The Politics of Observation: Documentary Film and Radical Psychiatry

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The post-war counter-culture encouraged alternative ways of articulating the language of documentary film, contributing to a wider critique of social institutions and the complicity of the mass media in constructing perceptions of authority. In relation to the politics of madness, this era also gave rise to a heightened awareness of psychiatric institutions as sites of symbolic power rather than therapeutic care, informing a growing scepticism towards both traditionally assumed causes and categories of mental illness as well as the everyday concept of rationality itself. This article offers a comparative analysis of different observational filmmaking styles in relation to their respective portrayals of various methods, personalities, and institutions associated with forms of radical psychiatry. It explores the impact and legacy of these cultural developments on films such as: Warrendale (Allan King, 1967); Asylum (Peter Robinson, 1972); San Clemente (Raymond Depardon and Sophie Ristelhueber, 1980); and Every Little Thing/La Moindre des choses (Nicolas Philibert, 1996). Despite their cultural and formal differences, these films are similarly involved in negotiating not only problematic distinctions between observation and intrusion, fiction and documentary, but also constructions of madness and sanity.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1568791
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Aesthetics and Culture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 01 Feb 2019


  • Film and psychiatry
  • observational documentary
  • Warrendale (film)
  • R.D. Laing
  • Raymond Depardon
  • Nicholas Philibert
  • La Borde

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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