Susana Seijas is a London-based journalist, producer and media consultant whose work has appeared on CNN, BBC, PBS NewsHour, Slate, and The Times of London among others. She was previously based in Mexico where she reported on the drug war. To learn more, visit her website. Follow her @susanaseijas1
Raúl, a teenager with teeth like a shark, bites part of another boy’s ear off. Milena, a beautiful 21-year-old woman can’t stop sobbing. She was raped after leaving work in one of Juárez’s infamous maquiladoras. There’s someone wailing in a caged room. Outside, in the sunlit cement patio, a young man flashes a toothless grin while an elderly woman brushes the same floor, over and over again.
Welcome to “Visión en Acción,” a mental asylum in the Juárez desert run by its own patients. Mark Aitken, a London-based filmmaker, spent several weeks living in the asylum – capturing the daily lives of people with varying degrees of mental health disorders. Outside the asylum, the desert scenery is strewn with abandoned tires, discarded plastic bags and homeless dogs rummaging in garbage.
What Aitken saw inside the asylum was “something out of your darkest nightmares,” he says of his time filming people who had at one time or another experienced extreme trauma and violence. Yet what he captures in “Dead When I Got Here” is hope and compassion in the most challenging of circumstances. “I learned that upsetting people with extreme imagery was going to compromise any possibility of empathy” he said.
Josué Rosales, a former heroin addict, was brought to the front gates of the asylum on a stretcher, his fingers black with gangrene and “nearly dead” when he got there. After months of recovery Rosales now manages the asylum with a compassion he never knew he had when he was taking drugs or sleeping rough. The asylum was founded by Pastor José Antonio Galván, a swashbuckling, born-again Christian, who now dedicates his life to picking up people most of us would turn away from. The asylum runs on about $10,000 USD per month of fundraising money to feed and house its 100 plus patients.
Apart from revealing the drudgery of maintaining an asylum in the Chihuahua desert, Aitken’s lens exposes the devastating consequences of decades-old government corruption, impunity and neglect – where the poor and destitute fend for themselves, their plight worsened by Juarez’s drug-related violence.
Many of the people who end up at the asylum have experienced the worst of Juárez. There are women who were gang raped, left for dead and dumped in the desert. Men who fell prey to the narcos pushing drugs in their barrios, became addicts and arrived deranged.
In 2010, when Juárez was the “murder capital of the world,” 10 or more people a day were gunned down. Former President Felipe Calderón’s (2006-20012) military deployment to Juárez spiked violence to levels never seen before anywhere in Mexico.
Towards the end of 2014, the average death tally was about 1.2 per day, according to the Diario de Juárez, as reported by the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office.
Today, the daily death count may be down, but the ravages of impunity, poverty and a sense of hopelessness are unmasked when Aitken films the local police force picking up the body of a patient who died after 17 years in the asylum. Ironically, one of the policemen calls Rosales out for not having the adequate professionalism and experience to run the place, “to leave here is to be a coward,” Rosales responds.
Some of Aitken’s carefully edited footage makes for uncomfortable viewing – it is all asylum all of the time. Thankfully the film is gracefully interspaced with delightful, unexpected sequences, such as the conversation between two women cooking in the asylum’s kitchen. Their chitchat ranges from the look of “a pretty potato” they happen to be peeling to whether “poor people will fit in hell.”
In the end, “Dead When I Got Here,” is a story of resurrection of Rosales remaking himself. When he first got to the asylum, Rosales says he felt “like a piece of wood” and couldn’t even speak. He needed diapers and had to lay on a bed for months. The pain in his gangrenous fingers was so acute he pleaded with others to pull them off with pliers. They asked him if he was crazy, “yes of course,” Josué recounts later, his humor unscathed: “I’m in an insane asylum!”
Not only is Rosales the film’s hero and guide but, by nothing short of a miracle, Rosales is reunited with his daughter, Vanessa, who he last saw when she was five years old, over 20 years ago. Aitken films their reunion, adding yet another layer to the film and to Rosales’ character. Aitken happened to be the catalyst in this father-daughter reunion after he posted information on Rosales’ whereabouts on the Internet.
Rosales emerges as a full man – a man who lost his family only to regain it, a man who had nothing and is now giving his all, every day, to help a handful of the forgotten people of Juárez help each other overcome impossible odds.
Aitken was inspired to film the asylum after reading two books – Ed Vulliamy’s “Amexica,” who wrote a chapter on the asylum entitled “Human Junkyard,” and the late Charles Bowden’s “Murder City, Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.”
Bowden, to whom “Dead When I Got Here” is dedicated to, died just before the film was completed but commented on much of the material. He captured the sentiment of the film best of all:
“What’s going on there is a model. It’s the only place in Juárez that gives me real hope. But it’s a hard hope. It’s not sentimentality. It’s a hard future to face but it’s the best future I know of there. That asylum has done more for those 120 people than any American factory in Juárez has ever done for its workers. Because this asylum has given people who have lost their lives, their lives back. It’s taken human garbage and reconstructed it.”
**Next Week: Q & A with director Mark Aitken