A film recording peoples experiences of mental health services through the 20th century makes grim, and sometimes shocking, viewing. And its long - but not in the context of participants lives, writes Laura Donnelly

Directors cuts may win cult status, but it is hard to imagine the punter who would stay the course of a 200-hour film. How to market such an epic? In this case, the subject - the memories of survivors of 20th century mental health ser - vices - is hardly a crowd pleaser .

David Crepaz-Keay , deputy director of Mental Health Media, is working on Testimonies, which will take up residence at the British Library in March. It will comprise some 50 interviews, averaging four hours each.

But project manager Mr Crepaz-Keay makes no apologies for the length of Testimonies - nor its weighty subject matter. These are stories that need to be told. And if the only way they are going to tell them is over four hours - well that's not a great amount of time in the context of a whole life.

Mr Crepaz-Keay - a survivor of mental health services, previously diagnosed with schizophrenia, manic depression and personality disorder - hopes the archive will prevent any return to the excesses of the past century.

If you look at this in 100 years time it will raise a lot of questions about what we were doing to people with mental health problems in the last half of this century. Some people will not be able to believe it, he says.

Aspects of the interviews have even shocked Mr Crepaz-Keay. The 25 survivors interviewed so far have reported a high use of insulin coma therapy - a widely discredited treatment involving a series of comas, induced by daily injections, lasting up to eight weeks. I always thought the use of it was quite rare. So many people have talked about it that either we have got a very skewed sample - which is possible but unlikely - or the use of insulin comas was much more widespread than we ever realised.

But the archive - transcripts of which will be available online - is more than a historical record, says Mr Crepaz-Keay. In the interviews, there is a lot of talk of wonder treatments - things like electro convulsive therapy, insulin comas and psychosurgery .

They were seen as potential miracles and people talk a lot about the hope they were given.

For me that highlights the need to assess treatments by asking people how they feel.

I think that is a strong lesson that organisations like the National Institute for Clinical Excellence need to learn, to make sure they don't just rely on double-blind trials or tests of whether drugs are toxic.

Mr Crepaz-Keay insists the archive is not a chamber of horrors focused on the most extreme aspects of mental health.

There are some people who became involved because they felt their experiences weren't as bad as some of the horror stories would suggest.

But he adds: Someone viewing the interview might see their stories differently. There are the cases where the interviewee says, The staff were wonderful, then later we find out staff put them in seclusion and what was wonderful about them was the fact that they finally let them out.

I'm not sure what the objective truth is. This is not like a documentary maker who looks for the bits that fit the story. What it is about is the day today things - about the ordinariness, in a way . If it does illustrate one thing, it is the extent to which people get sucked into a system, he says.

Mr Crepaz-Keay hopes that by putting transcripts of the interviews online, people from student nurses to politicians to researchers will be able to use it as a source for further study and debate.

But he is realistic about the likelihood of viewers settling down for an eight-day celluloid feast. I would imagine almost no-one will sit through the whole thing. Mental Health Media is still looking for individuals with long-term experience of mental health services, particularly patients from ethnic minorities. Phone Carrie Harvey on 0171-700 8129.