Aboard the Adamant with Nicolas Philibert

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By Sophie Monks Kaufman

Nicolas Philibert won Berlinale’s highest prize this year for his gently observational documentary about a psychiatric daycare centre, which runs from inside a boat called The Adamant moored on the banks of the Seine in central Paris. 

Art therapy is at the core of this humane institution that opened its floating doors in 2010. It’s a place where nurses and patients are indistinguishable within an atmosphere of creative discovery and delicate psychological probing. ‘People have gone in circles for thousands of years trying to pin down what can be deemed art, who’s allowed to do it and what determines its value. For all of us, you just know it when you see it,’ said jury president Kristen Stewart explaining why On The Adamant was awarded the Golden Bear.

I sat down for a long, deep and beautiful conversation with Philbert ahead of On The Adamant’s UK premiere at the London Film Festival in October. In the same way that the film gives a preview of a softer world, so too do the thoughts of its director.

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ONE CONNECTION BETWEEN ON THE ADAMANT AND YOUR PREVIOUS FILM EVERY LITTLE THING (1997) IS THAT CREATIVITY IS SHOWN TO BE OF HUGE PERSONAL AND COMMUNAL VALUE. WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE THAT MAKING AND WATCHING ART CAN DO FOR LONELINESS AND THE HUMAN SOUL?

We live in a very dark, violent world that's constantly subject to acts of barbarism and war. In the midst of this, all forms of art – whether it be music, dance, film, fine arts – allow us to not only survive, but to live and to thrive. That goes for you, me and everyone. Even if you're not an artist, as the audience member who goes to watch a film or a play or a dance show, it helps you deal with the darkness of the world.

PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY FRAGILE PEOPLE, CAN BE DEPERSONALISED BY THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD AND MAKING OR APPRECIATING ART IS A SPACE FOR A PERSONALITY TO COME BACK TO LIFE. IT'S INTERESTING BECAUSE BOTH YOU AS THE FILMMAKER, AND THEY AS THE PATIENTS, ARE MAKING ART TO SURVIVE. DID YOU HAVE THESE DISCUSSIONS WITH THEM ABOUT YOUR HOPES FOR THE FILM?

When shooting the film we had many discussions, always. As you could see on The Adamant they have a lot of workshops: music, film, radio, drawing and painting, sewing, etc. The idea is not to make artists out of them. These workshops are used as a tool. The issue with the people on the boat lies in their relationship with the rest of the world. The illness, so to speak, is within this link, so what this psychiatry tries to do is to repair that relationship, to help their link to the rest of the world. This can be done through the workshops, but the act of sharing a coffee with someone and speaking, this is how you rebuild those links.

CINEMA ALSO DOES THIS FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE ‘WELL’, IT MAKES A SPACE FOR US TO TALK ABOUT THINGS WE CAN'T OTHERWISE. SO WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE ART AND ART APPRECIATION OF THE PEOPLE IN THE ADAMANT AND THE ART OF PEOPLE WHO ARE CELEBRATED AND RECOGNISED AS ARTISTS?

I try not to erect barriers between artists and psychiatric patients. If there are barriers they are extremely porous. Both artists and patients are very sensitive people. It's a complex question as a lot of people are on the frontier of what we consider normal. I think we can say about some artists that they have made a success out of that folie.


Read the full article on the Curzon Journal here.