DEAD WHEN I GOT HERE || 2015, UK / Mexico / USA || Documentary || Directed by – Mark Aitken / Written by – Mark Aitken / Running time: 72 mins.
The principal theme of Dead When I Got Here is that marginalization and mental illness more often than not walk hand in hand. But despite the harshness of the setting shot by director Mark Aitken, a mental institution run by the patients themselves in an impoverished and particularly dangerous Mexican town, there is reason to see this feature documentary as uncomfortable, confrontational but also somewhat uplifting and inspiring message.
The film lacks the voice of an expert on its delicate topic, therefore echoing the ground breaking work of Frederick Wiseman in Titicut Follies. But it is still particularly driven by a man named Josué, who also provides narration in the film, and whose personal journey is central to the narrative arch of the documentary. He is a man who was once a patient himself, cast out by his community and left in the asylum, which is a similar story to all those who inhabit this building. His detailed description of those dark days is painful, but his words are also full of hope and warmth, especially powerful because they come straight from the source.
Dead When I Got Here is a polarizing film. Some might find the exaggerated use of music, and some of the intrusiveness of the cinematography, unsettling to the point of being exploitational. Indeed some of the stylistic choices are too much to handle, but it doesn’t seem to be a case of exploitation, rather more simply ill-advised, perhaps aiming to break the harshness of the unsettling nature of the film and representation of its subjects in a more cinematic way and highlighting the more inspiring sides of the story rather than follow an institutionalized agenda. At the end of the day, Aitken seems to pay tribute to the resilience and strong will of the patients themselves, who find a way to carry on despite being ignored by institutions. – 3/5