Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Elle s'appelle Sabine

This was one of the most heartbreaking films I've ever watched: Sandrine Bonnaire's Her Name is Sabine, a documentary about Bonnaire's autistic sister. It reminded me very much of Werner Herzog's equally moving and equally unforgettable Land of Silence and Darkness (1971). Both films are about severly disabled people and their marginalization in society. In Herzog's film, we learn of Fini Straubinger who, after going blind and deaf as an adolescent, was confined to her bed for decades on the recommendation of doctors. (It is only later, after fighting for autonomy, that she becomes a fierce and humanitarian figurehead in the treatment of the deaf-blind). In Bonnaire's case, we learn of the way her misdiagnosed sister was strait-jacketed and basically drugged into submission when her family turned to the State for help. It was treatment that obviously exacerbated all the problems Sabine was already suffering from.

Her Name is Sabine tells this story in two ways, making it perhaps more of a protest film than Herzog's. On the one hand, we see Sabine as she is today: a depleted and deflated woman, atrophied both mentally and physically, who fixates only on whether or not she will be abandoned (throughout these present-day scenes, her only concern is whether or not her sister will come to see her again). At the same time, we watch a younger Sabine through home video footage, some of it strikingly beautiful in its candidness and simplicity. That is, we witness Sabine as she was in the past, before she was institutionalized: a pretty, free-spirited, and somewhat edgy girl. Autistic, yes, but also passionate about life and books and America.

As with Herzog's film, one senses the briefest element of exploitation lurking, distantly, in the background. Bonnaire does at times lingeringly frame Sabine as a drooling, hulking, wreck--as if to say 'look what they've done to my sister,' and perhaps rightly so. But, as with Herzog, these difficult scenes are nonetheless redeemed by a overwhelming tenderness and humanity.

Let me compare two scenes from both these films...

1. In Land of Silence and Darkness, there is a moment when Herzog fixes his camera on a deaf-blind boy with Downs Syndrome. It is difficult to watch, not only because of the lonely state this boy is in, but also because (I think) we are wary of gazing so voyeurisitically on someone who is not complicit in the filming, someone who indeed may even be suffering. Then the frame pulls back and we see that Fini Straubinger is sitting beside the boy and we watch as she makes the most humane and intimate gestures of communication. She gently embraces the boy, signing into his hand a phrase she repeats to the other deaf-blind people she visits throughout the film: 'I am like you.'

2. The penultimate sequence in Her Name is Sabine. Bonnaire asks her sister if she would like to watch a DVD of a trip they took together to New York, long before Sabine was given over to an asylum. It's footage we've already seen, earlier in the film, but now we are watching Sabine viewing the footage of the trip, for what seems to be the first time. Suddenly, she is watching herself as she used to be.

When Sabine begins sobbing, Bonnaire asks if she would rather the TV be switched off. Gasping through her tears, Sabine replies, no, 'I am crying with joy.'

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