Schizophrenia is a sensitive subject matter for a documentary maker, particularly when the subject doesn’t necessarily have insight about their illness.
Statistics say that one in five Australians will at some time suffer from a mental illness.
Whether a family member, a friend or yourself, no-one remains untouched from the issues that affect a community. In her documentary The Sunnyboy, filmmaker Kaye Harrison tells the story of Jeremy Oxley, the frontman for the band The Sunnyboys as he emerges from a 30-year battle with schizophrenia.
No-one becomes a documentary maker for the big bucks; it’s about dedication to telling a story, no matter how long it takes.
Kaye credits the acclaim The Sunnyboy has been receiving to the strong relationship she developed with Jeremy and the timing of the project.
‘The timing of this film was very good because Jeremy had been on medication for some years; he was stable and was in the process of reconnecting with his brother and the band.’
The Sunnyboy follows the journey of Oxley as he emerges from what has been solitary torment. He attempts to reconcile relationships from the past, particularly with his brother and former band member Peter.
From his struggle with the physical effects of years spent self-medicating, to his hope of a marriage and return to the stage, this is a documentary about a man the mainstream had forgotten.
As a documentary maker, Kaye was drawn to telling Jeremy’s story to lift the veil of ignorance that surrounds schizophrenia, and to personalise the story by telling it about someone that most Australians know, someone you could remember as talented, successful and vibrant.
Schizophrenia is a sensitive subject matter for a documentary maker, particularly when the subject doesn’t necessarily have insight about their illness. And yet their story needs to be told honestly and with the view not to cause harm with the finished product.
‘Jeremy sometimes doesn’t believe he has a mental illness,’ says Kaye, ‘so he never talks about it in those terms.
‘It was challenging to make the documentary without Jeremy’s insight, and it was a great burden for me. Here I was making a film about schizophrenia, trying to create awareness – I was always concerned that he would be ashamed of it and it would damage him in some way.
‘I tell the story but it’s how he sees it, it’s through his eyes. In the film when he talks about the diagnosis, he talks about what the psychiatrist says and how he felt, and the self-medication,’ says Kaye.
‘He started drinking really heavily and it ruined shows; some are good, some are a mess. In the end that is what came between them (the band and the brothers) and after the Sunnyboys broke up there was a period of lots of self-medication with drugs, and he wouldn’t get any help.’
Kaye says that he got to the point where he lost everything and was sleeping on the street. ‘He hit rock bottom then went to Callan Park for three months. He didn’t react well to the lithium and vowed he wouldn’t go on medication ever again.’ From that point Oxley moved out of Sydney, moving to places like Ipswich and Pottsville, but eventually ending up in Queensland.
Much of the film focuses not just on the reunion of the band, but the reunion of the brothers. ‘It’s a big part of the film,’ says Kaye. ‘It is about their relationship and their separation and their coming back together. The film’s key emotional highlight is the re-formation of the Sunnyboys for their show at the Enmore theatre in April 2012.
‘For Jeremy, his biggest fear was “what are people going to think of me?” But he’s such a professional and stepped up.
‘He never talks with self-pity,’ she says, ‘he talks like he’s a bit of a soldier.’
Kaye Harrison’s film The Sunnyboy will be screening at Splendour in the Grass on Saturday at midday and will be followed by an audience with Kaye, Peter Oxley and Mary Oxley-Griffiths. Other screenings include Birch Carroll & Coyle Cinema in Coolangatta on August 16, 17 and 24 and the Star Court in Lismore on August 18 and 23.