Like an Open Sky – a beautiful documentary by Marian Otero – is a fantastic testimony to children struggling with mental and social difficulties, and the adults who try to understand them.
Film maker Mariana Otero wanted to make a documentary about madness, and spent a long time visiting institutions looking for a place to film in. She wanted to find an institution which treated children as subjects, not as objects. Eventually she found one – Le Courtil, on the border of France and Belgium. The film focuses on a small group in one part of the institute. However, the institution is in fact very much larger – it was set up 30 years ago, and has enjoyed a steady growth and welcomes many children who come to it, even, from France. This makes the institution rather popular with the Belgium government, as they see that their investment in the work acts as an ‘export’!
The director spent about a year at the institution before she even strapped on her camera, and you can see how this has helped both staff and children to be at ease in front of the camera. It is clear that some of the children really welcome her and make use of her as part of their experience at the institution. In fact, this becomes the subject of one of the staff meetings that we watch, which discusses the way that one of the children (Alyson) makes use of the gaze of the camera to ‘not fall down in front of’.
Mariana follows the children into the music workshops, the ‘pretend’ workshop, she watches as they cook in the kitchen, or dig and plant in the garden, she accompanies them on a trip to the shops, and into the intimacy of their rooms, and she also follows the staff into their staff rooms and meetings and listens to them animatedly discussing their work via their theoretical ideas. On a night shift, the film-maker asks a worker to explain the difference between neurosis and psychosis, and as the mini-lecture unfolds, you hear him explain the way that the staff work and why they are careful not to make demands on these children.
The film is by turns funny, touching, fascinating and inspiring.
You can read more about the film here, buy a DVD here, read the book of interviews arising from the making of the film here, and watch the trailer here. Details of a community cinema screening on 14 March in London SE27 are here and on Facebook here.