«Why is borderline personality disorder classed as a disorder and nationalism not? Or transphobia?» The question is aptly asked in Damian Nenadić’s debut feature Days of Madness (2018), a documentary that shows how psychiatric illness in Croatia is compounded by heavy social stigmatisation and a lack of community-oriented therapy options.
Mladen and Maja are two individuals who have been grappling for many years with mental disorder diagnoses, and are endeavouring to build more bearable, meaningful lives in the face of minimal family support or understanding and a state health system poorly equipped to cater to their needs. In focusing on their everyday lived realities rather than authorised «experts» spouting official versions, the film does positive work in validating them as the spokespeople of their own experiences, even as the intimate, observational approach does not shy away from the more disturbing aspects of their anguished volatility.
While self-harm and suicidal tendencies mean Maja’s fourteenth hospital stay, Nenadić avoids the air of sensationalistic exploitation so often problematic in cinema that enters into psych wards, handing the camera over to his protagonists so that they can have agency in what they would like to show. The resulting hours of footage – technically amateurish but feeling all the more raw and unmediated for it – have been edited into a holistic affirmation of all parts of the human psyche, and as an ultimately optimistic narrative of acceptance and recovery.
Alarming usage of schizophrenia
The listing of a deluge of prescribed meds recurs almost like a fetishised refrain. Be they benzodiazepines Rivotril, Lorsilan and Normabel, antipsychotics Seroquel and Prazine, the anticonvulsant Tegretol, their names become a magical incantation for help, even as the impenetrability of their brand names in endless combinations suggests a system more intent on loading its populace up on pills to superficially quell their symptoms, rather than providing tools for sufferers to actually get better. The sheer volume of meds prescribed is alarming, and though no statistics offer a quantifiable sense of whether over-prescription is a problem in Croatia, the circumstantial evidence would certainly suggest it.
«Nenadić avoids the air of sensationalistic exploitation by handing the camera over to his protagonists so that they can have agency in what they would like to show.»
From her teeth falling out (which her dentist has attributed to antipsychotics) to toxic hepatitis causing liver malfunction and the need of an abrupt and psychologically tumultuous sudden withdrawal, the drastic physical side-effects suffered by Maja due to her medication intake intimate that the well-being of the individual as a whole is of little concern to authorities more geared toward the simplest (even if crudely haphazard and physically gruelling) methods of social control available.
Days of Madness argues that Croatian society’s patriarchal, Catholic mind-set means intrinsic aspects of identity and potential cures are mislabelled as causes and corrupting forces, plunging the vulnerable protagonists into a confusing and shaming crisis of description that has greatly deepened their distress. For example, Maja tells of being told by a doctor that her borderline personality disorder, which she has had since the age of seven, is caused by her transgender identity.
«The question of who gets to define «normality» and with what agenda is brought into urgent, needed focus.»
Further, it’s intimated that Mladen, who is now 43, might have schizophrenia. It’s implied in the film that only under the influence of the sin-obsessed nature of his religion did his existent trauma spiral out of control. He served in the Yugoslav National Army in the early 90s and returned with depression and insomnia – problems that his mother persuaded him to see a priest about rather than a medical practitioner. Sleeping with a picture of Saint Aloysius over his bed for decades, he was inspired to practice self-flagellation in an attempt to purge himself of his feelings of guilt and uncleanliness.
Mladen confronts the priest over his assertion that psychiatry is «a temple of Satan». The priest cagily denies this statement, but questions how a doctor would be able to exorcise a demon. Days of Madness is not couched as an overarching renouncement of any belief systems per se, rather it shows how non-conformist outsiders might come to terms with the pressures of the rigid codes of behaviour they are subjected to as a result of the unquestioned ideologies they have been born into, and how they might resist the social erasure of parts of themselves. Nevertheless, the question of who gets to define «normality» and with what agenda is brought into urgent, needed focus.
Footage of a therapeutic workshop helmed by Croatian actor Leon Lučev and attended by our protagonists does seem to offer empathetic healing tools toward self-affirmation. It’s not clear how accessible this rather more progressive-seeming treatment is to sufferers at large (there is a sense it’s been set up as part of the filming project), but Days of Madness ends with a strong note of hope.
«Cinema takes its place as part of a valuable therapeutic journey and a radical affirmation of the worth of human difference.»
We hit the road with the pair across the border to Slovenia to the opening of the Museum of Madness, a private institute in a former psychiatric hospital formed to rethink the concept of «madness», remove the taboos surrounding it and aid de-institutionalisation. Mladen and Maja add their own photographs and workshop drawings to the wall of the museum, staking their claim to membership in the community history. Then they introduce their talk entitled, «My Story about Psychiatry in Croatia, and How I Got Better». Cinema, in this participatory set-up, takes its place as part of a valuable therapeutic journey and a radical affirmation of the worth of human difference.