Acclaimed filmmaker Alan Gilsenan – known for his portraits of Liam Clancy (The Yellow Bittern), Roger Casement, Gore Vidal and more – has turned his lens on groundbreaking doctor Ivor Browne in The Wonder Eye (showing at Irish Film Institute as part of the First Fortnight festival). The now retired Professor Emeritus at UCD and chief Eastern Health Board psychiatrist ruffled a few establishment feathers with his pioneering ideas. He has, for example, long been vocal about the overuse of medication to treat mental health conditions. Fiona Smith asked Alan about the film and its subject ahead of the festival screenings.
Q1. What made you decide to make a documentary about Ivor Browne?
I distinctly remember him defending the great Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing against a prolonged and unseemly assault from Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show in 1985 and I’ve admired him ever since. Our paths have crossed over the intervening years and the thought about doing something together was always there. But the film was the brain-child of our producer Tomas Hardiman, a good friend of Ivor’s.
Q2. Ivor is credited with being a hugely innovative thinker when it comes to mental health – what in particular impressed you about his career and his approach?
His contribution is far too extensive to outline here but he undoubtedly was the person who transformed our understanding of mental health and moved Ireland out of the dark ages. He was not alone in this but he was a leading catalyst and advocate in the public sphere. He also had a profound impact upon artists – no strangers to dark days themselves – and this impact had its own ripple effect.
Q3. The film has an impressive list of contributors – Tommy Tiernan, Mary Coughlan, Sebastian Barry, Nell McCafferty – are they mostly friends of Browne or big fans of his work? Does the film include interviews with any of his former patients – he’s had a few well-known ones happy to sing his praises in the past including Colm Toibin?
Yes, some of these were “patients” (though I suspect that’s not the word that Ivor would use) but mainly they are friends whose understanding of the world has been enhanced or transformed by Ivor’s thoughts and affection. But we do also speak with one young woman – beyond the public sphere – who is emblematic of how Ivor has healed many lives outside of the spotlight of public scrutiny.
Q4. Ivor Browne has long advocated a spiritual way of living, meditation, mindfulness etc – finding ‘food for the soul’ is, he says, vital in the face of our society’s continuing loss of faith in the church, political and economic systems… Would this be in line with your own ideas at the beginning the film project or has he changed your thinking on anything?
Yes – in this as in many other things – Ivor was ahead of his time. And certainly spending time with Ivor is a lesson in mindfulness so that has touched me. But probably I have some way to go in my own “spiritual evolution”!
Q5. One quote of Ivor’s says: “The future of mental health must lie in the empowerment of the person.” Do you think this philosophy has become fairly standard practice among Irish mental health professionals or do we still have a long way to go?
I think many younger practitioners have become more enlightened – many influenced by Browne’s work – but overall we have a long way still to go. The lack of mental health services in Ireland – particularly for adolescents – is a complete and utter scandal. We pay lip-service to the tragedy of suicide but yet, as a society, we do nothing actually. When I made I See A Darkness (a series about death by suicide) I repeatedly heard of people desperately searching for help but none was available.
Watch the Irish Times preview of The Wonder Eye here
The Wonder Eye is in the IFI Dublin, on Saturday, January 14th at 12pm, followed by a public discussion with Alan, Ivor Browne and producer Tomas Hardiman, with extra showings added due to demand on Sunday 15th at 11.30am and 12.30am.* See www.firstfortnight.ie
*UPDATE: Festival screenings are sold out but the film will be showing in the IFI Dublin from February 10.
PS. Q6. A sneaky extra question about your other new film Unless, as I love star Catherine Keener…what’s the story behind that and is it being released here?
Unless is a feature film I made last year in Canada, based on a wonderful novel by Carol Shields. It’s the story of a young woman who decides to turn her back on her privileged background and live on the streets of Toronto bearing a sign saying “Goodness”. It should be seen on this side of the Atlantic later this year.