‘Quietness’ Director André Ristum on ‘Hospicio Colonia,’ Inspired by a True Story of Psychiatric Hospital Hell

Elisa is a young Brazilian woman living with her family, a situation that provokes the kind of conflicts between father and daughter that could be expected. When she defies her father’s wishes to marry the man her father has chosen for her and ends up pregnant by the man she truly loves, the family structure is destroyed. Her father commits her to a mental hospital where, along with her fellow “patients,” she suffers demeaning abuse.

It was part of a “mental health” system based largely on ignorance.

“The system of these psychiatric hospitals in Brazil,” explains “Hospicio Colonia” director Andre Ristum, began in the early 1900s, seeking to create a structure that could house psychiatric patients and that they were understood only as people in need of care, and not criminals.

He adds: “However, over a few years, the system was degraded, and became in many cases a place much worse than a jail, where people were sent with just a certificate from any doctor, and in many cases, forgotten inside there forever.”

While the film, indeed, documents the past, it is a fictional recreation of a personal story that evokes the base cruelty of the system and its devastating effect on the individuals it is supposed to treat. Ristum talked to Variety as the film screened in pix-in-post competition Guadalajara Construye.

It appears that there are various documents and other physical records and evidence regarding facilities in Brazil such as the one depicted in your film. What made you decide on a fictional rendition rather than a documentary?

All existing materials, such as photographic records, documentary made at the time, newspaper articles, books, served for our research and were a source of large inspiration. But when I came in contact with this story, the idea of fictionally recreating this story, although it was a great challenge, seemed to me that it would bring a new layer, in addition to the one that already existed and had been very well explored, and for this reason I opted for fictional recreation.

I just read that the story is also a TV series. Which came first: the idea for the film or the TV series? How did you make the transition from episodic to feature-length? What kind of questions of character development, etc., come up in that kind of transition?

The series and the film were born at the same time, a two-way project. My co-producer Rodrigo Castellar from TC Filmes and I saw from the beginning that there was potential in both formats. We thought about the script for the series and the movie in the best way to optimize the daily shoots, and we shot material for both projects at the same time, which has a strong intersection. In the series, we seek to explore Colonia’s universe in a broader way, while in the film we dedicate ourselves more deeply to Elisa’s story.

Do you have any idea how such a horrendous system grew in Brazil? Oddly enough, it’s happened in a lot of countries. The reasons behind the girl’s father sending her there was one of morality, it seems. And that morality stems from the Catholic Church. But you don’t point fingers. Did you make a conscious decision not to do that? 

The system of these psychiatric hospitals in Brazil began in the early 1900s, seeking to create a structure that could house psychiatric patients, and that they were understood only as people in need of care, and not criminals. However, over a few years, the system has been degraded, and has become in many cases a place much worse than a jail, where people were sent with just a certificate from any doctor, and in many cases, forgotten inside there forever. The film’s narrative is intended to show this patriarchal, conservative, sexist and racist society, which dealt with its unwanted in this way, for many decades. The church in Brazil has always been very conservative, and it certainly influenced the birth of these characteristics.

Is this film going to shock the Brazilian public? Did the TV series shock them? When I lived there, there was a TV series with a character that was deciding on an abortion or not. Before her decision was made, the screen went black and the show ended. Is TV in Brazil a major influence on social issues?

On its release, the series actually had a strong impact on public opinion, as it is a very sad and little-known story. The film, when will be released, will reach another audience, and the narrative cut will surely have a great impact, perhaps even greater than the series due to being even more focused on Elisa’s trajectory.

In Brazil, television still has an important social function, bringing current issues to the large population, through its series and soap operas. Brazil tends to hiding its dirt under the carpet, so it is essential to talk about these painful topics.

You’ve done a lot of work in different formats, i.e. short films, TV, features. Do you prefer one over the others? 

I like to tell stories through audiovisual, regardless of the format. The pleasure I have is getting into human issues, delving into them, regardless of whether the format is short, long or serial. And I believe that every one of them has their value, because in each cut that you choose, it is possible to explore a way to point out issues that are being portrayed.

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