Of the 35,000 inhabitants of the Flemish city of Geel, 550 are mentally ill. They are not confined to an institution, but live with families in the local population. This setup, which has a long history and is unique in the world, is the subject of Geel. Over the course of four seasons, the camera observes three adoptive families.

In the worlds of Robke and Eddie, Klara and Jos and the 85-year-old Manda and Leon, everything moves at a slow pace, and the boundaries between normal and abnormal are somewhat blurred. Geel asks questions about the premiums placed on high speed and normality nearly everywhere else in today’s world.

The kind of life these families lead is disappearing. It’s that of ‘deep Flanders’, where a vanishing generation (when Manda dies at the end of the documentary, Leon, the man living in her care, is interned in an institution) still adheres to rituals of gardening, raising pigeons and religion. We see how the adopted patients follow their respective families’ traditional ways.

Oliver Sachs, in a forward to the book Geel Revisited, states that Geel’s example “provide[s] a definitive rebuttal of the notion of mental illness as a remorselessly advancing and deteriorating condition and [shows] how, if there can be an effective integration into family and community life even …[the] incurably afflicted can, potentially, live full, dignified, loved and secure lives.” Still, the viewer cannot help but ask him/herself if this tradition, which seems inextricably linked to a society where time has stood still, can survive much longer.

The film’s properly nostalgic narrative tone is reinforced by musical and cinematographic strategies. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons accompanies each season, and the images refer to Flanders’ painterly tradition. Throughout the film a split screen – above, moving images of the three families; below, landscape or sky – announces both the changing of seasons and the cuts to the respective families. Images are often shot with steadycams, resulting in framing resembling that of painting.

The project poses an interesting paradox: a slow, steady film, following eight people for an entire year, is made within the restrictions of a medium that’s the very embodiment of globalisation and technologically driven progress: television. In an interview published in the Flemish newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen, director Hauben addresses this tension and discusses the difficulty he had in persuading the production company Woestijnvis to take on the project.

During the first minute of Geel, Piazzola’s Eight Seasons, a brooding deconstruction of Vivaldi’s familiar Four Seasons, is heard. Might one interpret this as an intimation of the future, when Geel’s slow time and humanitarian tradition will no longer be able to resist the pressures of the present?

(Steve Tallon)

  • Format DVD(DVD (digital versatile disc))
  • Color system PAL
  • Color col.
  • Year 2006
  • Duration 01:22:00
  • Languageinfo
    Subtitles: Dutch/ Flemish
    Spoken: Dutch/ Flemish
  • Artists