Pas fou comme on le pense (Not Crazy Like You Think)
Documentary (theatrical release) – 73 min. – 1983
I had heard from a friend who worked with the Quebec Civil Liberties Association that there had been several recent incidents involving psychiatric patients who had not been able to prevent forced hospitalization. The friend also told me about a mutual support group for psychiatric patients called “Solidarité Psychiatrie.” I was sensitive to the issue of institutionalization because I had an aunt whom it seemed to me had been hospitalized unjustly. She had never been able to extract herself from the psychiatric system and died before I had a chance to meet her. Family secretiveness surrounding her situation, I thought, had further deepened her isolation.
I decided I would make a film from the point of view of psychiatric patients. I wanted to express both the emotional contents of their lives and the facts of the regulation of psychiatric patients in Quebec at the time. I proposed this idea at a meeting of Solidarité Psychiatrie and won their approval. Those interested joined me in a ‘video workshop’ with the goal of shooting a film together. We met weekly over a period of nine months, gaining trust and mutual understanding as we developed dramatic scenes from their lives. I imagined the dramatic scenes as the ‘emotional’ content of the film and scenes of our discussion of the experience of mental illness as ‘factual’ in tone. I recorded our sessions on a video camera and played them back to the group; the camera’s presence became second nature to the group. The film itself – its scenes outlined but left to final improvisation – was shot in an intense four days. I hired a documentary cameraperson and sound recordist, neither of who had any prior contact with the group. To my surprise, when I regarded the results, the ‘factual’ documentary part turned out to be the emotional core of the film.
Editing took some time. At the end of the process, and trusting in my relationship with the group, I invited everyone to the editing room, telling them they had veto power over this final edit. (I had already excluded any scene they told me left them uncomfortable.) But no one voted against the film.
In the context of my work
I only became aware of how original was my approach when, seeking financial assistance, I showed my in-progress film to the NFB in Montreal. The excited producer, John Verral, quickly sought other filmmakers to witness this novel employment of real people in a combination of documentary and fiction scenes. (‘Docudrama’ – dramatized re-enactments played by actors – was then the fashion).
The choice to combine documentary and acted scenes in Not Crazy Like You Think resulted from both a practical search for a method to tell the psychiatric experience and from my admiration for the anti-realist theatre of German playwright and theorist, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht’s was a theatre that encouraged both spectator involvement and dispassionate reflection – an attitude well suited I thought to an audience’s consideration of the psychiatric experience. As a film scholar, additionally, I had written a doctoral thesis on the work of the French filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, and had liked his slogan ‘new forms for new contents.’ in this case, the desired content had truly created the form.
The cameraman asked whether he should include me in the documentary shots. I was surprised by the question: I had been a part of the process during those nine months, and it would be a lie to pretend that I was simply an observer of the process now. But I realize that I was going against the aesthetics of the ‘realist’ documentary, or even of the ‘cinema verité’ then in fashion. It was a feminist style engagement with the documentary subject, I realized, that gave me the model of participating visually and aurally in my film projects. Not Crazy Like You Think was the first of several film projects I made in this style.
I added a few words explaining the situation of the film in voice-over at the beginning of Not Crazy Like You Think. I did this reluctantly. In principle, I choose to avoid the voice over in my films (described in film books as the “voice of god”). Generally, I call upon the spectator to search to understand what they are seeing and hearing and not have it interpreted for them. Similarly, I choose not take positions, but rather to present alternative possibilities for the viewer to ponder. All this is found in Not Crazy Like You Think.
It was only later, after several other films, that I was able to discern an ethnographic filmmaking pattern in my work. Several of my films have involved asking individuals to share their “cultural capital,” a term used by Pierre Bourdieu to designate knowledge that results from social experience. In the example of my film Not Crazy Like You Think, this was the participants’ experience of ‘craziness’ and of the psychiatric system. In Eva: Guerrillera, made a few years later, it was the actors’ knowledge of guerrilla warfare and imprisonment. Later, in Building Bridge: A Housing Project for Women and, still later, in the sustained interviews posted on the website “Women in a Changing Downtown Eastside,” cultural capital included the skills the women have learned to survive on the streets.