Documentary Season: Ashwood Day Centre and Conclusions

I have decided to make this the last post in my current Documentary Season, purely to try to keep it in some sort of control. There are of course loads of other documentaries sitting on my hard drive that I want to write about - in fact I might do a Home of Your Own series of posts which they would fit in - but I don't want it to take over the blog for now. Hence I will attach some conclusions to this series of posts in this post.

Apart from anything else I've had a bit much of reality for the present and am gagging for the unreality I usually see on TV.

This documentary is about the Ashwood Day Centre, a day centre for people with mental health needs, in Leeds, and was made by the University of Leeds in 1982.

This documentary has one serious defect, which isn't a reason not to watch it because seeing the day centre and the interviews with the service users is fascinating, which is that it doesn't include a formal statement of who runs the day centre and what it specifically offers. Of course in earlier decades it's quite possible that this reflected a deliberately less hierarchical model of service delivery. I have therefore had to gain from the copyright holder's website (here) the information that the day centre was run by the Leeds Association for Mental Health. I haven't been able to find out what this was but my money would be on it being a voluntary-sector organisation.

There was also clearly a referral process because one of the few things one of the workers says is that they have a waiting list and can't take everyone referred. The reason I personally would have liked a more clear statement of the centre's aims is that when I was a newly qualified nurse my first job was in a day *hospital* run by the NHS. This is a provision which has largely died out in the cuts to the NHS but was intended to be a step from being at hone before being admitted to hospital. Our main task was to persuade everyone that they were there for their mental health and not to socialise. My manager wouldn't hear the words 'day centre' and *always* corrected it to *hospital*.

Which is exactly the same situation at the Ashwood Day Centre - the one thing which comes across incredibly clearly is that the people who go there are largely dependent on it for socialisation, and the complication is that this dependence is very much fuelled by the inability of people in other settings to understand the particular experiences of people with mental health problems. Not to beat about the bush, it is abundantly clear that the day centre is a life line for its users and this documentary is absolutely devastating in its depiction of these people's loneliness. They are also incredibly brave to come out with it in public.

So while I personally would have liked a more formal introduction to what it's about, this is nonetheless an excellent documentary. The main technique used is people just talking about their experience and what is important to them (with some prompting from an interviewer in places). Again, I don't know how the interviews were selected but it comes across as people just talking and this is incredibly effective. It's also a rare opportunity to hear people describe their own experience of mental illness with no interpolation.

It's not commented on because it's not the purpose of the documentary but this is a bit of a showcase of some very sloppy psychiatry going on. I'm thinking specifically of one lady who describes her own 'breakdown', what it felt like going into it and feeling rejected by the neighbours, and then ending up in St James's Hospital. She had ECT and was then diagnosed with schizophrenia and then with manic depression. Of course it's possible that nobody has bothered to communicate her diagnosis to her, but that's a bit all over the place. 

And it's not even just about the day centre, we get to see some of the service users' homes and again the pervading sense of loneliness comes through.

This is an absolutely fascinating documentary about a mental health day centre largely using interviews with the service users which come across as being largely led by them and it's incredibly effective.

Conclusions on Documentaries

As always blogging about TV shows surprises me with what happens when I have to start thinking about them, and this series of posts had a surprise for me which I probably should have expected.

I discovered that a documentary is largely dependent on the technique used, and that a documentary *about* something is never as effective as one where the subject itself speaks. I suppose it's the difference between having an elephant described to you and having a herd of them running at you.

The best example of this was the documentary about the Strangeways Prison riots, where simply putting the officers' and prisoners' statements about how the prison was run next to each other, was incredibly revealing. The reason this technique is so effective becomes clear in Ashwood Day Centre because you get the participants' perspective loud and clear without commentary, and it's absolutely devastating. 

This strategy of just letting people speak also had an interesting effect in the BBC documentary on the Enfield poltergeist where one of the daughters said that the house wasn't haunted and was hushed by her sister. In that case it is to the show's eternal shame that this was not picked up on by the interviewer because by letting them talk they'd just had the kids at the centre of the alleged haunting say the house wasn't haunted. So here the technique would also need to be backed up by asking the right questions.

So what this series of posts has done to me is make me stop thinking that a documentary is a show about something and made me think that it ought to be a show where the audience experiences the subject but also has at least enough commentary to make it make sense and fill in the details.

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