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Raymond Depardon's "12 Days" looks at the rights of patients at French psychiatric institutions

Screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival on May 25, the documentary 12 Days is made by the award winning director Raymond Depardon and producer and sound editor Claudine Nourgaret. This film explores a French law passed in 2013 that requires a person involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital to appear before a judge within 12 days with counsel. These “liberty and custody judges” can rule that the person remain incarcerated and be seen every six months thereafter.

Depardon visits the Vinatier Psychiatric Hospital in Lyon where he originally comes from, an hygienically scrubbed modern mental health care facility. Thick walls and doors and the latest state of art equipment are visible in a well-staffed care facility. The different incarcerated individuals who appear before the judges have various difficulties ranging from punching someone, to killing a parent or an inability to take care of their children.

In the USA, involuntary incarceration is 72 hours and must go to court if it is to be longer. In France, the freedom for an individual to speak on his or her behalf has been remanded to the courts. The 12 days of involuntary incarceration is not based on the decision of a psychiatrist who is not present at these hearings to keep patients longer than 12 days. However, in every case a patient is remanded to the judge, a psychiatrist has issued an opinion about whether the person should remain or not. The individual then has the right to appeal the decision.

Raymond Depardon is the first filmmaker to document this new law and was given permission to film in the hospital with the patients and judges in Lyon, a total of 72 hearings with 10 cases on camera.  According to Depardon there are 250 cases a day, and 92,000 a year that are remanded to the liberty judges (see photo above).

The style of 12 Days is cinema verité, or direct cinema ,with no intrusion by the filmmaker, no questions asked those who are filmed.  The intention of the filmmaker was to film the patient and judge from two separate cameras, with a third in wide angle. This decision was made to remain impartial to the proceedings. Depardon has succeeded in this regard. The judges seem very capable, and the individuals are clear about defending themselves in the procedure. What seems to be at stake, therefore, is the law, not the judges or the individuals. The individuals who speak on their own behalf are questioned by the judges about their behavior that brought them to the hospital. In every case, the judge decides to keep the individual for an additional period. Every person says they will appeal the decision or has their counsel speak on their behalf about an appeal. The 10 cases are amazingly similar.  While it is clear that it is left up to the spectator to evaluate these proceedings, there is no analysis of the law, just the effect of the law. The result is a sober portrait of people caught in the wheels of legal machinery.

Thierry Frémaux, Raymond Depardon et Claudine Nourgaret , Cannes 25 May, 2017. ©Moira Sullivan

Following the premiere of the film, the filmmakers were given a lengthy standing ovation at Salle du Soixantième at Cannes. Several of Depardon and Nourgaret’s films have been screened at Cannes in the sections Un Certain Regard, or Cannes Classics. They are welcome guests to the festival and were presented  to the audience by the director of the Cannes Festival, Thierry Frémaux. All in all, Depardon has made 25 feature films including a documentary made last year Les Habitants—(2016) with interviews with 5 – 10 couples who are inhabitants of 15 towns in France. The style is similar to 12 Days. Depardon and Nourgaret have a production company called Pameraie et désert.

©Moira Sullivan

FIPRESCI, Alliance of Women Film Journalists AWFJ 

May 25, 2017