Conversation with Edgar Hagen

«Unconditional Acceptance»

There's nothing in the least didactic about Someone Beside You: There's no voiceover commentary, when we learn the names of the protagonists, it's really more in passing, and there's no explanation of the institution Windhorse. Why?

I wasn't interested in narrating individual biographies, I wanted to tell a universal story about the existential dimension of being human. This dimension goes beyond religious creeds. The protagonists are people who are constantly torn between life and death. I wanted to shed light on different aspects of this condition, following the logic developed by Edward Podvoll.
All the issues and questions that come up are brought to life by the characters. One possible answer to these questions is provided by the work and thinking of Podvoll. He conducted a kind of life-long experiment in which he explored the mind. What am I? What happens when someone loses their mind? Podvoll looked into all these questions, using himself as his subject, and he covered a lot of ground. His quest, his vision is the main thread running through the film. The characters along the way show us individual aspects of psychotic states: losing oneself, the racing mind, endangering oneself and others – i.e., suicide attempts and violent behavior towards others – to name just a few. Always present, as a connecting element that holds everything together, is the question of what possibilities exist that enable people to come to grips with these states themselves. Thus everyone has a very specific function in the fabric of the film. Names no longer matter; the only thing that counts is authenticity.

The film is also somewhat unconventional in terms of structure: It evolves slowly around the topic, and all the pieces of the puzzle only come together at the end. In this respect, the montage is more reminiscent of an Atom Egoyan film than a documentary in the classic sense. What was the idea behind that?

Documentaries often limit themselves to showing an excerpt of a whole. What a feature film wants to do is quite different. A story well told is something universal, it transcends the personal. It aims to show something complete, something everyone can relate to. Documentaries are most powerful when they go for that, when they go "the whole hog," so to speak. But the universality that I was after is in itself a fictional element. You can only achieve that when you get very close. The closer you get to something or someone, the more universal the story becomes.
That's why I spent a long time getting to know the people I portrayed before I even started shooting – otherwise it wouldn't have been possible to make the film I did. I had to know exactly what I wanted from people. You can't afford to be unclear about what you want even for a minute – otherwise the situation can become very charged and is likely to explode .

Is it a coincidence that almost all the protagonists are "on the road" in mobile homes?

Losing one's mind is roaming, in a sense. You're not at home, you're swept away – and indeed, many psychotics "wake up" and find themselves in public space. One of the protagonists, Kaspar, describes that very vividly with his image of body, mind, and soul, with the soul holding it all together, and says how he had the feeling that his soul was driven out of his body when he was psychotic.
When you're under enormous pressure, you try to run from that and seek refuge somewhere else. Psychosis is ultimately a way of seeking a better life. In this context, the automobile is a visual metaphor for this search, while the helicopter flights represent stepping back from it all for a moment so you can get the big picture .

«Psychosis is ultimately a way of seeking a better life»

What is "your" topic as a filmmaker?

In this film it is crisis. I could hardly imagine a more riveting subject than people going through a major crisis and finding a way to pull themselves out of it again. That is one of the greatest moments of the human experience.
Before I started making Someone Beside You, I myself went through a situation where I was on the brink between life and death. When I had finished my last film, Time of the Titans, I went straight to the hospital for major heart surgery. The surgeon actually told me, "Go home, get your affairs in order, tie up the loose ends in your life; then I can work with you." So that's what I did – and it was very liberating.
The dimension of spiritual renewal has always interested me, but after that experience I wanted to go deeper into the issue and explore it some more. That's ultimately why I decided to play an active part in the film myself, rather than just being a detached observer .

Crises are often accompanied by anxieties...

During the preparations for the film, I initially was very anxious that something might happen to someone during the shoot. That's why the process of getting close to the various people was such a lengthy one. I would ask myself things like what I would do if somebody really did jump from a building, or what I'd do if someone went into a full-blown psychosis and started shooting people at random. At any given moment, anything was conceivable. But thanks to the many months I spent preparing, I was able to get over that, that fear of the state another person might fall into. Actually, it is precisely that fear that is the problem, because it deters us from communicating with certain people. In that sense, overcoming fear is a major issue, and in the film I deliberately carry it to extremes. Going with Karen into the hotel room where she jumped out the window – that was really going quite far. We had discussed it a zillion times beforehand and gone through all the eventualities of what might happen. Karen struggled with herself for a long time, but in the end she decided to do it. I'm very grateful to her for being so brave, because she brings the fact that recovery really is possible alive to ust.

You actually embarked on a similar journey in one of your earlier films when you accompanied Dorothea Buck when she returned to the "place of madness." In that sequence she says that everyone has to decide for themselves how to deal with their own "place of madness" and whether they can handle returning there or not...

I had also known Dorothea Buck for a very long time before making the film portrait of her. If it hadn't been for her, I never would have made Someone Beside You. It was through her that I realized what it means to get caught in the machinery of institutionalized psychiatry. It was also thanks to her that I came to understand what it means to experience psychosis and the stigmatization and ostracism that go along with it – which are only a symptom of a collective state of denial, of our unwillingness to face the fact that any one of us can be thrown into a situation of major crisis at any time. You lose your job, a long relationship unexpectedly comes to an end, a child dies… and suddenly even the most rational, stable person can land in the locked ward of a mental hospital. When that happens, the people close to that person are usually utterly stunned – and once the crisis has passed, they block the whole thing out completely.
Dorothea Buck pondered the issue of collective denial for many years. That opened a door for me onto the question: What actually happens to someone who loses his mind? That, in turn, led me to the next question: Is it possible to make a film with people who are in a state of acute psychosis?

«The stigmatization is a symptom of denial that any one of us can be thrown into a situation of major crisis at any time»

How did you find out about Edward Podvoll's work?

From a psychiatrist in Zurich named Jakob Litschig. I met him at a screening of the film about Dorothea Buck. By that time I had sort of tucked the question of what happens to someone whose mind goes over the edge into a corner somewhere in the back of my brain. But when I met Jakob, I sensed immediately that he was the right person to help me realize my project. He's not afraid of the confrontation with people who have experienced psychosis; he establishes a connection with them right away and is unafraid to face the issue. He was the one who acquainted me with Podvoll's approach and the logic behind it.
At the time Podvoll was still in a Buddhist monastery, in a retreat that had been going on for twelve years. Terminally ill, he left the monastery late in the year 2002 – to seek treatment in the hope of conquering his illness, but ultimately to die. As it turned out, he died only a year after he came out of retreat. The keen awareness that time was running out lent a special sense of urgency to our work. Our first meeting took place three months before his death, and the last footage was filmed a mere two weeks before he succumbed to his illness.
Due to the special situation, I decided to approach the story from two different angles. The European part of the film is more about looking at the problem, while the American part is more about trying to show possible ways out of it.

One scene in the film demonstrates is quite impressive, in which Podvoll and his former disciple Eric Chapin are talking to a group of students. Chapin tells them about how he was making lentil soup with a patient who was drifting into a state of what Chapin calls "metaphysical implosion" – and whose racing mind is brought back "down to earth" by the smell of the lentils cooking. One of the students doesn't quite grasp the practical aspect of the situation and asks hesitantly how one would go about incorporating lentil soup in a therapy session – thus comically underlining the clash of the psychoanalytic understanding of therapist and patient with a radically different concept. Thinking the scene through to its logical consequence would mean the end of psychoanalysis...

Edward Podvoll was both a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst in the tradition of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann – on whom Joanne Greenberg based the character of the doctor in her book I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Fromm-Reichmann treated psychoses and schizophrenia with the methods of psychoanalysis. Podvoll went through this school and practiced this route successfully, but his encounter with Buddhism led him to go in a completely different direction in his work. He ceased searching for causes. In the film, the Buddhist monk Lama Lhundrup explains the differences by saying that a psychiatrist treats the symptoms, an analyst tries to determine the causes, and the practitioner of Dharma seeks the healthy qualities and tries to tap the potential buried by suffering.
This approach is also therapeutic, but in practice it might be expressed in the therapist's cleaning the patient's apartment, for example. This vision is actually a paradigm shift, entailing the dissolution of the hierarchical structure of the therapist-client relationship .

«The vision is the dissolution of the hierarchical structure of the therapist-client relationship»

How did Windhorse originate, and in what way is it special?

Windhorse is one possible model for treating extreme states of mind; it isn't very well-known yet. There are only a few centers. Two of these are in the U.S., one is in Vienna, and one is currently being established in Germany. The model in Zurich is more a pragmatic adaptation of the Windhorse approach.
A central pillar of its approach to treatment is meditation, and therapists undergo extensive training in meditation practices. For Windhorse practitioners, exploring the depths of their own mind – or, in other words, retreat – is what training analysis is for psychoanalysts. It's about being comfortable with yourself and learning to bear solitude – in other words, a kind of self-awareness that results from certain physical practices and that has a long tradition in Buddhism.
It has nothing in the least to do with idealizing Buddhism. Podvoll recognized that he wouldn't have been able to try something radically new within the system of institutionalized psychiatry. In Buddhism he found an established context in which he could realize his vision. It was Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan master of Buddhism and founder of the Naropa Institute (later Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado, who taught Podvoll about Buddhism and encouraged him to take that road. At the time, Naropa was a gathering place for intellectuals interested in Eastern philosophy, and Chögyam Trungpa, whose books have since been translated into numerous languages, asked Podvoll to establish the department of psychiatry at Naropa University in the 1970's. It was along with some of his students from Naropa University that Podvoll later founded Windhorse, which found a receptive environment in Boulder. It was in this context that Podvoll encountered the clients that enabled him to develop his approach: Wealthy families seeking more humane treatment options for their children supported his work. Meanwhile Windhorse is firmly established in Colorado and New England, and the outpatient services of conventional psychiatric institutions regularly refer some of their patients there .

«How do you resist the seduction of madness?»

How is the Buddhist philosophy of devotion and humility reflected in the treatment of psychotic patients?

All the psychiatrists I spoke to in the course of my research advised me not to allow myself to be drawn into discussions with psychotics dealing with the content of their delusional thoughts. When the mind is under pressure it begins to race – one thought, two thoughts, a thousand. The process is so swift that it pulls the rug out from under the patients, and if you're inexperienced and not trained in dealing with that, it can pull you down, too.
The Buddhist approach believes that it is possible to connect with people without being drawn into the specific content of their thoughts. It's a matter of responding to someone as a complete human being without following them in every detail. Or, to put it in different terms, how do you resist what Podvoll called "the seduction of madness"? It's about accepting someone completely without being sucked into every into twist and turn taken by a racing mind.
The remedy to this dilemma offered by Podvoll and Windhorse includes things like going for walks and cooking together or cleaning up the patient's apartment. The disorder of a messy apartment can be enough to trigger psychotic thought processes. It's really about very mundane, everyday things, about helping people become grounded .

The interview with Edgar Hagen was conducted by the film journalist Franziska K. Trefzer