Her Name Is Sabine Review
There are many levels that one can relate to the first documentary feature by Sandrine Bonnaire. In part it's a memoir of her autistic sister Sabine, her learning difficulties, unpredictable behaviour and the happy times shared together as she gradually becomes more withdrawn and in need of care. It’s partly a condemnation of the health system that failed to accurately diagnose and treat her condition, leaving her in a worse state after her five-year stay at a psychiatric hospital, where she was heavily medicated. It’s an attempt to understand the nature of the illness and show how it affects not only the lives of those suffering from this condition, but their families also. It’s above all an attempt to raise the public’s awareness of autism and gain funding and support to help diagnose and treat other people like Sabine.
It’s consequently the best kind of film, the best kind of documentary – not one where the filmmaker goes out looking for a subject to film, but one where the subject presents and imposes itself. In the case of Sandrine Bonnaire, one of the leading actresses in France who has never previously made a film, there was no other choice - Sabine’s story had to be told. Having grown up with her sister, shared experiences with her, watched her unique personality and talents start to decline and be almost erased as she was coming to the end of a five year term in a psychiatric hospital, Bonnaire was drawn back to Super 8 footage she filmed when they were children, trying to reconcile the bright, lively young girl in her old home movies with the person rendered sluggish through heavy doses of medication, prone to angry and violent outbursts.
Her Name Is Sabine makes no attempt to soften the impact for the viewer, or spare the sensibilities of the families and patients involved. The ups are shown with the downs, the present contrasted with the past to underline the drastic change Sabine has undergone. And the implication is made clear – there has to be a better way of dealing with people suffering from autism. With some effort and advances made in the understanding of what autism is (even the experts asked in the film find it difficult to provide a simple definition, and Sandrine Bonnaine, after a lifetime of living with her sister’s condition is no nearer to understanding it), some patience and the right kind of care, perhaps they can reach a point where medication and its harmful side-effects can be reduced or dispensed with altogether.
It’s a noble and worthy objective, and the film has its part to play in raising the issue in the public’s consciousness, but Her Name Is Sabine is much more than that. It’s also the first film by a great French actress (one moreover that will form the basic for a forthcoming feature film), and it’s one that shows her ability to deal with a personal and highly emotive subject in a balanced and engaging manner, not preaching to the viewer or bombarding them with a message, but rather appealing to the individual viewer’s interest, their sense of indignation and their compassion, ending not on a note of bitterness - which would certainly be justifiable in this case - but on a note of hope.
Her Name Is Sabine is distributed in the UK by ICA Films and opens on 20th June 2008.