School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland
by Roddy Flynn. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
At first glance, the extraordinary variety and volume of Alan Gilsenan’s output as both a fiction and non-fiction director since his debut short in 1986 is such that it might seem difficult to divine patterns in his work beyond a broad concern with Irish culture in its myriad forms. Nonetheless, beyond his sporadic forays into state-of-the-nation documentaries (The Road to God Knows Where (1988), Road II (2001) and The Importance of Being Irish (2008)), a persistent concern with biography is attested to by a sequence of bio-docs on both prominent and less-well-known figures from Ireland’s past and present, including Paul Durkan, Liam Clancy, Eliza Lynch and Tom Murphy. These are paralleled by a second thematic thread: a focus on the marginalized and the forgotten. Stories from the Silence (1990) was the first major exploration of the reality of HIV/AIDS in Ireland, his award-winning short Zulu 9 (2001) was a forerunner on the theme of migrants and refugees, while The Home (2010) and The Hospice (2007) respectively (and respectfully) offered fly on the wall perspectives on the experience of being old and preparing for death in Ireland. Within that second thread, a survey of Gilsenan’s oeuvre points to a recurring sub-theme: mental health and mental illness (a concern also hinted at in the moniker he and producer Martin Mahon chose when they established their first production company, Yellow Ayslum, in 1986). The Hospice and The Home formed a kind of institutional trilogy with The Asylum (2005), his groundbreaking and compassionate study of St Ita’s Psychiatric Hospital Mental in North Dublin. This was followed in 2009 by I See A Darkness, a three part series for RTE on suicide. Strikingly, all three of his fiction feature works released to date – All Souls Day (1997), Timbuktu (2004) and the 2016 Canadian production Unless – are also centred around characters with some form of mental illness. With that pedigree, who better to assay the subject of maverick Irish psychiatrist Ivor Browne.
The biographical documentary commonly adopts the form of a detective novel: the basic facts of its subject’s early life history are introduced as a prelude to a slow revelation of the subject’s perspective on life which the documentary implicitly connects to those early experiences. By contrast, within 90 seconds of the beginning of Gilsenan’s exposition of Ivor Browne’s personal and professional philosophy we already know the basic outlines of who he is and what he believes. Framed against a blurred abstract image the film reproduces the opening lines of the Wikipedia entry on Browne, which describe him as the former Chief Psychiatrist of the Eastern Health Board, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at UCD and “known for his opposition to traditional psychiatry, and his scepticism about psychiatric drugs”.
There is something provocative but also suggestive about this use of Wikipedia. Reliant on anonymous, crowd-sourced knowledge, Wikipedia is still regarded in academic circles in particular as unreliable and often partial (both in the sense of being incomplete but also potentially biased). Invoking it as a source emphasizes the epistemological difficulties confronting any documentary-maker seeking to adequately reflect the life and philosophy of its human subject but also hints at the complications faced by the film’s broader subject of psychiatry in its attempt to unlock and make sense of the inherently opaque world of the mind.
“Making sense” – of individuals, institutions and societies – is also the implicit goal of most documentary work but Meetings With Ivor adopts a novel structure in its bid to elucidate Professor Browne. Though loosely ordered around an interview detailing the basic narrative of Browne’s life and work in – roughly – chronological order, its deployment of an assemblage of other talking heads evades (without entirely refuting) the traditional documentary suggestion that combining a myriad of subjective assessments constitutes some kind of objective mosaic. Meetings with Ivor crowd-sources perspectives on its subject(s) – Browne and psychiatry – via a sequence of encounters between him and a series of high profile figures: patients, acquaintances and professional colleagues. Some of these talk about Browne directly but others scarcely refer to him. The free-styling, associative and apparently improvised nature of the documentary’s structure is further added to by interviews with a recent patient of Browne’s – “The Young Woman” – and shots of various contemporary psychiatrists whose work chimes with Browne’s philosophy.
In the expository document mode, narrative coherence is generally achieved through by suturing visuals together with an authoritative voiceover. Not only has Gilsenan’s documentary work generally avoided such a voice-of-God narration but, from The Road to God Knows Where onwards, he has deployed oblique visuals unanchored from the voices he does include (i.e. those of interviewees). The effect of these visuals varies from creating a temporal space for viewer reflection to acting as a counterpoint to interviewee assertions. With Gilsenan receiving a secondary credit as “Director of Abstract Photography” Meetings is characterised by the recurring appearance of his trademark super 8 style footage. A format which immediately invokes the past and nostalgia is appropriate for a film which both trawls through Browne’s own memories but which also rehearses his belief that past traumas provoke mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder. That super 8 footage also deposits a layer of abstraction across the entire proceedings: though certain recognisable images recur, presented in supersaturated colour (hearts, dictionaries, Catholic symbols, and family photos), there is also a swathe of suggestive but ultimately nonrepresentational material reflecting Browne’s contention that the workings of the mind remain mysterious even to the psychiatric profession.
But back to the content: in his straight interview, and in an apparently unguarded manner, Browne outlines his somewhat fraught relationship with his father (who frequently referred to Browne’s birth as “a mistake”); his stumble into medicine and later psychiatry; his marriage (and its breakup when Browne was in his mid-40s); his subsequent relationship with “Juno” (author June Levine, until her death in 2008) and the development of his counter-normative beliefs about the practice of psychiatry. Gilsenan makes frequent use of a split screen device during these (and other) sequences: images overtly drawn from Browne’s past sit amongst symbols which visually represent Browne’s spoken assertions. At times, Gilsenan’s deployment of visual codes permits more open readings. When Brown speaks of social revolutions there’s a brief shot of a record revolving on a platter, connecting the energy of the 1960s back to Browne’s love affair with jazz music. Forced to abandon playing the trumpet forever after contracting TB in his 20s, the film obliquely suggests that Browne’s musical passions were redirected down other paths and indeed the film’s overall style might best be described as jazz.
The split screen setup recurs throughout the encounters between Ivor and his discussants – comedian Tommy Tiernan, singer Mary Coughlan, journalist Nell McCafferty , author Sebastian Barry, playwright Tom Murphy and Trinity Professor of Psychiatry Brendan Kelly (author of a recently published – and favourably reviewed by Browne – social history of psychiatry in Ireland). Thus we witness watch both participants as they speak but also as they listen and react to the other. Though presented as the core around which the documentary is structured, their revelatory nature varies, not least because the precise nature of the prior relationship between Browne and his interlocutors is obscure, making it difficult to judge how qualified they are to contribute towards an assessment of him. Indeed comedian Tommy offers no comment on Browne beyond “you’re looking well” but instead discourses on his desire to create a space of love through his performances (Browne, though largely inscrutable throughout Tiernan’s speech, clearly approves of this). In the second meeting with Mary Coughlan, we see Browne at work: overtly identified as a client of Browne’s we watch as he uses hypnosis to regress her to her childhood. In an almost unbearably intimate sequence, Coughlan breaks down recalling her – often absent – mother and the sexually abusive grandfather in whose care she was left. Yet again we appear to learn far more about Coughlan from their encounter than the notional subject of the documentary.
Indeed, the hollowing out of Browne in these early encounters appears to reflect his professional philosophy. Browne comments to Tiernan that a therapist should commence sessions in as “empty” a state as possible to avoid contaminating the therapeutic process. Furthermore, citing Hippocrates, Browne refutes the idea that physicians or psychiatrists “fix” their patients (hence in part his mistrust of antipsychotics). Instead he asserts that – at most – psychiatrists may act to remove obstacles to the individual’s capacity to heal themselves (in other words, the role of the physician is to “get out of the way” of the natural healing process). When “The Young Woman” recalls her first encounter with Ivor she recounts how Browne handed back control of her life to her by the simple device of informing her that she could choose not to self-harm again. Indeed, in some respects, the film appears to suggest that there is no clear line of demarcation between Browne, his personal philosophy and his professional approach which can be summed up with one word: love. Browne talks of how it took him three decades to move out of his head and into his heart when approaching patients. He repeatedly denies the brain/heart dichotomy asserting that the organs are interwined. Indeed he asserts not only that heart itself contains 40,000 neurons but argues that they pass more information to the brain than the 80 billion (give or take) neurons residing in the brain reciprocally communicate to the heart.
Two of the meetings are suffused with this emphasis on love. Sebastian Barry speaks affectionately of Browne as a substitute father figure but it is the almost silent encounter with playwright Tom Murphy that speaks loudest in this regard. The author of The Gigli Concert (whose protagonist is a self-help therapist of dubious methods) and Browne talk briefly before listening to a recording of Beniamino Gigli singing O Paradiso. Neither speaks. The camera lingers as they silently commune over a shared appreciation of the tenor’s performance. As the aria reaches its climax both are clearly moved and the camera cuts to the departure of the somewhat frail Murphy. As he leaves their mutual affection is clear, the 82 year-old Murphy placing a kiss on 88-year old Browne’s cheek. Strikingly, while stressing the power of love as a therapeutic tool, Browne recalls a much more ambivalent experience of love especially in his private life : his distant father unable/unwilling to communicate affection, and a marriage undertaken not for love but because of his fear of being alone: “I don’t think I could call it love, I think I felt safer if I had a relationship”.
That the film is, in its own way, a little in love with its subject seems undeniable. In a recurring setup, Gilsenan deliberately over-exposes Browne in close-up so only the most prominent lines in his still taut visage are visible. As Browne’s face seems to loom out of a white mist, his voice emerging from some space off-camera, he appears to transcend his surroundings. Coupled with the repeated situating of Browne in large white spaces while dressed in a white suit and he is represented not merely as a shaman (though a later section on his embrace of Eastern philosophies and treatments certainly suggests this) but actually angelic.
Perhaps as a consequence, though far from a hagiography, Meetings With Ivor does not seek to actively challenge its subject. Despite his critical stance towards his profession, and apparent (though the film muddies this a little) past advocacy of LSD as a therapeutic drug, there is virtually no overt interrogation of this. The arrival of Professor Brendan Kelly promises a more sceptical perspective but even he appears broadly sympathetic with Browne’s outlook acknowledging the limits of science’s understanding of the brain (“there are 80 billion neurons and we know they’re quite busy but we have little grasp of what they’re doing”). The encounter with Nell McCafferty is much more adversarial as she adopts her trademark abrasive persona (“have you embraced your homosexuality yet Ivor?”) but even she critiques him as a man (or rather his failure to sufficiently examine the construction of his own masculinity) rather than as a psychiatrist. Indeed, the most sustained critique of the man emerges from Browne’s often self-deprecating self-appraisal. He identifies his younger self as driven by fear of failure whilst acknowledging his own failings in the context of his familial and romantic relationships. But even this is one-sided: his wife is seen only through old photos and we never hear from his children (this despite the fact that one of his children, Ronan Browne is not only the film’s composer, but at point is filmed playing in a traditional quartet constituted by himself, his father and his own children).
There is no automatic obligation upon documentary film makers to – qua Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore – adopt an adversarial (or even sceptical) stance with regard to their subjects. Indeed the manner in which Broomfield and Moore actively seek to generate narrative tension and drama by doing so sometimes results in a somewhat predictable finished product not least because of how often the filmmakers themselves become the subject. Furthermore the fact that Browne had already been the subject of two earlier documentaries when producer Thomas Hardiman initially conceived of this project, effectively freed Gilsenan to adapt a more experimental approach in keeping with the personality and outlook of his subject. The resulting poetic film is ultimately best understood as a kind of cinematic festschrift for Browne, a vehicle to explain and celebrate Browne’s counter-narrative of psychiatry. In some respects a documentary filmmaker plays a role akin to that of a psychiatrist, especially when focused on a single human subject, offering an explanation of who but more importantly why they are the person we see before us. In this respect Meetings with Ivor is an unalloyed success.