Wang Bing's camera nearly becomes a prisoner alongside other Chinese in 'Til Madness Do Us Apart, a documentary with rare access to a mental hospital cum prison dedicated to an incredible spectrum of patients cum prisoners, ranging from those in genuine need of care to those picked up for brawling, committed by family members, or simply unknown miscreants found and locked away. With only two exceptions the nearly four hour film remains trapped along with the male prisoners in the top floor of the building, which has a square patio in its center and as such the single hallway, open to that center but barred, traces a shape around it which the patients—and the camera—wander, as there is nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. This lone, looped hallway opens only to spare, cramped bedrooms, one bathroom, and a single TV room; except for the TV to watch, all the activity the patients have available to them is to shuffle around, talk to one another, or, like Wang's camera, simply watch and follow their fellow man.
In this spare edifice with the color and texture of worn sandpaper the living conditions have a terrifying equalizing effect: nearly all patients/inmates look and act the same, and only truly erratic behavior suggests some might be mentally ill and others not, some very sad and others not, some very upset and others not. Treatment is limited and evaluation is not apparent, the doctors only occasionally hovering around the frame's edge. As such, the film is given to the sustained sense of resignation that permeates the punishing, monotonous limitations of the space (other floors can be seen, including one for women, as well as surrounding buildings outside the windows of the complex) and the passive demeanor of the inhabitants, who only rarely act out and seem to spend most of their time, day and night, trying to sleep. A lone revelation of the lower level feeding floor seems like a godsend, especially as the men are so constantly trying to obtain more and different food from their visitors, whose rare appearances and surprisingly lengthy stays likewise seem like mana from the heavens even to those who just get to spectate awkward or moving reunions. The sole chance for the camera to leave the complex—following a prisoner granted leave to go home to his parents' hovel—shows us an exterior world of options for these men as desolate and bleak in its openness as the hospital-prison is in its claustrophobic, false shelter.
I had the chance to sit down with the director at the Toronto International Film Festival and talk to him about his new documentary. Special thanks to Alexandria Fung for her excellent translation.
NOTEBOOK: I was wondering if you could talk about how you found this hospital.
WANG BING: It has been quite a few years in waiting. We've always tried to look for one. Almost no hospitals or institutions would want you to come in and film them, so it has been a long time. It was just a very accidental opportunity that I bumped into the subject matter. I was editing my film Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks that's about a section of Shenyang. I was almost finishing the editing Beijing. I was in a remote area...it was almost like an empty field with three buildings, so I went to check out what they were, and it turned out each building was full of people, and each floor, full of people. It turned out they were institutions. I wrote a script for a fictional feature after being in that institution, because I was allowed to go into it but not allowed to film, which is why I wanted to do a fictional feature. Actually I went to Cannes and was actually saying this was going to be my project. But for various reasons that didn't happen. I went back to that institution in 2009 and a lot of people I had met earlier had passed away; a lot of the people had been institutionalized for 20, 30 years. The actual, physical organization of that institution and the one I ended up filming was different, but the way they lived in each was actually very similar. Then, last year this opportunity came because a friend had talked to someone there and they said they were willing to support our idea, so this hospital is very willing to let us in and do what we want to do.
NOTEBOOK: What was it about the project that appealed to this particular institution?
WANG: The staff there, the doctors there, have a very—in a word—hopelessness, a helplessness in their attitude. It is their job to manage and facilitate the treatment of the patients and they have lots of difficulties doing that. At the same time, they also feel that the patients there, the people who are institutionalized there, have such a difficult life, so the doctors have such feelings both towards their work and the people. By being there, by doing the filming there, by spending time with the doctors and the staff members there, you realize that they are not treating the people badly, they are not bad to these people. But them as individuals, each doctor, each staff member, doesn't have any way to change how that these people are living there.
NOTEBOOK: My impression was—and I don't know if this was due to strictures laid out by the staff, or realities of the space, or your choices—that the doctors have a very minimal presence at the institution, they don't seem to do much.
WANG: I wasn't deliberating avoiding their presence. The doctors are present mostly at meal times—they have three meals a day—and they also have two medication times, and sometimes they'll have visits. But those are the times the doctors actually have a presence.
NOTEBOOK: It seems more like a prison in the sense of the doctors monitoring things than a hospital where they are treating people. There is very little “treatment” and no evaluations shown.
WANG: There's a little bit of that impression, there, but they are treating them. They are trying to treat them by medication. But as we all know, mental illness is very complex and the way treatments are nowadays are still very limited. The complexity of the illness and the rather limited ways to treat it do not make it likely to cure them. So, yes, the institution has a feeling that is sort of a “shelter” of some kind.
NOTEBOOK: I would imagine, since the range in types of patients is rather high and not everyone there has a mental illness, some are just troubled, that instead of treating them radically different as individuals with individual problems, it's easier to treat them all the same.
WANG: Yeah, they do not separate their patients. They do not manage and treat them differently. But I think it's because this particular institution doesn't have the ability to do it.
NOTEBOOK: Nor any available space...
WANG: Space, funding, various things. They have very limited everything.
NOTEBOOK: So are the administration of the hospital hoping the film will serve an activist purpose and draw attention to their own problems?
WANG: Of course there's that.
NOTEBOOK: Was the structure of the film, following around individual characters, an idea you started with, or developed from editing the footage?
WANG: That was a choice made early on during filming.
NOTEBOOK: I got the sense there was no private space in the hospital. Everyone's on view and has access to everyone. Eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom: nothing is private there.
WANG: That's right.
NOTEBOOK: Why was the film limited to the one floor, the top floor, the men's floor, I guess (the others being a women's floor and one other one I couldn't identify).
WANG: Because it's not easy to go to the second floor, the female section, as a male person, the access was difficult.
NOTEBOOK: The limitation was interesting because you could only stay on that top floor, the film never leaves that space, the camera almost feels like a member of the community. A combination of the length of the film, the camera's attitude, and the limitations of the space meant that it doesn't feel like the camera is following people around, but rather is, like everyone else, just watching people.
WANG: Yes, so you feel like you are one of them. You are in there.
NOTEBOOK: Was the camera and crew an invasive presence for the patients?
WANG: There was just two people, me and the photographer. Just the two of us, and sometimes just the one of us filming, so I might be in a different room and he would be filming, and I would tell him what to film. Sometimes it would be me filming and he would be resting somewhere. So that doesn't actually create a lot of presence, because it was so few people.
NOTEBOOK: Did you ever get the sense the patients were performing for the camera, showing off or acting up?
WANG: The first three days, yes. But then afterward there was none of it.
NOTEBOOK: What was your working process like, determining what to shoot? Would you sit in a room for a while waiting for something to happen, or would you wander around looking for things?
WANG: We were basically filming continuously, because of the time. We were on location for 72 days, and of those days we filmed during 60 of them. We had very limited access so once I was there I was filming continuously. Actually, of the 60 days, there were 15 days filmed outside. So actually inside the institution was about 45 days. So during that 45 days we did 250 hours of shooting, so we have that much footage. You can then calculate we filmed about 5 hours each day. We actually spent about 7 or 8 hours each day inside the institution. During that time most of our time was spent filming. In order to get 5+ hours of filming you basically have to be continuously filming during those 7 or 8 hours there. To me, each hour that I'm there is very precious. How I felt was that, okay we might have a very smooth process today, we got everything done, but we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, whether we're going to be allowed to do, so I was really trying to do as much as I could each day.
NOTEBOOK: I feel like the access is so rare, you would want to shoot everything, consume everything—maybe even without planning—and then find a shape for it later.
WANG: If you do that then you really would ruin the film! Because that would be a news report. To do a film you are supposed to portray a character, so you really have to get into the character. So even though the time of it was very limited, it just meant you have to get into the character that much more quickly.
NOTEBOOK: Do you mean the “character” of the film, or the characters, the people, in the film?
WANG: The characters of the people.
NOTEBOOK: I would assume you'd have to be thinking very fast, with such limited access. Did you do preparation work before shooting to get to know the people or did you have to discover their stories as you shot them?
WANG: We actually had to decide and learn for about a week at the beginning. After a week we've pretty much decided which characters we wanted to follow.
NOTEBOOK: Did you always want to include a section that left the hospital?
WANG: Yes. We followed four characters leaving the institution and chose to leave that one in.
NOTEBOOK: The hospital seems a genuine community, people are accepting and supportive of each other. There's not much patient fighting or self-imposed isolation.
WANG: There are some people, because of their mental state, or mental illness, that would not want to socialize, so at the beginning there were people standing alone in the corridor. So there are people like that. But most of them are not like that, most are acting like normal people in a normal Chinese culture, which is very much that they feel like they are in a group and have that group behavior and spirit.
NOTEBOOK: I was shocked at the end by the title card revealing the spectrum of inmates at the hospital, since I had assumed all that we were seeing were mentally unstable people. But that card reveals some are genuinely sick and some are genuinely healthy. In the film itself it's very hard to distinguish between those two kinds of patients.
WANG: Some people there are quite normal.
NOTEBOOK: I was also shocked, throughout, that some families apparently had to financially support this incarceration of family members. That they had to pay something like room and board, or hospital fees. That it wasn't a State supported.
WANG: That depends. If it was the family member who had tried to commit a person, then the family has to pay. But if it's some government institution or some government branch that put this person in there, then the Civil Administrative Bureau of the government would pay for it.
NOTEBOOK: In a line of dialogue from the family of the guy who was released they say something about him coming back after his allotted leave, that the family was having the hospital hold his spot for him, that despite how this hospital looks, access to it might be a luxury for some families.
WANG: There are other mental institutions in the area, and their conditions are similar. In any event, this particular person was not able to go back anyway.
NOTEBOOK: So the conditions we see here aren't unusual or specific to this particular hospital?
WANG: This is a pretty average condition. In China there are two types of hospitals: one is strictly a hospital, so there the focus is on treatment. That is a hospital-hospital. Then there is the other one, which is administrated by the Civil Administrative Bureau. That is also a treatment center, but is also has the ingredients of a shelter.
NOTEBOOK: Is the hospital-hospital also for mental health? Not an asylum but a regular hospital for treatment of mental illness.
WANG: The hospital-hospital, that is administrated by the Administrator of Public Health, are different. There are ones that are strictly mental health hospitals, and there are ones that are general hospitals with a mental health department.
NOTEBOOK: So why are these people in the one administered by the Civil department and not the Public Health department?
WANG: There is an “old system, new system” ingredient in it. The ones run by the Administrative Bureau, those are the older version. Then, later on, when there was more focus on mental illness, then hospitals had more mental illness departments and they would have wards for mental illness patients. So this one is more an older-earlier establishment.
NOTEBOOK: I was curious about the sexual activity portrayed in the film. Because of the lack of privacy there seems to be a level of tenderness and human contact, both heterosexual and homosexual, that verges on sex. I was wondering if that was very present around you.
WANG: Yes, because I'm not trying to avoid that. If it's there, I will shoot it.
NOTEBOOK: Were people were actually able to engage in sexual activity, or if they had to maintain a certain distance due to community scrutiny?
WANG: It's a very different environment there, so what is restricting us now, and what are behavioral norms, no longer apply. The boundaries are not there any more. So in terms of sexuality, that's actually quite normal. People no longer think of it as something to moralize. So they are really more thinking about need. Some people there, there will be two people who will sleep together and they will sleep together each and every night for many years.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see this place more as a prison or as a hospital?
WANG: That I can't say. I do think of it as a hospital. It's not a regular prison, but it is a place that is very restricted. Society still doesn't have a way to appropriately deal with these people.