Nicolas Philibert won Berlinale’s highest prize this year for his gently observational documentary about a psychiatric daycare centre, which runs from inside a boat called The Adamant moored on the banks of the Seine in central Paris.
Art therapy is at the core of this humane institution that opened its floating doors in 2010. It’s a place where nurses and patients are indistinguishable within an atmosphere of creative discovery and delicate psychological probing. ‘People have gone in circles for thousands of years trying to pin down what can be deemed art, who’s allowed to do it and what determines its value. For all of us, you just know it when you see it,’ said jury president Kristen Stewart explaining why On The Adamant was awarded the Golden Bear.
I sat down for a long, deep and beautiful conversation with Philbert ahead of On The Adamant’s UK premiere at the London Film Festival in October. In the same way that the film gives a preview of a softer world, so too do the thoughts of its director.
One connection between On The Adamant and your previous film Every Little Thing (1997) is that creativity is shown to be of huge personal and communal value. What do you believe that making and watching art can do for loneliness and the human soul?
We live in a very dark, violent world that's constantly subject to acts of barbarism and war. In the midst of this, all forms of art – whether it be music, dance, film, fine arts – allow us to not only survive, but to live and to thrive. That goes for you, me and everyone. Even if you're not an artist, as the audience member who goes to watch a film or a play or a dance show, it helps you deal with the darkness of the world.
People, especially fragile people, can be depersonalised by the weight of the world and making or appreciating art is a space for a personality to come back to life. It's interesting because both you as the filmmaker, and they as the patients, are making art to survive. Did you have these discussions with them about your hopes for the film?
When shooting the film we had many discussions, always. As you could see on The Adamant they have a lot of workshops: music, film, radio, drawing and painting, sewing, etc. The idea is not to make artists out of them. These workshops are used as a tool. The issue with the people on the boat lies in their relationship with the rest of the world. The illness, so to speak, is within this link, so what this psychiatry tries to do is to repair that relationship, to help their link to the rest of the world. This can be done through the workshops, but the act of sharing a coffee with someone and speaking, this is how you rebuild those links.
Cinema also does this for people who are ‘well’, it makes a space for us to talk about things we can't otherwise. So what is the difference between the art and art appreciation of the people in The Adamant and the art of people who are celebrated and recognised as artists?
I try not to erect barriers between artists and psychiatric patients. If there are barriers they are extremely porous. Both artists and patients are very sensitive people. It's a complex question as a lot of people are on the frontier of what we consider normal. I think we can say about some artists that they have made a success out of that folie.
I am neurodivergent and feel a deep kinship to these people and a huge respect for how frank they are able to be about their place in the world. It feels like that kinship and respect is in the DNA of the film. Were there any particular insights or moments that felt like your truth also?
Documentary is always the result of a specific outlook, it's never the full reality. Like any other filmmaker, I've made some choices to film this and not [that], so it is from a subjective point of view. Independently of that, the film was constructed and born out of the relationship that I developed with the patients. When I started I had no plan, no program, no intention. The starting point of any new film is never to share a specific message (in this case about psychiatry). So when I start out I don't actually know what the film will achieve or what I will be saying. I improvise with the dynamics with the people who are there with me. My work consists of building confidence, this is the basis of everything.
It feels like they really trust you when they're talking to the camera. How long did you spend on The Adamant before you started filming?
I [went] there a few times, but I'm not one who needs to spend three weeks or three months just watching or trying to become invisible. I'm not trying to make them forget that I'm there. I'm trying to have them accept my presence. I don't want to be a filmmaker that becomes transparent. Unlike a lot of documentary filmmakers where they say to their subject, 'Please pretend that I'm not there', I say the opposite.
Is that an ethical choice?
It is an ethical thing, I'm there ‘with’ the people not ‘about’ the people.
Did you have any ethical concerns about securing consent from such fragile people to film them and, if so, how did you work through those?
It's a complicated answer, indeed, and it begs for a nuanced reply. Firstly, I only filmed people that agreed to be filmed and I always explained, 'You can accept or refuse to be filmed. If you don't want to be filmed, no problem. Don't feel guilty about that. You are completely within your rights.' That was the beginning of building confidence. But it's not enough for someone to express their willingness to be filmed. I try to film people when they are conscious of what's happening, conscious that they are filmed. Maybe when you are there you meet somebody who says, 'Okay, I'm happy to be filmed' and suddenly they would make a bit of a show in front of the camera, expressing some sort of eccentricity, and we're not sure if they're fully conscious of the choice they made by saying yes.
So someone in that state of mind, a bit delirious, even if they accept to be filmed, they wouldn't have given their full reasoned consent and therefore it wouldn't feel right for me to film them. But it's a blurry line because what does it really mean to be fully conscious of the consequences of being filmed? So, I try to get as much information as I can. It's not enough to say, ‘Are you okay if I film you?’ The people that we film need to be fully conscious of all the repercussions of being filmed, of everything that's at stake, so I explained that the film would be out at the cinema, on various platforms, on DVD perhaps, so they’re fully conscious of where this will end up. I've been told that I've ignored some sides of this subject matter. I've not filmed people rolling around on the floor screaming, moments of madness, because psychological suffering is not entertainment. If someone's rolling on the floor suffering, I'm not going to film them.
There are lots of cinephiles on The Adamant, so what did it mean to them when you won the Golden Bear?
The staff and the patients – I would prefer to say the passengers – discovered the film after Berlin as Berlinale wanted exclusivity. We couldn't show them the film earlier, so just after Berlin we [arranged a] screening in Paris. They all came, and at the end the lights came up and one of the passengers came to me and offered me his teddy bear from his childhood. I was deeply moved. Such a present, you know? I don't want to speak for them, but I do think that somewhere they consider it to be their film. They've been very touched by it. They are used to other people looking at them with mistrust and considering them potentially dangerous, and with this film, it's a way for them to find their dignity.
I was very moved by the man who said ‘Others can look at us on the metro, we have slightly broken faces maybe. People always give us curious looks’. The film shows that the passengers are connected to reality, you know?
Suffering from psychological issues does not necessarily mean that we're not aware of what's going on around us. Watching the film, it's very impressive how [the] people I filmed are very lucid when it comes to their own suffering. Nobody can talk about what they're suffering better than themselves. Yes, they go through moments of darkness, moments that are very unbearable for them when they hear voices, and in those cases often they retreat, they stay at home. The instances where we see them where they are on The Adamant tend to be moments where they're more at peace.
A passenger at one point says that mental-health issues create difficulties with family, and it feels like The Adamant is a found family. Do you know how such a place managed to exist?
The Adamant is both an exceptional place and a place that's not so exceptional, and I'll explain why. Thankfully, across France, there are many psychiatric departments that practice this more humane type of psychiatry that treat patients like human beings and don't reduce them to their illness. And I stress this last point because we're currently in a situation where the psychiatric landscape in France has been devastated by things like funding cuts, lack of beds, nurses that are fleeing the sector because they can't practice with dignity. Despite everything, there are still some professionals out there resisting. What makes The Adamant exceptional, really, is its location – the fact that it's on the water. The architects who built it worked closely with careworkers and patients to design something that would be beautiful and therapeutic. Usually, places where psychiatry is conducted tend to be quite functional, ugly spaces. Patients and careworkers enjoy being in a space that is beautiful in a way that's therapeutic, that's calming; they are instantly happier being there. We're all sensitive to the beauty of our surroundings, it affects our emotions.
It seems like you might be on your way to becoming a qualified psychologist with all this observation... Is that of interest?
Many of us can have a caring role without necessarily being a care professional, so a filmmaker, or even another patient, might have a therapeutic role towards other people on the boat. Last Monday, a journalist from The Guardian came to The Adamant to interview me; he planned to stay for maybe one and a half hours, but he stayed for four hours. When he arrived, I introduced him to those who were [there]. We asked a patient if he'd show us round [and] we spent half an hour with [him] explaining how The Adamant worked, the workshops, the library and so on. Then we conducted the interview and I had to go home, but he remained there for another hour and a half just talking to the various patients about life on The Adamant. Unintentionally, he ended up having some sort of therapeutic role for them because he gave them a platform to express themselves.
What's next for you?
On The Adamant is the first film in a triptych, originally unintentionally so. When I first went aboard I was just meant to make one film but was compelled to make a trilogy.
Have you already filmed the sequels?
I just finished the second one last night. The Adamant is actually a day centre for the people living in the first four arrondissements of Paris. When they're really unwell they're taken to a hospital called Esquirol named after a great psychiatrist who lived in the 19th century, and the unit there caters for the people living in Central Paris. The second film is shot in two medical units inside the hospital, called Averroès and Rosa Parks. We meet again some of the passengers from The Adamant who have been hospitalised and we also meet new protagonists. The second film is based on conversations between psychiatrists and patients, beautiful conversations not only about the pills, but about anything. Aristotle or whatever. There will be a third film because when I was shooting on The Adamant I discovered that some young nurses sometimes go to visit patients when they have domestic problems, like electricity, so they go to their place to help them with repairs. The third film is built on a few home visits by these young nurses. We will go with Frédéric or Muriel, patients I filmed on The Adamant, into their places.
When will we be able to watch these two extra films?
In France, they are supposed to be released in the first semester of 2024, but the third one is not finished. I still want to film one more visit. It's partly edited but I still have some shooting.
On the Adamant is out in Cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday