Suffolk filmmaker Tom Jeffery is a freelance director and editor who’s shot mainly documentaries and skateboard films, as well as a series of 80 shorts celebrating the humour and skill of the celebrated British artist David Hockney. His work has been recognised by the UK Short Film Awards and received a nomination for ‘Best Student Documentary’ at the prestigious Grierson Awards.
We talked to him about his film Homebound, in which he interviews his mother, father and brother about their experiences of the teenage years in which he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Directing my short film Homebound was, for me, a long process of revisiting the experience of being diagnosed at the age of 19 with paranoid schizophrenia. I made it at university. I had, on the advice of my social worker, disclosed to my course directors at the outset of my degree that I still suffer with paranoid delusions, anxiety and depression. In the second year, we had a pitching phase, and I floated the idea of doing something looking quite broadly at mental health. It was my tutors who sat me down and said, ‘Look, why don’t you do it about your own experiences?’
Paranoid schizophrenia was a period in my life I’d never really looked back at, but that all changed during the film, which I eventually decided should be me interviewing my mum, dad and brother.
At this point, none of my fellow students knew I’d had mental health issues. I got quite good at hiding it – even though it caused me a lot of pain. It was a period in my life I’d never really looked back at, and couldn’t remember too well anyway, but that all changed during the film, which I eventually decided should be me interviewing my mum, dad and brother. I put together the pitch treatment with my brother and shot it back at my family home, which was quite cathartic. The idea was to relive that time in my life through my family members. It was almost like a process of healing, not just for myself but my family as well. It was extremely difficult for me to confront them and ask them to be in the film but in the end none of them needed much persuading.
The practical aspect of orchestrating the shoot was tough. I had to bring the whole crew down from London to my hometown in Suffolk, and only had three days, so getting my dad there at the same time from his home in the Middle East was a challenge. My brother helped convince him though and eventually all four of us were in the same house – a rarity in itself. They were really supportive, though, and seemed convinced by the idea of making something to try to help other people.
I was really nervous interviewing my mum and brother but my dad was most difficult to talk to. I find it hard to discuss anything emotional with him anyway, because he tries to block that stuff out. Once the camera was rolling and I’d asked the crew to leave the room, I was stuttering, I could barely get any words out. He actually opened up to me recently and said that in his mid-twenties he’d had a two-year breakdown himself, something he’d never told me before.
I worked with a cinematographer to figure out how to take all the interview footage and put it into a visual metaphor of what was happening to me when I was 19. We wanted the film to reflect the loneliness of that time. The title, Homebound, has two meanings – it refers to the fact I went home to interview my family, and was in a sense homeward bound, but also to the agoraphobia I was suffering from when I was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
The biggest challenge of all was the editing. I didn’t want to make a sentimental film, one about myself, for myself – that would’ve been horrible. We spent many hours sifting through the footage – mainly of my mum, who’s suffered from paranoid schizophrenia herself and was very open – and working out what felt too sensitive, Having to revisit that every day was extremely difficult. Ultimately, though, I’m glad I made the film. I’ve been to a lot of meetings with counsellors and social workers over the years, where you sit in a room while two other people talk about you. It can be very separating and I wanted to break that barrier so the film was more personable, where the audience is witnessing something that usually takes place behind closed doors.
I think it’ll take a while for society to get over the idea of someone being a danger to society, or to themselves.
We had a screening day at university, where everyone showed the films they’d made. My anxiety kicked in with full force and I was having a constant, prolonged panic attack all day. Afterwards though, I was overwhelmed by the reaction. It made me realise that every family has their own problems, their own things hiding in the shadows, and I think everyone could relate to the film in some way, even if the problems they’d had themselves weren’t directly related to mental health.
I had a relapse at Christmas. My mental health issues are something that are always going to be a part of me. Strength, to me, is something that comes in peaks and troughs – it varies day to day. Overall, I feel stronger for having made the film, but stronger in terms of being open to talk about and try to understand other people’s experiences. I think as a society we’re starting to get to grips with mental health now. I’m currently under the care of the local mental health team in Suffolk, which is a lot more integrated into society than it used to be. That said, I think it’ll take a while for society to get over the idea of someone being a danger to society, or to themselves. The best thing I’ve ever realised is that everyone’s an individual, and that ultimately we all live in our own worlds. You’ll never understand totally what other people are going through, because suffering is individual.