The most enjoyable part of the preproduction was without doubt selecting the service users who would represent their views to the architect. Personality and opinions were the two things that made them stand out. Meeting people who in conversation were natural storytellers and following my instinct was the main way I selected. And in the end we came up with the magic combination of Frank, Clive and Alsaint. Frank served in the Gulf war as a soldier and suffers from PTSD, Clive is a talented black musician with experience of seclusion units, Alsaint works as a service user representative, campaigner and film maker for Mind. All in their way were accessible and empathetic to a broad audience who might have no or little understanding of the issues of mental health politics and the background that they were coming from when they addressed the issue of the Victorian and the modern asylums.

What was striking to me once we started filming was in fact how close they felt to the Victorian system. We now think of the old water tower hospitals as long gone, relics of a bygone age, but in fact, my first experience of a psychiatric unit was staying in one of these, dormitories, sleeping separated by curtains and rails, massive spooky grounds and gothic architecture, and walking underneath a three times life size statue of the founder when I first entered. It gave you a very clear idea where you were in the scheme of things. I have always felt touched by the Victorian legacy and I’m in my 40’s, of a generation that first went into hospital in the 90’s. It seemed that Frank, Clive and Alsaint felt similar roots to the past.

There is a section of the filming that didn’t make it to the final cut of Makers of Modern Asylum. For the British Library version, we tried to keep it as simple as possible. But there is a longer cut which I will post sometime featuring some really powerful footage. What we did was to screen Testimony to the three service users, Frank, Clive and Alsaint. I pressed space bar to play the movie and we all sat in silence watching the introductory overview video which features some, not all, of the powerful testimonies of the users of the Victorian system. A silence descended on the room, and the atmosphere became heavy. I knew the video, I’d seen it before. I’d found it difficult to watch on my own, and challenged myself to go through it. As all these three service users sat and absorbed some messages from our recent collective past, I was reminded of other civil rights movements where people have felt a sense of collective memory and history through identifying with groups who have been oppressed. Without doubt these service users on film had had their rights taken from them. And without doubt it was resonating very strongly and emotionally with the service users I was sitting in the middle of. I was aware out of the corner of my eye of Alsaint rhythmically tapping her foot in the air. It reminded me of people I’d seen trapped and stressed but unable to go anywhere in the day room of my Victorian hospital. It was about 4 minutes into the footage. I jumped up and stopped it playing. I don’t think we could collectively take it.

The issue with the legacy of Testimony that I was most interested in, was ‘at what point does oral history become the official history?’. History is written by those in power. At what point in recording and promoting the voices of the oral history tellers do they start to aggregate enough authority to challenge the status quo? And where have we got to on that journey? My sense was, when we made this film in 2006, that we were not yet in partnership. We were working towards that. But that first there had to be meetings between service users and service providers, and that that exchange was effectively a status exchange, where the service user might feel intimidated and concerned that their views might not be listened to or taken seriously.

So there was a degree of nervous anticipation from the service user team as we built up to the interview, which was conducted in a hotel in the break Mungo took for lunch from a Department of Health mental health design conference. We were all very aware of his time constraints and the amount of influence that he and those at the conference had over the day to day lives of service users.

But in the end it was a meeting of minds. Clive challenged Mungo over whether he was recreating a Victorian ideal. Mungo admitted that, though he has friends who are service users, it was refreshing to meet and exchange ideas with a service user group who weren’t attached to a particular architectural brief. There was a sense that both parties had learned from the experience. Alsaint sums it up at the end; “The voice of the service user is critical.” Indeed.

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