Guilty Except for Insanity Dir. Jan Haaken

[Portland State University; 2011]

Styles: socially conscious amateur documentary
Others: Crop Circles: Quest for Truth; Diamonds, Guns and Rice; The New Asylums

One of those documentaries you might see playing at some uber-liberal friend’s microcinema (i.e., their living room), Guilty Except for Insanity suffers not from glibness, which is usually the downfall of amateur docs, but from the inability of its director, Portland college professor Jan Haaken, to simply make a mental hospital interesting. It doesn’t seem like the most difficult task in the world; mental patients should always have at least a tangential fascination to the public, because they’ve seen and done things that led to their social distinction. But Haaken’s interest in the Oregon State Mental Hospital (located in the state capital, Salem), while apparently as genuine as the rest of her socially conscious filmography, is so scattershot a person can only conclude she is a college professor who, instead of teaching a course or writing a book on mental hospitals, thought she’d make a movie about them, then picked up a camera and started playing movie director.

The backbone of the movie’s structure is a series of clips from Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which made the hospital famous for being shot there. The clips — from a fictional movie set in the mid 1970s, mind you — are intended to parallel the footage Haaken has taken of the patients in the hospital today. It’s an ineffective framing device, mainly because Forman’s film was about a mental hospital choking the life out of its patients (and driving a sane man over the edge). The patients in Guilty are very plainly not victims of a backwards system, but real sick people in need of help. So, either Haaken set out to investigate the cultural legacy of Cuckoo’s Nest and got sidetracked with the patients at today’s hospital, or she has so little confidence in her footage she felt she needed to remind us every few minutes that something interesting once happened where she shot it. Either way (but probably the latter), the fictional mental patients of Cuckoo’s Nest, through no fault of their own, are an incessant wrench in the cogs of a movie that should be provoking empathy for an actual group of mental patients.

The title, Guilty Except for Insanity, refers to a plea option violent offenders can make at their criminal trials that will skirt them around hard prison time but, as the wording implies, is a direct admission of guilt. Which means instead of becoming inmates, the offenders — so long as a judge lets them off on the plea — become hospital patients, just ones with no ability to leave: prisoners in a system that goes a bit easier on its population than actual prison. Guilty tracks five of these people — whose crimes range from clubbing a coworker near to the death with a hammer (and denying remembering it) to murdering a husband — over a largely indeterminate amount of time. The fact that there’s no concrete sense of how long we’ve been watching the patients means there’s no real way to gauge how, or in fact whether, they’re actually changing.

Still, for minutes at a time, these patients get to occupy the screen, and in those minutes their stories seem compelling. More than that: their lives in the State Hospital, by their own admission and by the looks of the competent, forthright doctors who are interviewed, are improved. Haaken’s stated goal is the subtitle of her film: Maddening Journeys through an American Asylum. But when the patients admit they’re happy they wound up in the hospital, or at least happy not to be in prison, it’s worth questioning whether Haaken was actually listening to them or just planning which Cuckoo’s Nest clip to pair with which interview.

Maybe it’s unfair to judge a small, eager documentary like this too harshly. After all, it’s playing at one small (but magnificent) movie theater in Portland, OR. And it certainly isn’t the patients’ fault that the film fails to give a larger impression of their plight. They come across well enough for themselves, even in snippets. At least Haaken found compelling subjects to film, which suggests that if she stuck to her profession, and taught a class on them, I might consider taking it.

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