To create or to perish
- Ndeye Debo Seck
The last film of underappreciated Senegalese director, Khady Sylla dealt with mental health. It is worth revisiting it now for its groundbreaking portrayal of depression suffered by two women friends.
The documentary film, Une Fenêtre Ouverte tells the story of the friendship between two women, filmmaker Khady Sylla and Aminata Ngom, who suffer from mental health issues. In conversation with Ngom and with herself, Sylla takes us on the paths of pain and silence, stigma, exclusion, confinement, otherness (othering), suicide and fear (of oneself and of others)—a surge of emotions that are at times difficult to name. Sylla’s first subject is clearly herself. She recalls: “After experiencing the inner self, pain invaded the world.”
Une Fenêtre Ouverte tells the story of friendship between two women who both count on one another, especially in times of illness. In close-up sequences, Sylla’s narration is delivered in rhythm and with great intensity. The camera itself fails to convey her strong presence, flooded with vivid emotions.
Sylla positions herself as a transparent filmmaker in her self-reflective approach. The discussion on Ngom’s consent to participate in the film is rendered in its entirety on camera. This transparency of the director indicates that consent is never definitive and is to be constantly renegotiated, especially when the person who grants it is vulnerable. We then see, through their inclusion, the importance Sylla places on obtaining the relatives’ consent. She started a mediation with Ngom’s mother, then with her daughter Thiané.
Sylla admires Ngom, describing her as a fighter who “exhibits her madness freely.” The two women share complicit silences. Sylla advocates for Ngom to have some time to herself, outside the house. These daily walks are like breaths of fresh air that Ngom does not want but Sylla ardently seeks. Indeed, Sylla believes walking can heal.
Sylla is the key to Ngom’s freedom. The realization of this responsibility is a terrible burden, a reminder or her own, similar episodes. Ngom prefers to remain confined. She has lost the desire to walk out secretly, sometimes for days. The outside world, people mainly, scare her. As Sylla puts it in the narration, people with mental health issues like her and Ngom scare others. Khady describes it so well: “The other is afraid of you. You have changed, you look haggard, you have swollen. And you too, who are afraid, are afraid of the other.”
Sylla and Ngom remember the burden of the illness, the stigma. “People think we are pretending, that we don’t have issues: “da fa reew, dara jotu ko.” The patients have no interest in pretending.The disease (mental breakdown) “it’s the moment when you need someone to hold you down on this earth.” Instead, as she rightly recalls, we are constantly reminded that those who commit suicide go to hell.
Ngom often stares at the unspeakable and seems to live in a silent and deserted city, one which Sylla seems to be familiar with. And in this space they recreate together with their friendship, Ngom experiences a renewed femininity. Sylla takes her friend out for a walk. Both stop in front of a wig seller and Sylla asks Ngom to choose a wig that suits her. She answers that the ground is crumbling under her feet. Eventually in a moving and beautiful scene, Ngom agrees to try on a wig. This suggests the possibility of small joys despite the ineluctability of her illness, and their shared predicament. The “triviality” of the scene contrasts with the terrible story of Ngom, denied the experience of motherhood because of her illness. When her first baby Mbayang Lo was born, she didn’t know how to breastfeed it, no one taught her. The baby died. Sylla starts a conversation between Ngom and her other daughter, Thiané. The few words she shares are drowned out in her eyes and her silence. What must it feel like to not experience childhood and motherhood? Two women living under the same roof and with completely different life experiences.
Sylla concludes the film with these laconic words:
Les fous errants ne sont pas des rois-mages. Ce sont des personnages à la conscience fracassée par la douleur. Même leur marche est une forme de résistance
[Wandering lunatics are not wise men. They are individuals with a conscience shattered by pain. Their wandering is a form of resistance].