On the Adamant is a thoughtful, eye-opening documentary about one unique mental health centre that prioritises compassion, self-expression and interaction.
More than twenty years ago, French director Nicolas Philibert touched the world with his gentle exploration of teaching, learning and childhood in documentary Être et Avoir (To Be and To Have), that centred on one primary school in a small, isolated community in France. This time, in On the Adamant, Philibert’s lens is also on one little, seemingly closed-off, world, but now the focus is one unusual floating structure on the Seine, a day care centre for mental health patients, which is more of a community hub than a medical establishment. And, just like in Être et Avoir, the subjects of this new documentary want first and foremost to better themselves and their lives, as well to remove any possible prejudice associated with their environment.
Philibert begins his documentary as though we are explorers closing in on one uncharted territory. There are no preliminary texts or voice-overs to explain where we are or what we observe. There are just shots of one building seemingly afloat on the river Seine in Paris. We take in each frame as it comes, curious about this little floating world, eager to discover more. This is the Adamant, a day care centre for mental health patients.
The Seine shots quickly shift to the morning agenda meeting in the care centre, but, even before all that, we see day care visitor François who is passionately singing song “La bombe humaine” by band Téléphone. And, there is a telling line in this song: “If you let someone take charge of your fate/It’s the end, the end…”. Giving a mental health patient care, attention and control may just be the path to their recovery. To that end, Philibert’s previous documentary La Moindre des Choses (Every Little Thing) focused on La Borde, a mental health clinic where patients take part in running the facility and are encouraged to express their creativity. Similarly, the Adamant is also a centre designed to empower mental health patients, making them feel in control of both their well-being and treatment.
So, there is much goodwill felt in this documentary. By focusing on a number of people attending the centre and enabling them to tell their stories, the film tries to remove the stigma associated with mental health patients. The patients of the centre speak candidly about themselves and their hobbies. They appear ordinary people, perhaps slightly eccentric, and nearly all of them are creative souls eager to share their passion with others. There are Frédéric, who composes music and is inspired by Jim Morrison, Alexis, a young man interested in ancient history, and Catherine, an ex-dance teacher who is eager to run a dance workshop, among others.
The centre encourages visitors to participate in a wide range of activities, from painting and music-making, to sewing and cooking. It is art and music that nourish and heal the soul. The Adamant ensures that its patients are comfortable being who they are, and that they are also comfortable expressing their true selves and feelings. It is Dr. Lauren Fogel Mersy who said that “being able to be your true self is one of the strongest components of good mental health”.
The film does not quite manage to pull all of its interview vignettes into one single cohesive vision and it could have ended on a stronger note, but it is also easy to see why it emerged as the best film at the Berlin International Film Festival 2023. As in Être et Avoir, Philibert takes a gentle approach to filming his subject matter. There are no gratuitous camera movements, strange camera angles or a whirl of needless images to produce a certain effect or appeal to our alleged-in-this-digital-age shorter attention spans. There is no need for any other gimmicks here, either: the greatest interest already resides in the subject matter itself – the Adamant and the lives of the people attending it. Each frame speaks to us, be it a duck on the water or a sequence of people ordering their morning coffee, and because the camera is so genuinely curious, we become curious, too.
Any documentary of this kind may feel a tad exploitative regarding its subjects, but Philibert still manages to keep his work sensitive and grounded. It is endearing, without being sentimental, insightful without appearing judgemental. One shot may elicit a smile, another – a raised eyebrow, but, overall, there is nothing but warmth and sympathy felt for the people presented.
In the world where people with mental health issues are still being stigmatised, and compassionate residential care is forgotten in favour of rapid, impersonal and at times aggressive pharmacology, the Adamant feels like a safe haven, an oasis for the lost and confused in the midst of the hectic Paris. There, the visitors can feel at home, express their thoughts and feelings, and receive kindness and support they need. Equally, On the Adamant does a good deed by spotlighting a different a way of caring for people with mental health issues and, what is equally important, it does so by putting these people front and centre in this film.
On the Adamant will be released in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 3 November, 2023.