Les États généraux du film documentaire 2015 From Stage to Set, Therapy in Documentary Cinema

From Stage to Set, Therapy in Documentary Cinema


Risking the “Space Between”

A documentary workshop on the theme “therapy and cinema” is from the start taking something of a risk.
Film, the camera, microphones, framing, reverse angle shots, all this has no place a priori in the secret, indeed intimate, cubbyholes of therapy, the sacred spaces of psychic labour spun from language and which never reveal themselves to the outsider.
Just a quick reminder that Freud invented psychoanalysis by making a break with the tyranny of the visual as it was practiced by Charcot in his treatment of hysteria: transformed into theatre, staged during the famous Tuesday lessons at the Salpêtrière hospital and treated with a suggestive therapy, hypnosis. From the beginning, Freud tried to work with the off-screen of the conscience, using words rather than vision, the attentively listened to speech of the subject rather than its spectacular staging.
No image hence in this space of the psyche and yet it is clearly here where certain filmmakers have decided to shoot, each one in a particular way, to try to show, to throw light on, the symptom, giving it sufficient contrast to allow it to exist, without judgement, deciding in advance neither where it should go nor what it should say.
That supposes accepting to film without prior knowledge. This practice, not necessarily foreign to the very principles of documentary, implies tensions at the heart of which the improbable has every right to appear. Nicolas Philibert put the practice this way: “foresee the unforeseeable”; in other words, the director has the obligation to think the frame in such a way that it can accept, indeed provoke, unforeseeable events. It is a risky choice for the filmmaker is forced to let go of some of their filmmaking know-how in order to be able to record the other in their symptom, their violence or passivity. It is an approach which supposes that the filmmaker will avoid over-reacting to tensions in front of the lens so as not to rigidify the frame but, on the contrary, leave plenty of space for the present of the shoot.
Accepting to approach the other in their suffering without turning them into an image means first and above all retaining the capacity to be astonished. This is a quality shared by all the filmmakers in this workshop who, each in their own way, allowed themselves to be surprised so that we, in turn, might be surprised; allowing us to question ourselves, making us see that things are happening “off screen” in that space which resembles so curiously the “site of the unconscious”. Does that mean that the films projected allow us to see and hear the unconscious? It is quite possible, knowing that they are situated at the crossroads of the unconscious of those being filmed (therapist and patient), the filmmaker’s unconscious but also those of the spectators. Conjugated unconsciouses with no one knowing much about them.
It is doubtlessly necessary to trust oneself and to trust one’s approach to venture into this work where, most of the time, it should be noted, filmmakers hold their own cameras. Are they attached to the camera or does the camera have a grip on them? A question we could ask Laurent Bécue-Renard like Jean-Louis Comolli, Mariana Otero or Stefan Mihalachi, for in each of their documentaries, they themselves film and carve out a “zone” of shooting, of which we can ask whether it covers the space of the therapeutic relation, exceeds it or restricts it.
Whether we look at War-Wearied, released in 2003, accompanying the painful reconstruction of women in the aftermath of the Bosnian war, Of Men and War which came out ten years later and follows the experience of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, men “at war with themselves”, the testimony of Mariana Otero in À ciel ouvert released in 2014 and which, through the prism of psychosis opens up other perspectives on other ways of appropriating reality; the immersion carried out by Jean-Louis Comolli in Chemins d’enfance, or that of Chistine François with Mina ne veut plus jouer made in 2000, where she points the camera at the depths of a psychodrama making visible the unspeakable conflict of anorexia, or the very particular work of Stefan Mihalachi (Cabane ou Les malheurs de Marie presented as a work in progress) and in which psychosis develops its arguments and defends its logic; or again that of Daniel Karlin, working as a maverick and leaning on the open pedopsychiatric practice of Tony Lainé: all these experiences, each in their own way, film the tenuous silhouette of the unconcscious. It is so tenuous that each time we think we’ve caught hold of it, it disappears. Yet, in different guises, it is surely the unconscious that bursts out, pierces the screen, as much in the gestures as in the intonations of people to express what cannot be said in words, to appear before disappearing.
Perhaps it is here we find the incredible wager of these films which offer to audiences capable of surprise an access to the mystery of transfer. A mystery embodied in the form of a cinematic work. Now above all, transfer takes place in the space between two individuals. The space between the subject and the therapist and, here, on the screens of the festival, the space between the filmmaker and the spectator. An invisible, elusive space which ceaselessly captivates us in order to more deeply surprise us, communicating, when “the words to express” become finally audible, “therapy as a scene of pure creation or the invention as it happens of an individual or collective narrative” (Laurent Bécue-Renard).
This workshop is hence an adventure on the path of what Lacan, and after him Tisseron, called the extimate, that space between one’s interior and exterior. If in this case we’re adopting the vocabulary of psychoanalysis, one might wonder how you could formulate the idea in terms of cinema. What role does cinema play in this space between? The camera, the filmmaker-camera, do they, in this space between, play the role of a third party? An excluded, absolute, unidentifiable third party? A third party who, during the length of a projection, makes the function of transfer visible? John Huston, in his pioneering film Let There Be Light, declared as early as 1945: “As they became cured, the patients accepted the camera as part of the treatment. Doctors even remarked that it seemed to stimulate them.” And Mariana Otero continued almost sixty years later: “Right from the start of the shoot, my place was considered as someone who could contribute to the work, as a possible element of intervention for the children. […] I was going to be a care giver among others, a care giver with a camera.”
Holding this position of the third party: the place of veiled eyes, a new way of seeing, rid of all judgement, capable of accepting the unforeseen, of understanding the logic of the symptom with its inescapable repetitions, never succumbing to fascination but maintaining a correct distance. It is precisely when filmmakers place themselves at this just position that they can give the illusion of capturing the fleeting moment when the Real breaks through. This position is also in part that of the analyst, who positions himself between a third party and transfer.
So it will be necessary for us to look at these documentaries in three dimensions. The first is that of those who are filmed, the second that of those who film those who are filmed in a transferential dimension, and the third would be that of ourselves today, those who look at those who are filmed as they are captured by the one who is filming. This third dimension, like each of the preceding, brings the filmmaker’s perspective closer to that of the psychoanalyst’s, allowing us to see from a certain point of view the subject grappling with the psychic conflict that inhabits them.
Finally it will be necessary to question the institutional framework in which such experiences take place. It is never neutral. What were the motivations of the organisations that set up the women’s discussion groups after the Bosnian war? How did Mariana Otero manage the implicit expectations created by her presence over a nine-month period at the Courtil Medico-Pedagogical Institute? Is there an unconscious in the institutional setting? What role does the filmmaker play in its possible transformation (cf. the psychiatrist-filmmaker pair Karlin-Lainé)?
Unveiling the real, allowing the psychic conflict under way to be seen, filming the way it is managed within an institution, these are as many processes which tell us about society’s capacity to accept itself. The films we will screen find themselves on the front line of a conflict and a questioning: what place is there for the art of documentary in our society? Is it so far from the state of psychoanalysis today? Is their impact in conflict with other stakes of society? Government policies? Television company policies? What repressed part of society is expressed in the risk of the “space between” that therapists and documentary filmmakers continue to take?

Michèle Valentin and Laurent Roth


Workshop schedule

The films presented in the following pages will be used to develop these considerations further, together with long excerpts from:
Winter Soldier by the Winterfilm collective (1972) – Monday afternoon,
À ciel ouvert by Mariana Otero (2013) – Tuesday morning,
Chemins d’enfance by Jean-Louis Comolli (2012) – Tuesday morning.
A video of rushes from the work in progress Cabane ou les malheurs de Marie will be presented by its two directors Marie Depussé and Stefan Mihalachi on Tuesday afternoon.


Workshop led by Laurent Roth (film critic and filmmaker).
In the presence of Laurent Bécue-Renard (filmmaker), Marie Depussé (psychoanalyst), Stefan Mihalachi (filmmaker) and Michèle Valentin (psychoanalyst).