Mental Health, Occupational Therapy

Nise: the Heart of Madness (2016), an Interview with Roberto Berliner

A little over a year ago, I stumbled across a Brazilian film on Netflix called ‘Nise: the Heart of Madness’ (or ‘Nise: O Coração da Loucura’). It is based on the true story of Dr Nise da Silveira, a Brazillian psychiatrist who founded the occupational therapy department at Brazil’s National Psychiatric Centre. The film has won four awards, including Best Film Award at the 2015 Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival.

Roberto Berliner, who directed the film and wrote the screenplay, is also known for Herbert de Perto (2009) and Born to be Blind (2003). I caught up with Berliner, and asked him a few questions.

What can you remember about the first time you heard about Dr Nise da Silveira?

My first contact with Dr. Nise da Silveira was in the 1980’s at Circo Voador, a cultural center in Rio de Janeiro, at an event called “The Doctor’s Tea”, where she would show up once a month with her friends. The project of the film started much later, with the writings of journalist Bernardo Horta, who was Nise’s student and brother of Andre Horta, the film’s director of photography. Bernardo followed Nise closely for years when he was a part of the C.G. Jung study group, that used to happen at Nise’s house. He liked to observe her and take notes, not only of the things she said but also how she behaved. It was through those notes that I got to know Nise’s intimate moments.

You committed numerous years to telling this part of Nise’s story, and overcame many obstacles. What inspired you to make this movie?

Nise is one of those people that pushes the human race forward. She is a special person, a rebel, and the more I researched her life and talked to her collaborators, the more I knew this film had to be made.

In the history of Brazil, there are few women as important as Nise da Silveira. A feminist, a great doctor, a great humanist. A woman who battled against the system, against her status quo and with a very positive job, searched for the affection and understanding of others. She was a warrior. For a person to make a revolution in world history, she had to have a lot of courage, strength and determination. All she wanted was life, art. A woman who was able to perceive her great wealth on the fringes.

Nise had a very special history, so in the beginning I wanted to make a film about her whole life, because it was really rich and she was always going against the current.

As someone who has worked in psychiatric hospitals for many years, I sometimes forget what it is like for people to experience the environment for the first time. You spent time at the hospital that Nise worked at – the former National Psychiatric Center, currently Pedro II Psychiatric Center in Rio de Janeiro – as part of the research for your film. What did you experience and learn while you were there?

After being briefed intimately on the biography of the characters, and seeing the original artworks, the actors and I started the rehearsals in Engenho de Dentro, in the real place where the story took place, getting into the routine and feeling the energy of that place, inside the infirmaries or walking around the hospital. It was as if the artists came back to revisit their own works.

The film is a true story based on real people on the location where it all happened. Not many films have this opportunity. This gave the film an emotional charge that is very strong and positive. We were inside the hospital. In the house of “the crazy ones”, the “schizophrenics”, and the “misfits”. Our film is about them and our relationship was always truthful, respectful and insightful.

On hearing of her new role, Nise’s husband Mario remarks, “There is so much to do in this country, instead of having fun, cheering up the patient. Occupational therapy? Do you know what that is, Nise? Do you?”. This scene captures a common misconception of the occupational therapy role. What research did you and your colleagues do into occupational therapy?

We’ve talked to a lot of people that worked with Nise and with her clients in Engenho de Dentro, such as Martha Pires Ferreira and Almir Malvignier (both are also characters in the film). We also talked to the people who now run the Museum of Images from the Unconscious, Luiz Carlos Mello, Gladys Schincarios, Lula Vanderlei and Gina Ferreira, among others. All of them worked daily with Nise and had lots of stories to tell. We’ve also uncovered the medical charts from the patients who were treated by Nise and lots of notes from Nise and the rest of the staff. This was the basis for the screenplay, which has been through several iterations, with different approaches, and writers.

I first found out about this film because another occupational therapist recommended it in a Facebook group. The comments included: “This film is really inspiring, it has reminded me why I am an Occupational Therapist”, “What a fabulous film” and “What a magnificent film…. going to print some of the final comments out to help keep me grounded…. inspires me to keep strong…”  Is there anything you would like to say to occupational therapists watching your movie?

We need more people like Nise. Her story helps show that there are many ways to be happy in life and competent at work. It is not the position that money brings, nor the glory of art. All of this is fine,  but what made Nise a special person was the chance to give these people the chance to express themselves, to create, and through that artistic production, analyze, study and understand each other’s story. Nise was in the unconscious.

Finally, have you got any recommendations of resources for people who would like to find out more about the life and work of Nise da Silveira?

Here in Rio de Janeiro we have the Museum of Images of the Unconscious (Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente), founded by Nise in 1952.  Its purpose is to preserve all the artworks produced in the ateliers by Nise’s patients.

The Museum is a living center of study and research on the images and has a markedly interdisciplinary character, which allows constant exchange between clinical experience, theoretical knowledge of psychology and psychiatry, cultural anthropology, history, art, education.

The museum is not a past-oriented institution: in its ateliers, visitors create new plastic documents daily and share their experiences in living with employees, animals, students, researchers and visitors. This work allowed the emergence of artists who were soon recognized in the world of the arts. With this, its collection does not stop growing and updating itself.

They have a collection of more than 350 thousand works, the Museum has the largest and most differentiated collection of the genre in the world. It also holds the library and personal archive of its founder, Nise da Silveira, holder of the World Registry in the UNESCO Memory of the World Program.

Berliner’s film is currently available to watch on UK Netflix.

For more information about the occupational therapy profession, visit the Royal College of Occupational Therapists and World Federation of Occupational Therapists websites.


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