Exclusive: Where the inmates really do run the asylum

In 2011 I set off with a camera to explore a mental asylum in Mexico run by its own patients. The place is just beyond the last junkyard on the curdled fringe of Juárez, the world’s most violent city. On one level these people shared common purpose in that they dressed each other, cleaned each other, fed each other. But then there were many other levels, many other worlds. The tragicomedy of Beckett was everywhere, I can’t go on, I’ll go on, while the infantile grotesqueness of Jarry’s Ubu Roi was never far away. The more I filmed, the less I understood and the more curious I became.


I met a man called Josué who was managing the asylum. Five years previously he’d lost his mind and the ability to walk but I found him in a reflective mood. He told me his dream. After two visits and many hours of material my editing was frustrated by a desire to present the mystery I’d encountered while needing a story to hang it on. Then Josué’s dream came true. His daughter in LA emailed me to ask what her father was doing in a mental asylum. She’d seen a trailer for the film I’d posted online. She hadn’t seen her father in 22 years and had been told he was dead. Two more visits and I managed to put Josué and his daughter together and filmed the reunion.


The film, titled Dead When I Got Here, is due to be finished later this year and we’ve launched a Kickstarter to help fund its completion.

Below is an exclusive excerpt from my diary during the last shoot at the asylum.


20th December 2012 - Thursday

I asked Josué how he was feeling. He’s had injections of some potent anti-biotic in his backside and he’s now back on his feet. I know I’m coming down with something and I think I know where I got it from. We talked about the weather and then he mentioned that someone had died last night. Apparently death visits in threes here and this is the third in six days.


The police are called and a group of county officers roll up as if from central casting. There’s a tall one, a short one, a fat one with attitude and a thoughtful one. They’re all tooled up with big black sub-machine guns and I’m waiting for them to tell me to stop filming. The only time they ever come here is when they want to dump some human detritus from the street or when someone dies. Death needs to be defined as suspicious or natural. Suspicious is where these guys come in. Where the natural causes lie here, God only knows.


Eventually, the fat officer wants to know why there’s a camera in his face. I explain with Josué backing me and all is well. They’re giving Josué a hard time about people dying here without having any professionals around to run the place. By professionals I assume they mean people like themselves. They work in a city that records eight murders a day and no one is ever arrested. In El Paso just across the line there was one murder last year. They caught the guy.


Josué lets on to the police that he was nearly dead when he arrived here and there’s no one quite as qualified as himself and everyone else here to run this asylum. People are dying because of the cold. They’re weak. They’re mentally ill. The police take their medicine and listen. It’s a beautiful scene.


We then rush off to find the family of the deceased man. None of their phone numbers worked but Josué eventually found an address. He’s very agitated. We pull off the main road, ask directions and arrive at the colonia and meet the mother. Josué shares the burden and the mother cries. She insists on being taken to the asylum to see her son. On the journey back the dossier on the son shivers on the vibrating dashboard. His photo is reflected in the windscreen as an apparition.


Back at the asylum the woman’s son has already been taken away to the morgue. He had lived here since it opened 17 years ago. I guess that made him some sort of mascot. She walks around the patio and then waits at the gate for a lift home. I film her weeping from some ancient well of hopelessness. She seems to get smaller as the shadows get longer around her.


With the knife-edge desert cold the patients hardly come out of their rooms. I film a scene where a door is opened to the main room inhabited by men. They’re passed bowls of soup and they all clamber at the entrance, grunting and growling and clawing at the food. It looks like they haven’t eaten for days yet I know they’re actually receiving seconds after lunch. I think it’s because they’re always worried that every meal might be their last. No matter how regular the servings, nothing will ever change that memory of hunger.


It’s a great single shot and John on sound was mesmerised. I shoot until the door is closed and locked on them. What I don’t see is the herd of dogs licking up spillage at the foot of the doorway. Shots like these are hypnotic and everything vanishes outside the myopia. How I put a shot like this in the film is another thing. I want to convey my encounter with what I saw and not attempt to explain it. It’s a vision of hunger and how it makes people behave. Or maybe it simply serves as a reminder of our almost indestructible instinct to survive. Yet I suspect it will offend many people who will be outraged at how these people are treated. I also know that they would all be dead if they weren’t in this asylum. There aren’t any other options. The people who will complain about this are telling us that they care. This feeds nothing but their own conscience. It’s as if caring is an end in itself. I think we have a lot to learn from these hungry people.

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  • #1

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