Filmmaker Tracy Willits is a senior lecturer in media production at York St John University with a background in health documentaries for broadcast television. In this blog she discusses Pip, Pop and a Pandemic, a new documentary filmed over an 18-month period that aims to give a voice to people with schizophrenia and their carer
Now 56 years-old, Pauline was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia at the age of 14. The film starts on the day of her engagement party to her boyfriend George. A day she thought would never come after spending most of her life in mental health institutions and sheltered accommodation due to the severity of her illness.
58-year-old Ed used to be in a well-known pop band in the eighties and he has looked after his wife Catarina for over 20 years, although she was only recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. These are not their real names, they’ve been changed to protect the identity of his wife who he loves despite her mental health problems.
Two and a half years ago I set out to make a documentary about these two stories in the hope of making people more aware of the schizophrenia through the eyes of the individuals and families who it impacts most directly. I knew I had found two incredible contributors and that their stories would be compelling, but I could never have anticipated how the documentary would unfold. My intention was to film both Pauline and Ed for a year without any expectation that much would change in their lives, but the events that unfolded during the pandemic were so dramatic that I was compelled to carry on filming. The result is Pip Pop and a Pandemic, a documentary set against the beautiful back drop of the Northumberland coast and with classical guitar and original music by Ed.
Thanks to her medication and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) Pauline can now live independently but during filming her whole future is put in jeopardy when her application for PIP (Personal Independence Payment) is refused and consequently her DLA stopped, forcing Pauline to live off her savings. Pauline is left feeling let down by the government. “If you’ve got any kind of mental illness, you’re not recognised in this country anymore. You don’t have the right to be human anymore”.
Pauline’s relationship with George is heart-warming – anyone can see how devoted they are to one another, but Pauline says they won’t be getting married any time soon. “The only reason for not tying the knot is money. The benefits for two people aren’t good – either we’d have food to pay for or bills and we couldn’t afford both so that’s why we’re not getting married”.
Ed admits looking after someone with schizophrenia can be very challenging at times; for example, when she walks down the middle of the road at night looking at her reflection in the mirror, dances naked for strangers on the internet or writes offensive words in red lipstick on the bathroom cabinet. A nurse calls in to check on the couple every few weeks, but Ed admits “I never see Catarina take her medication, but she does take it. She bosses me about a bit which I don’t mind but it’s all habits that’s what the nurse said – it’s all habits.”
The couple’s situation is further complicated because despite living in the country for over 20 years Catarina, who is originally from Croatia has never legally applied to be in the country. The Home Office agreed she could stay in the UK for two years, but she is not allowed to claim benefits. The couple have to survive on Ed’s single person’s Universal credit allowance of £411.51 a month and are reliant on food banks and occasional handouts from his elderly parents. “I’ve got no chance of getting carer’s allowance because she can’t get benefits. At the moment I’ve got about £20 in the bank to last a month!”
And a Pandemic
Then halfway through the film the coronavirus pandemic strikes. Pauline must go back and live with her parents because she is classed as vulnerable. Ed decides to write a song about the pandemic called ‘The Invisible War’. I couldn’t film them in person anymore and so decided to keep in touch weekly via skype calls and on the phone. Strangely, these calls became almost confessional with both revealing things about themselves they’d never admitted before. Pauline told me about the voices she hears in her head when she’s alone in bed; Ed on the other hand admits he uses alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Emerging from this backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic this documentary exposes the consequences of cuts to mental health services and the inadequacies of the benefits system. It feels like a real-life I, Daniel Blake with deeply honest contributions from vulnerable people for whom everyday life can be a struggle. I hope you will find this film sensitively handled and at times humorous but ultimately meaningful.
A preview screening of Pip, Pop and a Pandemic is being shown in the Auditorium of the Creative Centre at 7 pm on Tuesday 22nd March. Tickets will be free and available on Eventbrite.