Most of us have relatives we hardly remember – an aunt, cousin or grandparent dead before we were born or when we were too young to form lasting memories. And although an impression is made, their memory preserved in stories and photographs, you’ll still never really know them – they will always be a ghost.
For director Iain Cunningham, this was his birth mother, Irene. Raised by his father and stepmother, he did not learn of Irene’s existence until he was 18 years old. While most departed relatives live on through the efforts of those they leave behind, Irene had been filed away and forgotten. Cunningham’s own father struggles to recall even basic details from their marriage or the circumstances surrounding her death.
Irene’s Ghost is Cunningham’s mission to get to know his mother from beyond the grave. With his father proving unhelpful, he has to dig into the few fragments and records he has, leading him on a winding path of estranged relatives, obscure medical records and contradictory tales.
Based largely in the Midlands town of Nuneaton – on its face as grey and mundane as any provincial English locale – the film explores the skeletons and buried recollections hidden by Cunningham’s ordinary, if dispersed, relatives. But what makes it work is that Irene’s Ghost is not a sensationalist conspiracy yarn; rather, an empathetic exploration of the impacts of mental illness and untimely death on families, and how ordinary people deal with the trauma in unexpected ways to survive.
The distorted, abstract subjectivity of Cunningham’s memory is vividly realised by animator Ellie Land, with occasional segues into footage of Cunningham’s infant daughter injecting Irene’s story with gentle optimism. In all, Irene’s Ghost is an affecting, honest observation of how grief can rip families apart – and make them whole again.
DIRECTOR: Iain Cunningham
WRITER: Iain Cunningham
SYNOPSIS: Irene’s Ghost is a documentary following a son’s search to find out about the mother he never knew.