True Stories: Forbidden Lie$ and Sabine

More4, the “grown-up channel” run by Channel 4 in the UK, is broadcasting Forbidden Lie$, about Honor Lost/Forbidden Love, the “novel” about honour killing in Jordan published as a book of fact, this coming Tuesday at 10pm, insha Allah, so you can set your videos if you’ll be at taraweeh then. More4 is only available on digital or cable, i.e. not on standard terrestrial, but you can also watch it over the Internet through their “catch up” system, if you’ve got access to Windows Media (why on earth can’t they use Flash, as BBC do for their streaming iPlayer?).

Before I get down to the business of reviewing last week’s True Story, I noticed that last night, BBC Three wasted two and a half hours on a repeat of a run-down of the hundred or so most annoying pop songs, for the umpteenth time. Did they really have nothing else to put out? I’m sure there will be some people concerned about how their licence fee is being spent on a channel which can afford to waste half the evening (it only starts broadcasting at 7pm) on one repeat?

Last week, in the same “True Stories” slot, More4 broadcast the French documentary Her Name is Sabine, directed by Sandrine Bonnaire, a famous actress whose sister Sabine is mentally impaired with autistic characteristics (the final diagnosis was “psycho-infantilism with autistic behaviours”, which explains the fact that she was very keen on people and didn’t mind being touched at all, while autism is well-known for producing the opposite characteristics). Sabine was very active until her mid-20s, speaking English, learning to play and even write music, and even riding a motorcycle, but after she witnessed her brother dying of a heart attack (and seeing her siblings move away and being isolated with her mother), she became violent towards her mother and started to destroy property. Eventually, she had to be admitted to hospital, and on the third such occasion she stayed for five years, during part of which her family were not allowed to visit her. She emerged drooling and incontinent, with most of her former faculties gone, because of the powerful medication she had been given.

The story is also told in writing here with some of the details missing from the film, such as the heart attack and the conditions of her incarceration, both of which lead me to wonder why they were missing, since they explain why Sabine is shown constantly asking for reassurance that her sister will be around later or next day, and give a fairer explanation of why she turned violent in her 20s. Surely, there was time in a film lasting nearly an hour and a half for these details? However, they don’t detract from the power of the film itself, in which footage of the lively “old Sabine” was interspersed with the Sabine of 2007, who has made some recovery from her time in the hospital (having had her medication halved, presumably gradually), but who is heavier (she was 30kg heavier on leaving hospital), sluggish in her movements and frequently distressed and occasionally aggressive. In trying to get details about her present life out of her (such as why she puts her possessions in a locked chest - because she is afraid of destroying them - and why she insists on being locked in her room at night), Sandrine Bonnaire constantly runs into demands to reassure her that she will still be there tomorrow.

One or two newspaper columnists have remarked on the loss of her beauty, and certainly the comparison between her appearance before her incarceration and now is stark. However, I noticed that her hair was not very well-kept; it wasn’t only very short, but it was rather matted and had no particular style. She wore make-up and had some input into what clothes she wore, but someone should really have suggested that they do something about her hair, even if they don’t grow it back to its old length. When I worked, briefly, driving severely mentally disabled adults around New Malden in 2005, I noticed that they were usually well-groomed, and it kept them looking like men and (especially) women, not like overgrown children in ill-matched clothes, which was the impression I had of Sabine’s appearance. Then again, they do have a very high staff-to-resident ratio and they seem well looked-after, so perhaps her appearance is her choice.

The fact of how this woman was kept in a mental hospital and drugged to make her docile is shocking, particularly since she was not a murderer but a mentally disabled person who had suffered a trauma, and particularly since this happened recently, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, not in the 40’s or 50’s when the country was recovering from a war and conditions were harsh for most people. Part of the problem is that there are few special units for such people, but even then, there is the issue of the “chemical cosh” effect of the drugs. One of Sabine’s fellow residents is a 30-year-old man with severe epilepsy and “cerebral motor infirmity” called Olivier, whose drugs put his mother out of action for several days when she took them by mistake; his movements were even more sluggish than Sabine’s, his speech was slurred, and he fell over persistently. The film has had the effect of making an issue of it in France, where it was not well-known until recently.

Anyway, you can watch the film online here for the next three weeks or so, and I recommend doing so. It’s in French, with English subtitles.

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