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On the Adamant (Sur l’Adamant)

Non-narrative documentary registers the routine of a psychiatric institution that actively encourages its patients to exercise their creative skills - Golden Bear winner is on VoD on Monday, February 5th

Mental health conditions don’t have to be a handicap. They can be a catalyst for the imagination and even artistry. The Adamant is a day-care psychiatric centre on a boat on the Seine, right at the heart of Paris. It pulsates with colours, sounds, dreams and joy. That’s because the institution recognises that the importance of creative freedom, and it equips its patients with the tools that they need in order to achieve personal liberation and gratification: a piano, a guitar, paintbrush and canvas, a fully equipped kitchen and even a weekly cine club. The Adamant shuns the more degrading and dehumanising techniques used by the majority of such institutions around the world. They often treat patients as numbers, with little regard to their individual skills, dreams and ambitions.

Fifty-something Francois (one of the few patients to disclose their name) opens the film with a vigorous rendition of a song entitled The Human Bomb, the cathartic lyrics revealing the explosive nature os the artist. He explains that his father requires tranquilisers in order to sleep, while his mother requires stimulants in order to get through the day. He confesses that he cannot function without his meds: “I would think I’m Jesus Christ, surrounded by flying fairies, and I would probably end up throwing myself in the Seine”. His awareness of his psychotic tendencies and his frankness are genuinely sobering. Another man of around the same age explains that he has fits and hallucinations when he fails to take his drugs. A slightly older, grey-haired male plays the piano and shares a very peculiar anecdote from the time when he met Wim Wenders. Several patients prefer to paint, and they discuss their latest creation in front of their friendly, inquisitive mates.

The cine club is a particularly popular activity. Sessions have been held regularly for 10 years. Frozen (Chris Buck/ Jennifer Lee, 2013 ) and the latest Harry Potter movie are not amongst their choices. Instead, their selection includes Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) and Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1996). Not only they watch the movies, but they also have late-night discussions afterwards. Staff merely remind them to take their meds at the allocated hour. The atmosphere is so respectful and relaxed that it is almost impossible to distinguish medical staff from the patients, which include people of all ages, genders and races. The many “therapy workshops” provide them with the opportunity to mingle, acquire new friendships, explore their artistic skills, and enjoy life to the full. Some patients bemoan the absence of family and friends, suggesting that the Adamant is indeed their only network support.

In the final quarter of this 108-minute film, the patients leave the boat and go on a foraging mission. They rescue vast amounts of food discarded by the local stores from their garbage bins. An off-the-cuff freeganist action. They bring them back and cook. Someone notes: “the vegetables are damaged on the outside however delicious on the inside”. This comment could be extended to the patients themselves: these people have been discarded by society because they look “damaged on the outside”, however they have a lot to offer inside. There’s beauty inside every single one of them.

Apart from some intertitles at the end of the film, On the Adamant provides no contextualisation. We are left with no idea of how the organisation was founded, who established the principles, how many patients it holds, key performance indicators, and – perhaps more crucially – who is eligible to attend. Is this a public sector programme or a private sector initiative only accessible for those who can pay a substantial fee? Is this aimed at the common French person, or is this an elite product? Either way, I wouldn’t mind securing my spot there as soon as possible. Most creative have multiple mental health issues. I myself possess at least two or three. Hopefully I qualify!

Cinematically speaking, On the Adamant is not as inventive and liberated as its characters. This is a more or less conventional documentary. The almost entirely static camera takes an observational, fly-on-the-wall approach, blended with the very occasional talking heads interview. The director is not too concerned about aesthetic formalities: the casual jump cut, a few dutch angles, and the odd establishing shot craft a sense casualness. The narrative structure is entirely freeform, allowing viewers to concentrate on the individual characters instead. The problem is that the director focuses on too many characters, and the interactions rarely exceed a couple of minutes. This comes at the expense of intimacy. I wish we would get to know the individual characters in more depth.

On the Adamant showed in the Official Competition of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It won the Golden Bear, the event’s top prize. It premieres in the UK in October as part of the BFI London Film Festival. In cinemas on Friday, November 3rd. On BFI Player on Monday, February 5th 2024.

By Victor Fraga - 24-02-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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