‘Titicut Follies’: A Controversial Journey into the History of Psychiatry

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Before anything else, I think it is important to take a look at the context in which this film was made.

In 1967, film maker Frederick Wiseman reveals the unacceptable conditions to which inmates at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts are being subjected. Having been filmed in the ’60s (1966, to be more precise), it marked a significant moment in the history of psychiatry: the Anti-Psychiatry movement.

This movement concerned stopping commonly used methods of psychiatric treatment, considering that the consequences of using such methods imply an unequal power relationship between doctor and patient and a highly subjective diagnostic process. Some examples of these methods include insulin shock therapy, electro-convulsive therapy and brain lobotomy. These methods were seen as invasive, dominating and repressive and were taken severe action against in the 1960s.

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There is a fine line between sanity and insanity that Wiseman explored plenty in ‘Titicut Follies’. Not all the patients thought they should be there, and surprisingly, the most coherent and eloquent ones were the ones refusing their treatment situation. We are in the company of the cameraman’s perspective, but without a narrator. We are never being told who is right, who is wrong, and who does what and why. However, it is obvious that the main point was made – the conditions under which patients were kept were not decent at all. They experience a loss of dignity and sense of self, not to mention the feeling one might get, as a viewer, that the hospital was similar to a bubble – not a protecting one, but definitely an isolating, cold and lonely place to be in.

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Privacy is missing at that state hospital, but there is loneliness. At some point, one man is being shaved twice – while alive, and while dead, with barely any difference on screen, as if it were the same thing. Isn’t it almost the same thing? How much can they really live inside that facility, and how capable is it of curing, or at least helping them? Their living and treatment conditions were traumatizing. Strikingly contrasting with this, they are being engaged in artistic activities. The title of the film was chosen after the name of a talent show performed by the inmates: ‘Titicut Follies’.

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There doesn’t seem to be much commitment from the staff either. Their attitude is sometimes ironic, always cold and distant, without empathy, even though they theoretically are doing their job just fine. Patients, however, lack moral support completely.

What caught my attention while reading about ‘Titicut Follies’ was that its attempt of censorship by the Massachusetts state government would mark  the first known instance in the history of the American film industry that a film was prohibited from general distribution for reasons other than obscenity, immorality or national security. The claimed motive behind this was that, apparently the film was infringing upon the patients dignity and privacy – which is pretty odd, considering they had been granted no dignity or privacy to begin with.

Wiseman declared that he had the authorization of all the people portrayed in the film or else their legal guardian’s (the superintendent of Bridgewater). He believed that the government of Massachusetts, concerned that the film portrayed a state institution in a bad light, intervened to protect its own reputation. The state initiated legal action after  Governor John Volpe received a letter from a citizen who expressed shock at a scene involving a naked man being taunted by a guard.

The first and only US television airing of the film was in 1992, and it aired on PBS.

‘Titicut Follies’ was groundbreaking from countless points of view for both the history of American cinema and the one of psychiatry. It is indeed very graphic considering that it was released in the 1960s. Revealing such a reality takes courage, and Wiseman did an impressive job. It is not a pleasant film, naturally, but it is not meant to be entertaining. It challenges all the human senses – touch, sight, sound, taste and smell. This is a film that absorbs you into its world, even against your own will.

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