Nicolas Philibert • Director of On The Adamant
"The film aims to change the image and representations we often associate with 'madness'"
- BERLINALE 2023: The famous French documentary-maker discusses his work centred on The Adamant, a very unique day hospital in a boat moored on a quay in Paris
Having previously spent time at the Berlinale, as well as in Cannes and Locarno, famed French documentary-maker Nicolas Philibert unveiled a brilliant, tender and exceptionally accurate work about mental illness, On The Adamant [+see also:
interview: Nicolas Philibert
film profile], in competition at the 73rd Berlinale.
Cineuropa: You explored psychiatry in 1996 in La moindre des choses, and On The Adamant is the first chapter of a trilogy on the subject. Why is this world so important to you?
Nicolas Philibert: It’s something that moves me deeply. The world of psychiatry seems close but so far away. I feel that ill people are people just like you and me. Years ago, when I made a film about people who were deaf from birth, I felt as if I were filming people who had a radically different sensorial approach to the world. When it comes to psychiatric patients, what they tell us, their way of seeing the world, which is clearly manifold and diverse, reminds us a lot of ourselves, our own flaws and defects.
Why did you choose a day hospital as unique as The Adamant, this boat moored on a quay in Paris, an incredibly open and bright space where there’s no visual distinction between patients and staff?
Everyone knows that the French healthcare system isn’t in a good state. In this kind of slump situation, psychiatry suffers even more, it’s almost neglected, abandoned by the authorities, as if, when push comes to shove, they’re thinking “why bother trying to cure a schizophrenic when there’s no return on your investment”. Luckily, in this context, there are teams and places dotted all over the place where people refuse to give in, who try to carry on practising a kind of psychiatry that’s worthy of its name, and The Adamant is one of these places. It’s in the heart of Paris but it feels like you’re somewhere entirely different when you’re so close to the water, and the river traffic. It’s a beautiful place too, which is very important because, generally speaking, psychiatric care facilities and hospitals aren’t especially jolly. Here, the various spaces are lovely, their materials are lovely, the care team is really lively; they invite speakers, philosophers, writers, filmmakers, etc., and even people to come a make a film here, as was the case for me. So it’s a space that’s open to life which looks to help patients get their spark back, to reconnect with the world at a time when they’re often withdrawn and no longer want to leave their homes.
Yes, there’s a kind of tenderness emanating from the film; I don’t force myself onto people when they’re in the middle of a crisis. The patients you see in the film are really clear on the state of their health, on their difficulties and illness, and they talk about it. But I don’t film any of them when they’re not in a good place, when they’re delirious, when they feel persecuted, etc., which can happen. I stay away because you have to think about what comes afterwards. What would they have to say about it once they’re feeling better? That I tried to turn their suffering into a spectacle? That ethical dimension does condition the film a little.
How did you strike such a balance and paint such an accurate picture to show that these patients are human beings like everyone else, without hiding their imbalances and inner suffering, and even conveying a little humour in the process?
I didn’t want to make a film about psychiatry which would lead viewers into an inevitably and eternally sombre world. When you spend time with patients in a place like The Adamant, you find people who seem to be suffering and others who don’t, who have found a kind of balance in their lives, who live with their illness, who have managed to control it and accept it. This balance might sometimes seem a bit wild, or unique to say least, but there are some really educated, incredibly lucid people there, who are often funny too, even when the situation doesn’t call for it. But there are also highs and lows in all of our lives, harder times and easier times. I wanted viewers to shake off the cliched ideas we all have about mental illness: violence, shouting, etc. It’s not like that all the time and that’s what the film tries to get across: to change the image and representations we often associate with “madness”.
(Translated from French)
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