meetings with ivor

review by finlay glen


Meetings with Ivor, a documentary screening this week at the IFI, is about the psychiatrist Ivor Browne, a man whose alternative approach to psychiatric practice has made him a central and controversial figure in Irish mental health.  As a route into understanding Browne’s theories and practice, the film follows an intriguing early digression by giving us a brief history of the York Retreat, developed by English Quakers at the end of the eighteenth century in reaction to the brutal conditions of contemporaneous mental asylums. The Quakers emphasized the humanity of all individuals, removed the incarceration of occupants, and developed their own alternative psychiatric practice known as the ‘moral treatment’. Browne is implicitly cast as a latter day equivalent, a figure helping to carry the torch for the humanisation of mental health in an inhumane age.

Browne is perceived by the followers he has inadvertently collected as a kind of spiritual and moral guide as much as a psychiatric professional. He tells us that he read the writings of major Christian theologians like Newman and Aquinas when he was confined to months of isolation for tuberculosis contracted in his adolescence, and much of his thought seems coloured by Christian ethics and metaphysics. According to Christian theology, if everything is created out of divine love then the mutual exchange of love amongst human beings becomes a means of partaking in the spiritual life, and Browne often seems to speak about human interaction along these lines. He talks openly about love as a constitutive and generative force, as the singularity that unites the world. The two ideas that Browne’s step-daughter claims are his core principles are shared by Christians: duty and love.

The reality of human history, as any good Christian would admit, is woeful in comparison to these principles, and Browne is a polemical and outspoken critic of contemporary society and the negative effects of our possessive, materialistic society on the mind of the individual. When speaking about the relationship between psychological malaise and societal forces he draws on the spiritual philosophy J. Krishnamurti, who said that “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”  This statement also reflects Browne's therapeutic ethos, because, just like the York Quakers, it returns agency to the suffering individual. Browne refuses to treat the people he works with as sick patients or failures that require medical treatment. He talks about the psychiatric process as a subjective, mutual dialogue rather than a top-down treatment. You get the sense from the film that, more than anything, Browne’s work is based on kindness and personalised attention, and that an emphasis is placed on restoring the person’s self-esteem and self-control. One of the most powerful moments in the film is when we hear from a young woman who made a failed attempt at suicide in her adolescence, and who speaks about her work with Browne which she insists saved her life. She makes clear to highlight the emphasis he placed on her individual autonomy: “he gave me back control … he gave me back … me”. This sections of the film that explore Browne’s therapeutic process are crucial, because they remind us that his psychiatric philosophy is not just a philosophy, but is grounded in concrete practice and positive change.

The film is structured around a series of conversations between Browne and various Irish public figures, including Tommy Tiernan, Sebastian Barry, Mary Coughlan, Tom Murphy, and Nell McCafferty. Some of these meetings are fairly restrained whilst others are intensely personal and revealing. The style of the documentary is admirably daring and unconventional, and manages to eschew formulaic tropes and techniques in a genre particularly overrun with them. The film seems to attempt to shadow the movement of the mind and memory by interpolating fragmentary images into the interviews that are apparently resonant with what is being recounted. However, the technique doesn’t entirely hold up and the disjointed images can become frustratingly obtrusive. The tone of the piece is discordant at times. The score to the early sections of the film might have been lifted from an over-dramatised Netflix documentary, giving a great intensity to what is ultimately a fairly understated piece. When the editor calmed down the film is at its best. The meetings with Browne which structure the film are set in an empty, spacious gallery space with white walls and a wooden floor, and the simplicity of the setting is cinematically richer and more evocative than all the editorial effects. Perhaps the director, Alan Gilsenen, felt there was not sufficient material to carry the audience, but more trust could have been placed in the material at hand.

The more precise techniques work wonderfully and give clarity and emotional depth to the piece. Browne eloquently expresses his passion for music – having wanted to be a jazz musician growing up and rather fallen into psychiatry by accident – and, aside from the early score, music is used beautifully in the film. The split screen employed in the meetings allows us a generous, simultaneous view of Browne and the person in conversation with him. Just as Browne has based his practice on careful, attentive observation, the audience is encouraged to do the same. Ultimately, the film should be celebrated for carrying the humanising, nonconformist principles of its fascinating central subject.