With a tender and respectful gaze, Raymond Depardon’s documentary 12 Days sheds light on the relationship between the French state and the mentally ill. In the vein of Nuria Ibañez’s The Naked Room, Depardon’s camera sits still before a series of subtle spectacles, though his focus is specifically on the misery of involuntarily detained patients at a hospital in France. These patients sit next to a publicly appointed lawyer and face a judge, trying to make the case for their freedom. Throughout the film, judges read patients’ diagnoses, and watch—with a mixture of tenderness and respect that echoes that of the camera—as the mentally ill fail miserably at convincing the state that they are, actually, all right and don’t need in-patient care.
12 Days gives room for the faces of the mentally ill to expose their humanity and for “madness” to actually speak. The film, then, reveals the strange way in which mental illness can coincide with brazen lucidity. The patients are, for the most part, highly capable of confronting the state’s supposedly reasonable voice head on. And the state is prepared to listen. Some patients seem perfectly reasonable at first; others are visibly disturbed and admit to hearing voices, including those of “the electric chair.” But they all seem to enjoy, or appreciate, the opportunity to be heard and to be considered, even if only for talking’s sake. Each patient is aware that appealing to a judge’s decision to keep them in the hospital beyond the initial 12-day period that the law allows—sometimes for months or years—will never be granted.
Listening to the patients becomes a way of listening to “normal” people, too, as the state’s jargon-heavy language can at times seem more nonsensical than the supposed madness the state proposes to care for. Some patients also question the judges about certain words they use or misunderstand given the similarity of sounds (like “procedure,” or “hetero-aggressive behavior”), all of which tells us something about language more generally, and the nature of “madness” as a question of language, perspective and degree.
These seem like highly intelligent individuals except that their well articulated arguments for being freed abide by a different kind of logic—perhaps that of the dream, rife with ambivalence and contradiction. Such as the depressed woman who really wants to leave the hospital with the precise goal of throwing herself out of a window. Yet she begs the judge not to separate her from her animals, especially her cat. Another patient says he wants to leave the hospital to form a political party, but what he really wants may be what connects everyone in the room—lawyer, judge, and patient alike—as he asks the judge to call his father to prove that he isn’t alone.