Overview: This eloquent essay film is about the Adamson collection of 5,500 works of art created by long-term patients of Netherne psychiatric hospital in Surrey after World War II. The collection was more or less neglected and has since been rediscovered, its reputation rejuvenated by the recognition it has received in the art world. Fly Film Company; 2014; 37 minutes.
A Tricky History: There is something inherently delicate about depicting life in psychiatric hospitals and asylums in film, and documentary film carries with it its own challenge of doing a subject justice and taking a stand without exploiting or perverting that subject. Besides the fact that this film isn’t so much taking a stance on the subject as it is painting a portrait of it, Abandoned Goods otherwise succeeds as a documentary that is appropriately delicate in its approach. Any talking heads are merely voice-over, with little context or introduction to the interviews. Some of the voice-over and actual interviews throughout the film are archival footage from the hospital, showing us doctors and patients alike, giving us a glimpse into a very specific history we may have never known existed.
A Work of Art: The artwork is the real focus here, and much of the film is comprised of images of these pieces and descriptions of them. Some are particularly fascinating, such as matchstick drawings on toilet paper. The art was formerly considered to be a portal into the hidden and often tortured souls of these people, a glimpse into their minds and psyches for doctors to use as diagnosis methods. (It was particularly interesting to hear speculation about the aesthetic similarities across paintings done by those diagnosed with schizophrenia.) But this is too narrow a view of the artwork, and the film does a wonderful job of showing us that this is, indeed, too simple a classification for art that is so complicated. In that way, the documentary is a careful consideration of post-war mental health facilities and practices, and of how flawed and complex the conceptions were of mental illness in the UK during this time. By coming back to the art, though, this message is more subtle, more nuanced. These patients’ art was for more than merely diagnosis by doctors; it was also a means of expression by true artists.
A Happy Ending: Most of my favorite documentaries are calls to action for social justice, but in this film, the justice is basically served, and that makes for an enlightening documentary that is refreshing and still important. The only stance the film truly takes is in favor of the art and the artists to be seen as such. By the film’s conclusion, that’s what happens and that’s what matters most. Abandoned Goods looks to the past but truly celebrates the present, a time when the art is finally revered, finally showcased in museums and galleries. The idea is that this art can now be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level, whereas before, it was merely diagnostic. To know these patients can now be seen as artists and as human beings is a reward the film builds to exquisitely and succinctly.