When prisons appear on screen, they're often noisy places, all chatter, shouting, jangling, slamming. The prison in the popular imagination is a setting that bristles with aggressive energy. But 9999, filmed in Belgium's Merksplas prison, is an exceptionally quiet film. There is no music, speech is sparse and there are long shots in which nothing at all can be heard. It is also a very still film. The camera dwells at length on the prison's bleak exterior and its heavy doors; on a glimpse of bare trees outside, framed by bars; on a blank white wall, patterned with criss-cross shadows; on the blades of a fan, creeping round so slowly it is almost painful to watch.

There is no unifying narrative voice or interviewer's presence, and the only explanatory text comes at the beginning and end of the film. Five inmates are given space to speak of their lives, not as clear stories but in stops and starts, scraps and fragments. The camera spends minutes at a time dwelling on them too, standing silently against a wall, sitting in a chair or smoking a cigarette, sometimes looking into the camera, sometimes avoiding the intensity of its gaze. They are men diagnosed with mental illnesses that, in Belgian law, mean they cannot be held responsible for their crimes. With a shortage of resources in psychiatric care, they are not treated for their conditions but separated from society and detained indefinitely.

We do not learn the nature of all of their crimes, but the two that are disclosed represent the extreme poles of what is evidently a wide spectrum of transgression, their actions incomparable in scale and severity. One man admits to murdering his father and his grandfather, motivated, he says, by the fear they were going to have him institutionalised: ‘That was in the days of shock treatment. Horrible things happened in there…To keep me out of there, I murdered two people. Because I wanted to keep my life, I lost my life.’ The other was interned on the recommendation of a psychiatrist after setting a bicycle on fire while intoxicated.

The atmosphere that hangs most tangibly over the place is one of aching tedium. It's a claustrophobic film to watch, and it's supposed to be; the structure and style feels designed to replicate, in a small and inadequate way, the sense of blankness and grinding repetition that governs life in Merksplas. We watch people pacing or sitting vacantly in tiny rooms. ‘PETA should come and look at this cage. This cage is too small for me,’ says one man. ‘I have a crawl space with a loo. Two steps and I've reached the door. Two steps and you're on the loo. Day in, day out. Year in, year out.’ The film's title alludes to the crushing weight of living such a life without the prospect of freedom. With no access to proper psychiatric treatment, the prisoners have no official release date: the forms, as one man tells the camera, record the date of release as 31/12/9999. ‘It marks my entire life, this internment. That's how they can cut you down.’ He has been there, he says, for eight years.

It isn't all relentlessly bleak: amongst the tedium and the despair are small moments of warmth and humanity. In the only piece of music in the film, the young man who was imprisoned for burning a bicycle plays the piano; it pierces through the silence as if to insist that, even here, in the place that one inmate describes as ‘the septic tank of Belgium’, little corners of beauty can still exist. In another scene, an inmate asks: ‘How can an ugly thing like a worm turn into a pretty butterfly?’ ‘That's nature. The beauty of nature.’ ‘Can we come out of here transformed?’ ‘Is it possible?’ ‘Anything is possible in healthcare. You have to discover the beauty in people.’

It's a tender image of hope. But possibility itself isn't enough: like anything in nature, transformation cannot occur without the conditions to nurture it. To leave Merksplas, the inmates must demonstrate their mental health has improved, but as one of them rightly observes: ‘It will never improve under these circumstances. Only get worse…My mental health has not improved in 20 years. You tell me: how can my mental health improve here, between four walls, a crawl space with a loo, without any psychological support?’

This is not just a Belgian problem: in a post-film discussion, a representative from Positive Prison? Positive Futures... explained that more than 70% of the UK prison population have a diagnosable mental illness, and they are not getting the help they need, while prison suicide rates are almost 15 times that of the general population. What it largely comes down to, of course, is money: proper psychiatric care is more expensive than imprisonment, and efficiency is winning out over empathy. It is not a simple problem to solve, but films like 9999, by giving us a glimpse into the conditions of lives without hope, can help give empathy a louder voice.


Written by Shona McCombes


9999 was screened in partnership with Document International Human Rights Film Festival. The SMHAFF film programme runs until Sun 1 Nov. Click here for upcoming events.