Documentary films are a strange breed. They hold a unique place in the cinematic ecosystem – hybrid creations falling somewhere between the cold, factual reality of the daily newscast and the creative, emotionally manipulative construct of the fiction film.
Their obvious efforts to deal with The Real World have audiences everywhere accepting them as accurate reflections of reality – a position of trust that fiction films can never truly hope to occupy. Given the trying circumstances in which many of them are made, they are rarely held to the same technical or artistic standards as their fictional counterparts, which allows sincere amateurs an ideal opportunity for marketing any number of worthwhile (and otherwise unviable) stories. And when done correctly, they are unsurpassed in their ability to impact an audience; nothing is harder hitting than a well-made documentary. It is a genre that completely eliminates the luxury of "disconnecting" from a subject that so often provides us with protection during our film-watching experiences. There are no viewers distancing themselves from the work through the protective mechanism of "purely coincidental similarities" here; the people and the stories being told about them are (at least mostly) real.
The French film Elle s'appelle Sabine (Her Name Is Sabine) is a perfect example of a director using the documentary form to its full potential. Winner of a FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Award last year at Cannes, it tells the story of Sabine Bonnaire, the autistic sister of famed French actress Sandrine Bonnaire. Sandrine, who developed, directed, and even shot the majority of the film herself, combines family videos from as long as 25 years before with current footage to paint a devastating portrait of her sister: a talented yet clearly troubled young woman whose mental condition went undiagnosed and untreated for many years, gradually allowing her to fall under the relentless influence of a debilitating disease. As Sabine grows progressively more unapproachable, profane, and even violent, her family struggles to cope with her ever-increasing medical needs. But after years spent caring for her in the relative comfort and safety of her own home, they are forced to admit that they are no longer equipped to do so, and must finally turn to institutional care.
After five dehumanizing years in a psychiatric hospital, Sabine is finally diagnosed as psycho-infantile with autistic behavior, and finds refuge in a specialized treatment center in the French countryside. There she begins the long, uncertain road to recovery, ably assisted by the center's extraordinary curators, whose heroic generosity and Christian self-sacrifice in caring for their "special needs" patients is one of the highlights of the film. In one particularly enlightening sequence, a resident endures a cluster of major seizures while returning from a supervised stroll. The caretaker who accompanied him on the walk displays the most extraordinary patience and genuine concern during the entire incident.
Unlike the Cuckoo's Nest-style horrors of such psych-ward documentaries as Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies and John Huston's Let There Be Light – interestingly, both banned for their unflattering portrayal of the American mental health community – Bonnaire's film never shows us footage from Sabine's actual institutionalization. Nor does she claim that her sister's condition is the result of abusive treatment at the hands of the psychiatric hospital's employees. In fact, the film openly wonders how much of Sabine's decline is the result of her (possibly) neglectful treatment while in the ward, how much of it is simply the natural consequence of her disease, and how much might be attributable to the death of her eldest brother and the inevitable breakup and diffusion of her family.
One heart-wrenching scene about halfway through the film underscores that last question most particularly, when Sandrine takes Sabine to her room in the treatment center to be interviewed. Such questions as "did you make that doll, Sabine?" (she did indeed, and it is beautifully made) and "who locked away your things?" (Sabine herself asked that they be removed so that she would not destroy them during one of her many unpredictable and violent outbursts) are constantly interrupted by Sabine's insistence on likewise being allowed to ask Sandrine some questions. After a half-hearted effort to keep her sister on topic, Sandrine agrees. But Sabine only has one question, which she asks over and over again, some 20 times: "Are you sure that you will visit me tomorrow?" The period of forced separation from the love and security offered by her sister and her family has obviously had a profound effect on her.
Sandrine Bonnaire herself is very clear when describing her intentions in making this film: ". . . to make other people aware of the handicap and get public authorities to take action. Why are there so few specialized centers in France?… . a hospital is a place of treatment, hence transition, and in no way a place to live. Spending five years there makes one crazy." And it would be wrong to overlook the force with which it brings that point home; one hopes that the public authorities are watching and listening. But in spite of the praiseworthy simplicity of this effort, there is a more subtle, a more powerful message to be found here.
The way in which Sabine's disease is so intimately linked to her perception of relationships provides us with an unparalleled opportunity for recognizing the inexplicable, essential role of human dignity in our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. When Sabine and her struggles are reduced to a problem that needs to be addressed and eliminated, or as a collection of symptoms that need to be treated, she withdraws into the protective shell of her disease. But when her humanity is recognized – when her sister or her caretakers deal with her as an individual, with a full measure of the strengths, weaknesses, talents, and foibles that accompany each one of us individual human beings – she flourishes.
In the film's finale, Sandrine shows her sister footage shot during their visit to the United States – a time of particular pleasure for Sabine, who was already beginning to display the tell-tale signs of her advancing disease.As the footage unfolds before her, Sabine weeps. Her sister, concerned that the emotions may be too much for her sister, hastens to turn it off, only to be assured by Sabine that they are "tears of joy." And as the memories of that visit draw to a close, Sabine flashes the shy, marvelous smile so often present in the images of her childhood and so sadly absent in her present existence. It is a breathtaking reminder that the original, the "real" Sabine is still there behind the mask, even if it's often difficult to see.
A powerful yet restrained work, the film is a message from one sister to another that their bond will always be remembered. It is a plea for greater compassion and sacrifice in dealing with those less fortunate than us. And above all, it is a reminder that science, despite its dramatic advances in both knowledge and technology, is worthless without a proper understanding of the dignity of the human person.