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 OCAS (Brazil) 25 May 2019

(Originally published: 11/2009) What happens to someone that belongs nowhere in the world? This is the question that Miriam Chnaiderman tried to answer in her acclaimed documentary, “Looking for Janaína” (2007), about the tortuous and sad journey of a little girl from São Paulo, abandoned by her family and taken into special care in the 80’s. “A child that shows all signs of exclusion: institutionalized, poor, psychotic. Where does she belong?” asks the psychologist Deborah Sereno in the movie. Janaína didn’t connect with anyone, didn’t cry or talk, but she overflowed with such sorrow that she touched everyone around her. In her movies, the psychoanalyst Miriam Chnaiderman explores the stories of pain and suffering, from which hope and strength emerge.  - Márcio Seidenberg


Courtesy of OCAS

What happens to someone that belongs nowhere in the world? This is the question that Miriam Chnaiderman tried to answer in her documentary, "Looking for Janaína" (2007), about the tortuous and sad journey of a little girl abandoned by her family and taken by Febem in the 80's into special and individualized care. "A child that shows all signs of exclusion: institutionalized, poor, black, psychotic. Where does she belong?" asks the psychologist Deborah Sereno in the movie. Janaína didn't connect with anyone, didn't cry or talk, but she overflowed with such sorrow that she touched everyone around her.


Janaína is unique, as well as the characters captured by Chnaiderman's camera, "fascinated with the human enigma"; while they resist border-line situations, they reinvent their lives. To name her eighth creation, presented in this year festival "It's All True" and on TV Cultura, the "psychoanalyst that makes cinema" - as Miriam defines herself - reveals how she found a word that summarizes all of her work until now: "Survivors" (2008). It gathers several testimonials of people that faced adverse or "near death" experiences, and were still able to find a way to move forward. Also interviewed is Sebastião Nicomedes, writer and collaborator of Ocas", whose testimonial about his participation in the movie is available on the blog



In 2003, Miriam Chnaiderman participated in the debate "Excluded. From where?", promoted by Ocas", as a celebration of the magazine's first year. After six years, she opens the doors of her apartment in São Paulo to "continue the conversation" with us. During this "break", while she divided her time between the office and the cinema, she produced six documentaries. Now she is finishing "M'Boi Mirim: from Indians, from Water, from Dreams", about a neighbourhood in the south of São Paulo: "I thought about inviting the Indians that live in Parelheiros to introduce a region that was once very violent, the Angela Garden. Today [that scenario] is totally changed, thanks to the wonderful job of NGOs", she says. In the list of new projects she has a movie about forgiveness.


Despite the apparent harshness of the issues that Miriam Chnaiderman approaches, her documentaries are not oppressive or violent to the viewer. In fact, it's just the opposite: they are an antidote against intolerance and an invitation to new possibilities, to new values and to the search of some kind of home, shelter or at least understanding for the people that live "outside" society. Universal and extremely human, the documentaries - in which the total surrender of the interviewees and the director stands out - is, unfortunately, not promoted enough - as well amongst most of the Brazilian documentaries: "We want the whole world to watch it. But the movies should also be a source of revenue; they are extremely expensive to make and demand loads of donations. Each millimetre had highly worked sound and light effects. There should be a way to distribute and access the money in which all of these factors were taken into account, including the directors and producers investments. I think Youtube is incredible and it forced us to rethink all of this", she adds.


Sitting on the living room couch, sharing her attention with a puppy and two cats, Miriam Chnaiderman talks with Ocas":


OCAS: "They say I'm Crazy", about the reality of the so-called "crazy people" that live in the streets, was you first documentary. After that you produced other movies and in all of them we see pain, bruises, suffering, but also life and hope. We get that concept even by the title of the last documentary, "Survivors".


Miriam Chnaiderman: I am a psychoanalyst who shoots documentaries and what makes me tick in the documentaries are the same things that interest me as a psychoanalyst. I don't like to say "I'm a filmmaker" because I feel like a psychoanalyst that goes out into the world and it's still fascinated with the human enigma. In "They say I'm Crazy" what moved me most were the shreds of life and creation in such difficult situations. For me there is nothing more dignified or noble than a human finding dignity, finding a way to make himself look better, in the most terrible situations! That is in every single one of my movies: hope, life and the belief in human nature. In "Survivors", there are people who faced near-death situations, but still rescued their lives. Each person finds a path, a way to give meaning to life. This movie kind of summarizes all of what I produced before.


OCAS: In "Survivors", the process of facing border-line situations is different in every interviewee, or it's possible to identify similarities in the way people deal with a tough reality?


M.C.: They way each person reencounters life is very personal. I find this process fascinating and impressive; we can't infer general laws from it. The movie is shot in the same place, with one single couch, with a human being sitting there, in that situation. But the way each person manages the problems is very personal. There is no cast; each human being we come close to is an incredible treasure.


OCAS: In this movie there is a strong feeling of intimacy, the interviewees are sincerely committed. What steps did you take to create this platform of affection in the moment of the testimonials? This care that you show for people in your movies contributes for our job as well. In Ocas" May/ June edition we talked with people that lived in the streets about protecting themselves against the cold.


M.C.: We were very careful. We looked for people, picked them up, had them seen by therapists, made them feel comfortable, we arranged a table full of delicious food. Reinaldo Pinheiro, my husband, helped me; he looked after the filming so I could be totally devoted to the interviews, because I was very concerned in creating that platform of affection if people were going to talk about their pain. I always finished my interviews with a moment of life, of hope, of creation. I was careful, I wanted them to feel good. I felt exhausted in the end. My experience as a psychoanalyst was crucial; first because I have a great curiosity and fascination for people and I think that, in some way or another, that shows. I was meeting these people for the first time. I was not going into their houses just because I needed to interview them. I would stay at the door, waiting. Whatever I could do to make it more comfortable for them, I did it. I believe that all my documentaries show that motivation to make people feel loved and protected. I notice something that I also find in Eduardo Coutinho's movies: people do open up and talk. It makes me think: what does the camera do to people? In some way they feel protected by the presence of the camera and talk about things that they wouldn't refer to in another situation. In "Survivors" there is a testimonial of a mother who lost three daughters in a landslide. She and her husband never talked about it. On the day of the shooting she took her adopted son with her. It was the first time she talked about it and she left the room feeling grateful and relieved. I was very disturbed with that testimonial, she cried a lot and it was so painful… I was very distressed. She thanked me for having the opportunity to talk…I think it had something to do with my medical experience but also with the camera. During a debate someone said: "When you're in front of the camera and you know that that is going to be a documentary, what you say is politicized because it's going to be public and you become part of a community. There is a relevance to the world when you talk in front of a camera" - that is a nice way to look at a documentary.


OCAS: You talked about fascination but also about distress. Being in the world is also painful for someone whose job is listening to someone else's grief?


M.C.: Of course, yes. In this movie and in others. I'm always very moved by what I hear and see. There's no way you can run from it. When you go into the world, and you must feel that working with Ocas, the interview itself is already an intervention. You ask, you offer questions that mobilize people. For example, when you went to ask people how they dealt with cold…


OCAS: We felt crushed in the end. And even more this week, when the temperature was around six degrees.


M.C.: And the shelter can't take care of everybody…


OCAS: It's a complicated issue. It's true that there are good and terrible shelters, but the reality is that the society legitimates a certain posture of taking these people away from the public space, but many times the abandonment they suffer in the streets is replaced with the same kind of abandonment in the shelters.


M.C.: My vision of the street was always criticised. I believe the shelter has to be a choice. When I shot "They Say I'm Crazy" I formulated a proposal of work in the street. These people have problems getting out of the street because there they find solidarity, freedom and a complicity that they might not find anywhere else. Generally they don't like to go to the shelters because someone will force them to cut their hair, shower, they have no place to leave their dog, their belongings. The difficult issue is respecting who they are whilst committing them to the minimum living conditions. You can do that on the street. I believe the street can offer and provide services. My dream is to see [the downside of] Minhocão filled with sewing workshops, toys workshops, each person using their art and skill to able to live in the street in a more dignified way or being able to choose to spend the night in the shelter. We have to respect nomadism. The street population forces us to rethink certain parameters of work. The challenge is finding out what each person did in life, how they made their money, if there is any way of doing that work in the street. It might sound like a utopia, but I don't want to loose this idea.


OCAS: There is a lot of talk about alternative events going on in the streets. From a public power point a view and even for the entities that help this population, the street life is seen as an extremely violent situation to be in.


M.C.: It's very violent, yes, although there are people that find peace in the street, incredible as it seems. People that go to the street when they feel psychically fragile and find some relief there find impressive ways to protect themselves: the groups, the rituals, the spaces, solidarity. These are ways to live in this world and they need to be respected. There is no point to remove people [in order to stop street violence], we need to let people find their way. What happens is that society can't stand watching these people living in the streets, making a mess. Using that idea, they take them out of the streets but they don't solve the issue. It's inevitably going to come back if the situation is the same. The challenge is how to show these people that they are capable of taking charge of their own lives.


OCAS: How can we do that?


M.C.: Ideally, my utopia is to find ways to know each persons history and build, with each one, a new path with love and care. Maybe it wouldn't be so hard if these people were providing some kind of service like a plumber or a gardener. We have to think how these people are going to earn their money and what they are going to do, how they are going to survive.


OCAS: When talking about the street population, the focus is usually exclusion, lack of housing, unemployment, but never mental health, even if many of these people are experiencing some kind of psychic distress.


M.C.: When I started working in "They Say I'm Crazy", in 1992, we were trying to find out who the city considered crazy, without establishing if it was or not. But how to differentiate a homeless person that lost his documents from the so called "street crazy"? Little by little, we found out. These characters [the "crazy"] did not end up in the street because they lost their jobs, their motivation was a moment of deep psychic suffering and lots of primitive feelings that were never taken care of. In the street everything comes up to the surface. One of my biggest uncertainties was if living on the street could cause someone to go crazy or generate a strong psychic suffering. I believe I can answer that now: it's not that the street makes you crazy, but in such instable and border-line situations our most primitive instincts come up, our ability to control our behaviour becomes relative. It's fundamental to think about mental health, when it comes to the street population. I agree that the shelters don't take care of it, even if some of the residents look for treatment and medication in the PCC (Psychosocial Care Centers) of São Paulo. There are few, but they exist.


OCAS: Pedro Delgado, Mental Health coordinator in the Heath Ministry, says that Brazil is no longer "asylum oriented", in the classical sense, but the society still has totalitarian answers for issues as exclusion and difference. As an example, he quotes the situation where the street population is taken to the shelters. He says that the challenge of psychiatric reform is to look for those caves where the "asylum" culture is still alive.


M.C.: In "Looking for Janaína" I had a tough experience trying to get in touch with the psychiatric reformers because the hospital where we found Janaína is huge, like Juqueri. She was sent there when she was seven years old, today she is 30. I saw that it was a hospital that followed the reform rules. But the [old] psychiatric mentality is so rooted that the patients were medicated and just left there alone.  Is taking them out and putting them in a therapeutic residence an option? Before they were paralyzed in the hospital, now they are paralyzed in a residence. There has to be a change. I believe, for example, that we need to have nomadic work teams (therapists, psychiatrics), circulating in the cities, doing their work in the streets when necessary. They need to have that decentralization. We don't have to institutionalize someone for that person to be worked on. I think psychiatry needs to be permeable to what happens in the world and be able to interfere in other ways. This population suggests that we come up with other means of working, otherwise we just keep repeating old recipes in which they don't fit. In "They Say I'm Crazy" we learned how tell who is in the street trying to reinforce their way of being. The "street crazy" are those who have a hood, "funny" clothing, or walk around with doves or pets, they are part of the landscape. It's impressive how they make a stand and the city bows before them, because they were able to shape themselves and exist. They are all very dignified and noble and they teach us all a lesson about being able to be who we are. We have so much to learn from these people from nowhere, that do not follow according stable rules like we do. What I learned with these documentaries is that is important to take a chance, try, and let myself be questioned by the world.


OCAS: Ocas" is following experiences related with mental health and from that work resulted several articles published throughout this year. These are projects that work with the concept of "asylum" and their participants all say that the therapeutic role is fundamental in the transformation of someone's life. But these projects have limitations. In some cases they demand a specific and differentiated care. In "Looking for Janaína", Janaína was in Febem and needed to be treated outside. My grandmother suffers from Alzheimer's disease, she is in a permanent nursing home. Sometimes the situation comes to a point where you do need the institution.


M.C.: For someone with Alzheimer's it's complicated, indeed. Sometimes there is nothing else you can do. Maybe that person is better off with other people and being cared for 24 hours a day. The issue is not to end the asylum possibility but to find a place with better infrastructures than family. I believe that socializing and collectivizing the ageing is a valid option, you need to forget your prejudices and analyse each case. In Janaína's case, if she was with her family she might not be in the situation she is today [Janaína barely speaks and lives in a therapeutic residence]. With all the changes from institution to institution, some achievements are lost. The challenge is not to end the possibility of committing someone in a general hospital, like in any other disease, but to end psychiatric hospitals. Of course it makes no sense to end something old if there are not new infrastructures to care for the patient and the families. I know that it's very easy to say something vague, the challenge is to analyse each case through understanding and thinking. I believe rules have to made room for exceptions.


OCAS: I would like to go back to Ocas" first anniversary debate, in 2003, in which you participated: "Excluded? From where?". Ocas" and other projects that give work and money to these people in street situations find it hard to make people stay with us. We believe that one of the reasons that selling the magazine is so hard for some people is that they have such low self-esteem and self-confidence.


M.C.: I think you might be able to help them with a group dynamic psychodrama pointed to the issue of magazines sales. But, again, here is when each person history matters, what they did to end up in the street. It's important to work with them and explain what selling a magazine is. But do you feel they get used to "being in the street", going after their soup, for example?


OCAS: It's a matter of surviving, but it ends up being a habit to some of them.


M.C.: But how much of a deal is surviving by their own means to them?


OCAS: That is an important discussion.


M.C.: Maybe the power of surviving by their own means is important for some men of the streets, I don't know if it's important for all of them and if they all feel used to it. Even for my projects, where they provide a service, is necessary to check how much they want it, to be sure it isn't more our concern then theirs. That is also valid for Ocas" salesmen.


OCAS: Going back to your movies, let's talk about how hard it is for people to see them: there are some parts of "Looking for Janaína" and "Survivors" available on Youtube. How do you publicize and distribute all of your work?


M.C.: There is no other way, the option is to contact a producer. That is the problem of short movies and documentaries in Brazil: the lack of distribution. It's very hard. First, because medium movies like "Looking for Janaína" and "Survivors" are in TV format. The others are short movies with 15, 18 minutes. I think Youtube is an option. But we always wait a while before doing that. Even to take care of the movie's journey; the festivals ask for something new, all documentaries were made for a competition, it's all expensive. But I think it's cool to share.


OCAS: Going back to "Survivors" - actually we never left the subject. Drauzio Varella, in his book "By a string", in which he talks about his experience with terminal patients, says that he chose oncology to have the possibility to deal with border-line situations, because that's when a human being focuses on the essential: fighting for life. You observe a similar behaviour in psychic suffering?


M.C.: Sure. That is beautiful. In the end of "Survivors" we show this sentence [from Japanese filmmaker Naomi Kawase]: "I find the world's beauty through men that reached the limit". That attachment to life and the will to live is amazing, it's very impressive. The word "survivors" is used for people that faced concentration camps. In a book about that subject, it's said that horses died in greater number than men, which for psychoanalyst Nathalie Saltzman means that it's love and identification to the human specie that makes mankind survive in the most adverse situations. That is what makes us human even when we're being objectified, dehumanized.


OCAS: And how long can we be survivors? Until death?


M.C.: I think so. Your question is very beautiful, I think we're all survivors, we reinvent life everyday, we survive the things that touch us. I believe so, yes, we survive until he day we day (laughter).


Parts of Miriam Chnaiderman's documentaries are available on Youtube ( and also on Sequência1 producer's portal:

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