Winner of the Jury Prize at last night's International Film Awards ceremony, Dead When I Got Here is an unflinching account of life inside a mental asylum run by its own patients, situated in the barren, windswept desert surrounding Ciudad Juárez, then the murder capital of the world. But despite being filmed in this harsh environment, Mark Aitken’s remarkable documentary is far from being without hope. From within the asylum’s crumbing walls, he draws out a tale of compassion, empathy and redemption, emphasising the dignity and humanity of the people who live there, even when society has given them up for dead.
Speaking ahead of the film's European premiere at Flourish House earlier this month, Aitken admits that is was at first ‘a challenge’ to focus on the positive aspects of life in the asylum. ‘When I went there, one of my first responses was fear…I had been told that there were a lot of murderers in this place, a lot of people who had blown out their minds through drug abuse and a lot of people in different states of trauma. So I felt quite vulnerable.’ However, committed to living and filming there for an initial two weeks, he quickly needed to overcome that trepidation, and found the strength to do so in the way that the people were ‘helping each other’ survive and striving to make the best of their ‘chaotic situation’.
The conditions they live in are often troubling – patients are confined to cages, provisions are limited, petty violence is common and there is little in the way of professional medical treatment – but it is clear from the outset that the asylum does serve as a kind of sanctuary. The support it offers is crude and instinctive, but at the same time vital and humanitarian. ‘There was originally a subtitle for the film,’ says Aitken, ‘Asylum from the Madness’, which he now uses as the title for a book he has written about his experiences there. ‘The real madness is outside, in the city, which is an extremely violent place.
Located near the border between Mexico and Texas, Ciudad Juárez is a city of barely 1.5 million people. Yet, in 2010, there were over 3,000 murders, on average more than 8 each day. Since then, those figures have fallen rapidly and life has begun to return to relative normality, but the murder rate remains extremely high. Today there are roughly as many violent deaths in Juárez as there are in the UK as a whole. ‘Nearly everybody, including children,’ explains Aitken, ‘has seen somebody murdered in front of them or has seen a body on the street. There’s an element of psychological trauma that’s shared by everybody.’ Or, as Josué, the film’s enigmatic protagonist puts it: ‘Madness is the production of the city.’
The contrast between the madness of the outside world and the relative sanity of the asylum is one of the most intriguing aspects of Aitken’s film. It is shown most starkly when the camera follows Josué on a rare venture into the city, capturing vast neighbourhoods of derelict abandoned houses, now used as shelters and hiding places for drug addicts and people on the run from gangs or the police. Those who enter the asylum invariably come from these lawless streets, where they have experienced rape, extreme violence, addiction and ‘quite unimaginable trauma’.
Josué is familiar with these houses because he used to slum there as an addict himself. ‘This is the exact spot where I slept,’ he explains, almost nostalgically, standing on a pile of rubble between four collapsing walls. It was only after gangrene started consuming his hand and he lost all ability to function that he was able to break free from this world, taken first to the desert and left to die, then found and brought to the asylum.
‘I was just like a piece of wood,’ he says, referring to the days following his arrival. At that time, he had to wear diapers and used to lie in the same spot day in day out, unable to move. He attributes his rebirth to the compassion and care shown to him by the other patients. Throughout the film, we see him as one of a core group of ex-patients who run the asylum, treating people with the same care and kindness that they gave him, while Aitken reveals in the interview that Josué is now ‘in training to get official accreditation as a mental health nurse’.The film reveals few specific details about his past, making it impossible to tell the extent to which he can truly be redeemed, but it is clear that he is now a new man.
The director focuses on Josué’s story partly for practical reasons – ‘he spoke better English than I did Spanish’ – but he also needed to find a way to tie his footage together in a way that would resonate with audiences. ‘I was very concerned about issues of exploitation and voyeurism, offering up these people as specimens to be examined. And then I met Josué and he was so articulate and so reflective. He is a poet – in another life, he would be a poet – and an actor…I realised I needed a guide for the place and he was going to be it.’
Late in the film, Josué’s story takes an unexpected twist, as he is reunited with his estranged daughter with a little help from the filmmakers and the internet. ‘His past life story was catapulted into the present,’ says Aitken, giving him an obvious narrative structure around which he could base his film. Even so, it has been a difficult journey from completing the film until now, with distribution proving ‘much, much harder’ than he imagined.
‘I wrongly assumed that people would be as fascinated with this place…and as humbled by these people as I was,’ he says. ‘And I’ve been wrong. I think the indifference has a lot to do with the encroaching market forces that seem to dominate everything. It it’s not a tried and tested formula, they shy away from it. Here, we have a film about destitute people who are sorting out their own lives without any help from outside. And it’s humbling to experience it and very uplifting.
Winning the top prize at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival therefore means a lot to him. ‘It’s great for the film’s sake because it gives it recognition. It enables people here to see it and hopefully more people to see it in the future.’ When asked what audiences can take from the film, Aitken is clear to emphasise what everybody can learn from the patients in the asylum about ‘empathy and compassion’. ‘If the audience comes away appreciating what a powerful tool empathy can be, then I think the film has achieved something…If you are more empathetic to people in your life in general, then it’s going to make you a better person. The world will be a better place.’
Written by Rob Dickie