Psychiatry: How inaccessible – or open – is the human mind to others?

Tore Naess
Tore Næss was an art critic for the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen from 2005-2009 and was also the founder and editor of the art magazines Kunstmagasinet and KUNSTforum.
Published date: October 19, 2016
Country: Poland 2016, 52 min.

The 51-minute long documentary Icon depicts a psychiatrist and a mental institution located in the countryside of today’s Siberia. «Where is the human soul located? » asks the psychiatrist at the start of the film. Is it in the heart? Or the brain? Or somewhere else?

Large swathes of the film consists of long sequences where the camera is a fly on the wall whilst daily tasks and doings play out in the mental institution. The gaze on the patients is a hundred percent unsentimental – the mentally ill are neither idealised nor portrayed as sick in any way. During the sequences, the patients chat, or keep themselves busy by moving and verbalising the way we are used to seeing severely mentally ill people. In between, there are arguments and fights, and scenes where some of the patients assist the nursing staff in exercising violence and force could easily shock outside spectators.

The images from a 2010-Siberia are in themselves exotic. The buildings, the landscape, the clothes, the vegetation and machinery bear no resemblance to what we surround ourselves with in Norway today. The scenography is akin to Soviet Union images last witnessed in our 1980s social science books.

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The hidden world.  In the middle of the throng being portrayed indoors and outdoors of the psychiatric institution, meanders the old psychiatrist all grey-flecked hair and innate calm. We hear him chit-chatting with the patients. He is mild mannered whilst simultaneously posing confrontational questions. «What do you mean this is a terrible place? The food is good and the nursing staff are good and kind. Tell me why you think this is a bad place? » And a little later in the dialogue: «So you think you are well? Then how did you end up here? »

Parallel to the observational scenes that make up most of the film, runs another thread which partly sheds some light over the institutional situations we see, partly conveys a message regarding the film’s theme. In this thread, we hear the inner voice of the psychiatrist reflecting on what mental illness is in general, and how this illustrates the body/mind-issue in particular. The psychiatrist’s thoughts are simple, almost ordinary, yet accurate and comprehensible. That the internal life of the patient is hidden and belongs only to the patient, is one of the main topics which is discussed in various ways. The patient’s drama, her fears and hopes, occur within this hidden world. This way the patient becomes lonely or isolated, his or her life is played only partly together with other people.

The psychiatrist explains that the mentally ill despise healthy people; the mentally well do not take themselves – and thus life – seriously.

Is this situation any better for the «normal» healthy? Or are they as isolated? Do they also live first and foremost inside their fantasies? Somewhere in the film, the psychiatrist explains that the mentally ill despise healthy people; the mentally well do not take themselves – and thus life –seriously. This does, on the other hand, the psychotic patient – he deals with his senses, his thoughts and his ideas in absolute earnestness, irrespective of whether the ideas are true or false; or if these thoughts are constructive or destructive; or whether the senses originate from real events in the outer physical world or are a product of his own imagination.

ythumb2014-phpAn internal common ground. The film’s main narrative take – the observational, prolonged look at patients’ day to day situations – illustrate and emphasise the psychiatrist’s main point that the inner life of the sick is inaccessible for anyone other than the patient. As we witness the patients’ mimicry, movements and elaborate actions, we understand that there is something we do not know, something that is hidden from us. This is different for the «healthy»: We can to a greater degree comprehend a mentally well person by studying their actions. The internal world which epistemologically speaking is hidden to all but the people themselves, remains accessible in another way – there is a common understanding between what happens internally and what the person does in the outside world. Socially recognisable actions and generally accepted mimicry and movements become hooks which other people may use to understand another human being. This way the internal world becomes common ground. With a psychotic patient, this convention is obscured.

Despite the fact that this film won an award at the Krakow Film Festival in May this year, I am not certain that I would immediately recommend others to watch it. I found it more rewarding writing about it than watching it. I greatly appreciated its filmatic and photography, and likewise the glimpse afforded into a countryside psychiatric institution in today’s Siberia – an alien world I otherwise never would have seen. Regardless, I am left feeling that the film maker did nothing more than trailing the psychiatrist for a couple hours around the institution. The film is lengthy and repetitive. I would have liked to see something more concrete, some more obvious takes, and a clearer and more adventurous message. In short, some theories.

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