World Film: Dead When I Got Here

Country: Mexico

Director: Mark Aitken

Released: 2015

Dead When I Got Here

By Paul Rodger, Arts Editor


Marking the first European premier in the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Films Festival’s history was the screening of this year’s evocative documentary feature, Dead When I Got Here, at Flourish House community centre in Glasgow’s West End. Directed by Mark Aitken, this film delves deep into the world of severe mental illness, and highlights the unjust treatment and marginalisation of the mentally ill and vulnerable.

The plot centres on the refuge for the mentally incapacitated in Juárez, Mexico – run by its own patients, through an absence of external funding and support. The film follows the central figure of Josué, a rehabilitated former drug addict, and ex-patient of the asylum. Josué returns to the refuge in a managerial role, helping those still afflicted by mental illness. Through his experiences upon his return, the viewer is introduced to the dilapidated conditions and psychologically distressed patients who live within its squalid, prison-like walls. At the beginning of the film, Josué describes the near paralysed state he was in upon arriving. Having developed gangrene, Josué was left helplessly destitute on the mean, unforgiving streets of Juárez, the world’s most dangerous city – with over three thousand murders per year (mostly all of which unsolved). Having recovered, Aitken’s fly on the wall filming – with Josué alongside as an informed guide – reveals the day to day lives of the asylum’s residents, and the routines of those who help work it. From the unsettling accounts told of patients’ past experiences, to the troubling footage of patients in emotional despair and trauma, Aitken doesn’t relent in his raw, realist filmography; capturing the lives of those who have to endure their time in this institution.

Having lived in the asylum while filming, and after two trips, Aitken was asked by Josué if he could aid him in helping him track down his estranged daughter. Initially doubting the probability of achieving this, Aitken nevertheless agreed, and posted the trailer on YouTube. Soon after its public release, Aitken received correspondence from a woman in L.A., claiming that the man in the video was her father – having previously presumed he was dead. Upon at long last getting in contact with his daughter, whom he hadn’t seen in two decades, Josué arranges to meet up with her in the border city of Tijuana. After an emotional reunion, and discussing the childhood father-daughter experiences shared, and years missed through separation, Josué, taking it step by step, pledges to strive to rebuild the trust fractured, and rekindle the relationship lost through years of detachment.

Partaking in a Q&A session after the showing, Aitken shared some of his experiences and views from his time in Mexico. He commented: “I started out going to the mental asylum that I’d heard about with a film camera on my own. I think my first feelings were that of fear, but then I became quickly very humbled by those people. I think they set an example for us all”.

In a city ravaged by gang dominance and paramilitary violence, with acute police corruption and a dysfunctional local government, Juárez’s refuge provides a glimmer of humanity. Neverthelss reminding us of the improvements still to be made, even as the society outside the refuge falls to pieces, it’s touching and affirming to see people isolated and living on its very periphery, and often on the edge of life, upholding such depths of compassion and integrity.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0].appendChild(s);