In an edition of surprises, programming eclecticism, and a refreshingly measured jury performance, Nicolas Philibert’s Golden Bear win for his latest documentary might yet prove the most unexpected. Having snubbed the Twitterati’s two prime choices, namely Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume and Celine Song’s Past Lives, for the top prize, the gentle and wistful On the Adamant marks only the second time a documentary film has garnered this level of recognition at the Berlinale, the first being Gianfranco Rosi’s bracing Fire at Sea in 2016. Both films, incidentally, share an aquatic metaphor, literalized in the latter’s canvases of human compassion and indifference toward the European migrant crisis and personified here in the floating barge, from which Philibert’s film gets its title, moored to the banks of the river Seine. Yet the septuagenarian’s aim is less an activist one, a call to sustained moral action; rather, On the Adamant undertakes the often thankless task of surveying the outer, sometimes inner, lives of the barge’s daytime inhabitants — for the Adamant is a therapeutic facility, and its visitors are those with mental disorders.
Philibert’s documentarian reflexes, honed across nearly five decades, buck the usual trend of narrativization, and his subjects typically straddle communal as opposed to individual horizons. To Be and to Have, released in 2002, was hitherto the filmmaker’s most acclaimed and well-known work, set over a single year in a municipal primary school classroom. With On the Adamant, Philibert tackles, in similarly observational fashion, the delicate issue of representing mental illness on screen, rarely intervening into the camera’s frank depiction of reality and seldomly furnishing context beyond the Adamant’s quaint, tranquil surroundings. His subjects speak for themselves, unencumbered by the fear and anxiety of documentary’s tendency towards rigorous categorization. Over several months, Philibert’s camera tracks the mundane happenings onboard what’s essentially a daycare center and mental health retreat: various workshops for cooking, song, and dance, alongside film club screenings, sewing sessions, and a coffee bar manned by the patients themselves, are given their due screentime with a gentle indifference. Hierarchy, in other words, has little import within this little community.
This quasi-utopian portrait, however, is tempered with the looming, if implicit, realization that such communities are as rare as they come, and that they may not always be here to stay. “For how much longer?” poses a title card at the film’s denouement. Many of the patients in On the Adamant report solace in the supportive atmosphere they find amongst each other, but their personal conditions have, by and large, stymied their ability to work, interact, and otherwise function outside this space, unless bolstered by heavy and constant doses of meds. One of them recounts, tragically, her son’s relocation to a foster home due to her inability to care for him; another relates his frequent highs and hallucinations: like “Jesus surrounded by little birds,” he shrugs. Yet others, in their little time before the camera, reveal their hobbies, passions, interests — one sings and plays the piano, showcasing his novel composition, for example — and therefore their individuality.
On the Adamant doesn’t always penetrate, and frequent stretches of its runtime do call for some exposition, if only to undergird the center’s integrated organization and functioning beyond the subjectivities of its constituents. One wishes for a more systematic treatment of contextual exigencies: the institution’s founding, its funding, the way its patients are screened, selected, and ultimately nursed to good or decent health. Philibert steadfastly holds onto his free-floating, indifferent formalism though, if only to reject the need to explicate or elaborate and to, instead, humanize the struggle with disorders of the mind. That’s a promising outlook on the whole, inflected with the pathos and poignancy of a sanctuary that, perhaps, won’t always be there and won’t always be open to all. When asked about occupations, one patient replies, “poetry,” and quickly adds, “but it’s not a job.” The demands of wider society may not always be kind to its people, but sometimes the little gestures of solidarity may be enough.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.5.