Film Review: Asylum
Asylum is a 1972 fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows the lives of the residents of the Archway Community in London, a commune-cum-squat with bizarre slogans painted on the walls, exposed masonry and not a hoover in sight.
The residents of Archway were people with schizophrenia and psychiatrists. It was a pioneering yet controversial approach to the treatment of mental illness, instigated by R.D. Laing and the Philadelphia Association, which rejected the use of anti-psychotic medication and put no barriers between patients and professionals.
Laing has been called 'the high priest of anti-psychiatry' due to his belief that schizophrenia was a rational response to intolerable experiences and that the garbled out-pouring of people experiencing psychosis could hold the key to the treatment of their schizophrenia.
(Laing was also called 'the acid-Marxist', as he advocated the use of LSD, though there are no signs of this at Archway or in Asylum.)
We witness these behaviours and out-pourings first-hand through the dominating David, the main focus of the film, which climaxes with a kind of intervention involving all the residents of Archway.
Asylum leaves the decision of whether Laing's methods are effective or appropriate to the viewer; we see the benefits of the residents helping each other and themselves, yet this is countered by the risks of such an open policy - sporadic (off-screen) violence and the temporary disappearance of one resident when an uncle comes to take her away.
Asylum remains a fascinating and intriguing insight into schizophrenia, Laing's methods and human interaction. I also found it interesting seeing how alien the past looks; the cars, the food packaging, the smoking and in particular Jamie's father, who was possibly an anachronism at the time, with his Queen's English, his pin-stripe suit and his you sees.
Asylum was released on DVD for the first time this month and if you're wondering why a 1972 documentary has been giving this treatment then the Glaswegian-born Laing is set to played by David Tennant in a biopic called Metanoia, which starts filming next year.
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