Being There (Être là): FIDMarseille Review

"Being There"
French documentary on prison psychiatry takes an ambitiously liberated aesthetic approach that generally pays dividends.

Régis Sauder's French documentary goes behind prison walls to observe female psychiatrists at work.

MARSEILLE -- There have been many documentaries about the world's penal facilities over the years, but very few can have looked or sounded much like Régis Sauder's simultaneously slick and jagged Being There (Être là). Shot in austerely striking black and white high-definition video, the focus is here not on prison inmates - who, for reasons of confidentiality, are heard but not seen -- but rather on the female psychiatrists who treat them.

Sauder's stylized approach occasionally veers towards the mannered, but overall this is a solid and accessible example of non-fiction filmmaking whose experimental aspects won't imperil its general prospects. Festivals and upscale TV networks -- particularly those with an emphasis on women -- will want to check it out, and there's also the possibility of limited theatrical play in French-speaking countries.

Of the eight psychiatrists on view, f
irst among equals is thirtysomething Sophie Sirere, who throughout the film delivers to-camera monologues about her experiences, speaking in articulate, world-weary and occasionally philosophical/poetic style ("I wait for a civilized bandage to cover his screaming arm.") These punctuate footage shot at Sirere's main workplace, Marseille's Baumettes jail, where the overstretched psych unit welcomes patients from across the region.

We observe Sophie and her colleagues -- vivacious Aude Daniel enjoying nearly as much screen-time -- as they go about their professional activities: cameras remain fixed on their faces as they interview prisoners about their mental-health problems. Being There is thus a portrait of empathy in action, as the women's expressions, body-language and humor prove crucial in creating and maintaining bonds with their patients. This is in contrast to the more functional and downbeat relationships between the latter and their guards -- men, largely presented at floor-level as pairs of uniform boots.

Sauder (previously responsible for 2011's
Children of the Princess of Cleves) has a strong, unfussy compositional sense, and h'ss clearly fascinated by each of his subjects and how they deal with unusually high-pressure, high-stress environments week in week out. But whereas most directors would probably present such strong material in time-honored, detached and observational style, Sauder here deploys - in collaboration with editor Florent Mangeot -- all manner of visual and aural techniques to keep the viewer off-balance, including whip-pan camera-movements, sudden zooms and stark whiteouts. Gildas Etevenard's discordant soundtrack of sharp strings and staccato percussion amps up the atmosphere of tension and disorientation, occasionally to the extent of sounding like offcuts from a spine-tingling horror movie.

The overall package is, then, rather flashier than recent notable European examples of monochrome, digital 'artistic' documentary such as Peter Schreiner's
Totó (2009) or Maria Speth's 9 Lives (2019), and may strike some as excessive in its confrontational, herky-jerky aesthetic. But overall Sauder's approach does prove an effective showcase for us to understand these women's work, implicitly and eloquently supporting their belief in the necessity of prison psychiatric services in times of acute financial strain.

Venue: FIDMarseille Film Festival
Production companies: Shellac Sud
Director / Screenwriter: Régis Sauder
Producer: Thomas Ordonneau
Directors of photography: Régis Sauder, Jérôme Olivier
Music: Gildas Etevenard
Editor: Florent Mangeot
Sales Agent: Shellac Sud, Marseille
No rating, 95 minutes.