Director Kaye Harrison’s documentary The Sunnyboy, about singer/songwriter Jeremy Oxley’s battle with schizophrenia, screens at 5pm this Sunday, October 6, at Luna Cinemas Leederville. BOB GORDON reports.
When Kaye Harrison (2010’s The Long Goodbye) wanted to make a documentary about mental illness, she found an illuminating subject in Jeremy Oxley, the singer/songwriter/guitarist of acclaimed Australian band, The Sunnyboys.
“I wanted to do it from the inside,” she says, “from the perspective of the person living with the condition. Although the situation is improving, I do feel there remains a lot of fear and ignorance about serious mental illness in the mainstream community, particularly schizophrenia. The stigma that surrounds schizophrenia creates more pain for people living with the condition and it can serve as a barrier for treatment.”
A gifted songwriter and performer, Oxley began to show signs of schizophrenia during the band’s peak in the early ‘80s. Through mutual friends she met Oxley’s brother (and Sunnyboys bassist) Peter, who introduced her to Jeremy and his wife, Mary, who has helped steer his life back on track after 25 years of confused and occasionally vagrant living. It was a slow process founded on building trust between film-maker, subject and family.
“It was really important throughout this early period and throughout the entire production in fact to be very honest with Jeremy and to maintain my own personal integrity throughout despite external pressures,” Harrison explains.
“Over time, Jeremy could see that I was true to my word on things, that I did genuinely care about him and Mary and that I was 100 per cent committed to doing the absolute best job possible on this film. I created a safe filming environment where he could talk about anything, he could share his thoughts and feelings on any topic and they were respected and encouraged. He could give his own account of his life to someone who wasn’t about to judge him in any way and that helped build trust and understanding between us.”
The overall involvement of Mary, her twin sons and the Oxley family, is key to the documentary, both onscreen and off. Their participation and openness seems to indicate they felt it important for the story to be known as well as for Oxley himself.
“Mary was critical in all the filming with Jeremy in terms of when we would film,” Harrison says. “She could advise me on how he was travelling health-wise at every step of the production and often helped facilitate negotiations between myself and Jeremy on what we would film.
“Mary was fundamental to helping me understand Jeremy. She put a lot of time and effort into explaining things to me, aspects of Jeremy’s behaviour that I might be struggling with or insights that I may have missed entirely. I remained open to being educated by Mary throughout. Although Mary did have a controlling role in the filming schedule, she was very hands off when it came to the actual filming. She trusted me enough to just leave us alone and never quizzed me on anything I was doing. She was amazing to work with.
“Jeremy’s parents were initially wary and reluctant, understandably. Although they were very respectful towards me and my intent, they were concerned that the process of making the film wouldn’t be a good process for Jeremy. Peter advocated for the film and encouraged support from others because it was a decision that Jeremy and Mary had made.
“Jeremy’s parents bravely participated in the film because they believed that telling his story could be a help to others. Over time they could see that the making of the film was not impacting adversely on him. I ensured that whatever they contributed would be handled sensitively and would not harm any significant relationships.”
Oxley seems, at turns, understanding of his ailment and at other times possibly in denial of it (“it’s all bullshit,” he says of mental illness, at one point).
“I think for the most part Jeremy isn’t ‘in denial’ about his illness,” Harrison qualifies. “It is part of his form of schizophrenia that he doesn’t have insight into it. I also think it must be difficult to be told that you are a health condition, i.e. that you are schizophrenic, rather than being told that you are a person living with a health condition, it is just part of who you are.
“So I can understand why Jeremy would prefer to identify himself as ‘a Sunnyboy’ rather than ‘a schizophrenic’. It must also be tough to accept that your thoughts and beliefs about the world might be ‘false’, that you can’t trust your brain and your own take on the world.
“The final thing I would say is that I believe Jeremy may have been affected by the stigma that surrounds schizophrenia, that the fear and ignorance about the condition may have affected his ability to accept the initial diagnosis and the years where he refused to have treatment.”
Most pleasingly, the film leads to the point where The Sunnyboys perform again, with all attendant relationships engaged once again and Oxley’s future looking brighter than it has since the ‘80s.
All up, The Sunnyboy is pretty warts and all, though. One wonders how he feels about it?
“For the most part Jeremy embraces the film,” Harrison notes, “he says it is a true representation. It is hard for him to watch some parts for sure, but at the same time I think he believes it more important that the film honours the pain in his story rather than be some sycophantic portrayal.
“Sometimes he finds it hard to understand why anyone would be interested in his story and can’t fathom the way people respond. Other times he tells me there should be a three-hour version because he just can’t get enough of himself. Ultimately, he respects me as a professional and is glad I made the film I wanted to make. He is incredibly respectful and generous in this way. I guess his varied responses are an indication of the complexity of the man.”
Kaye Harrison will appear at a Talking Pictures Q+A event hosted by Bob Gordon immediately following the screening of The Sunnyboy this Sunday at Luna Leederville. Head to lunapalace.com.au for details.