Film Review: 12 Days

Psychiatric patients argue for their freedom in a challenging documentary from French director Raymond Depardon.
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Cutting to the heart of madness, 12 Days is a troubling but engrossing documentary about people trapped in themselves. Building on a 30-year career in documentaries, Raymond Depardon strips away cultural myths and misconceptions to focus directly on what it means to be insane.

In French law, patients detained for psychiatric evaluation must receive a hearing within 12 days to determine if they will be allowed to leave, with follow-up hearings every subsequent six months. Depardon shot 72 of these hearings at the Vinatier Hospital in Lyon, filming real-life lawyers, judges and patients (whose names were changed).

Ten of those hearings, filmed verité-style, make up the bulk of 12 Days. They range from an unemployed laborer diagnosed with "psychomotor agitation delirium" to a murderer isolated in a "difficult patient" ward. The hearings are conducted by three brisk, no-nonsense but empathetic judges who read the patients their rights and decide on their fates.

Some patients know the drill. They give "good" answers laced with self-help jargon, use complicated logic to prove their competence, appeal to the judges' sympathies. They are the victims of mistakes, conspiracies, vindictive co-workers, corrupt police. They claim abuse, one man pointing to wrists wounded by bed restraints.

Watching them argue their sanity is harrowing. A young mother, herself an abused orphan, begs for the return of her infant. An immigrant has been imprisoned for eight years without causing any trouble. A telephone worker cries as she describes what brought her to Vinatier.

"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," one man says. But he's a "nice guy" who can't make eye contact when the judge reads a diagnosis of "severe, resistant paranoid schizophrenia and unmanageable polyaddiction."

For some patients, these hearings could be their last chance for anything resembling a normal life. In other cases, it's not clear whether the patients are even aware of what's happening. One wants to be released only so she can kill herself, another hears an electric chair talking to him.

Like Frederick Wiseman, Depardon understands how institutions operate, how the hearings at Vinatier affect our own freedoms. He gives voice to those who need it the most, the ill and powerless. His camera doesn't flinch from the pain the judges disguise behind formal language. When one refers to a "phlebotomy," the patient says she slit her wrists after being raped repeatedly.

Is she telling the truth? Always sympathetic, Depardon avoids judgment. The tension in 12 Days comes from the way he fixes on the patients, waiting for their stories to unravel, their madness to emerge. Or not. Either way, no one is getting out, no matter how healthy or sick.

For such difficult subject matter, 12 Days is remarkably stimulating. Does imprisoning these patients help or hurt them? Could we do as well in such settings? Are we really so different?

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