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10 Questions for Jan Haaken

by: Courtesy of PC Peri 
Tino Pascua is one of the patients featured in director Jan Haaken’s “Guilty Except for Insanity,” a new documentary recounting the stories of real patients at the infamous Oregon State Hospital.

Janice Haaken is a busy woman. Between teaching psychology at Portland State University and acting as a clinical and community psychologist, she works as a documentary filmmaker, telling the stories of those who walk on the margins of life - from abused women in Sierra Leone's refugee camps, to drag queens who act as therapists to Portland's gay community.

Her latest film, 'Guilty Except for Insanity,' is a profound look into the Oregon State Hospital, the location for Ken Kesey's 1962 novel and the 1975 film 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' and the complicated relationship between mental illness and the criminal justice system.

Haaken took some time from her hectic schedule to speak to the Tribune about her experience creating the film, her thoughts on the mental health care system and her recent trip to Afghanistan, where she recently finished filming another documentary:

Tribune: Where do you think your desire to expose the framework beneath the surface comes from?

Haaken: I'm psychoanalytic, so everything is over-determined (laughs). I came into academia an activist; my first career was a psychiatric nurse. I came very involved in the community mental health movement and went on to graduate school, getting a Ph.D in clinical and social psychology, because I was interested in psychology that could make a difference. My main commitments are along the lines of how we can draw on psychology to understand social change. The way which institutions operate psychologically has always interested me.

Tribune: Was there any reluctance by the hospital's staff to participate in the film?

Haaken: Initially, yes. The hospital administration is understandably protective of itself. Really it was about reluctance and a feeling of shell shock by the media. Every time something bad happens, the press comes in there and asks, 'Why aren't you watching the gates?' But I had some staff that was really supportive and felt that there was another story to tell that hadn't been told, and the administrators eventually realized I was not doing an exposé. There was about a year of wrangling, but ultimately they were very cooperative.

Tribune: One of the film's subjects stated that the filming process was actually part of his recovery. What do you think he meant by that?

Haaken: Through this project I think he found that he had things to say and he was not so threatened by the people. It's very easy to seclude and ostracize people, but it takes something of a different moral capacity to bring people back in. Of course the public has a right to feel safe, but I think the patients' rights movement is being revived, where people can cast off some of the shame and ostracism.

Tribune: How difficult was it to explain the complicated legal process so people like me, who don't know much about mental illness and the criminal justice system, could understand?

Haaken: Very. I'm an educator, and I teach courses where you might cover all that material in a couple weeks or months. What you include and what you exclude is an ongoing process. People sometimes don't remember the details, so I wanted the themes to be reiterated

Tribune: You mentioned that the bills passed surrounding mental illness are only as good as the community that backs them. In what way do you think the community's views need to change in order for the system to be more successful?

Haaken: It's not just access to therapy at a local level, although that's a part of it. In the '60s and '70s, the anti-war movement was not just opposition of the Vietnam War, it was about a different notion of manhood - what it means to be a good man and ways men could relate to each other. It wasn't just about one narrow purpose. Similarly, there is concern today of how we're generally taking care of people and why we're slashing budgets. I think it's important to support progressive legislation - it's about expanding resources for things like mental health clinics and housing.

Tribune: One of the themes of the film is the hospital's identity struggle of whether it's a jail or a hospital. Do you believe it's moving more toward being a jail in light of the recent escape attempts?

Haaken: I've heard different accounts from patients and staff on whether or not they've taken away privileges. I find it frustrating, though, that there's not more backbone in people to say, 'We're taking away their treatment if we roll back privileges that are part of their treatment program.' To me, it's not ethical.

Tribune: The film is separated into chapters, which are introduced with clips from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' Why did you choose to do this?

Haaken: Those clips serve a number of purposes. Ken Kesey often wrote about freedom - particularly the freedom of men. There's a scene in the end of the film where 'Chief' is liberated and breaks out of the window while carrying the spirit of Jack Nicholson's character. So, I've had this sort of concept all along: Once you jump out the window, where do you go now? It's not as simple as just emancipating yourself from the institution; there's a need for care as well as a need for freedom. Those clips also served as some comic relief - they tend to make people laugh, and this is heavy subject matter.

Tribune: What did you learn personally from the filming process?

Haaken: I was actually surprised at how efficiently the hospital is run. Overall I thought the staff was trying to do a good job under very difficult conditions. Also, I was surprised how many more drugs patients are taking now than when I was working in psychiatric hospitals in the '70s.

Tribune: You said you wanted to take out the 'good guy, bad guy' aspect of the situation and put less emphasis on targeting one specific figure. I couldn't help but think of the Occupy Portland movement, which refuses to name one specific policy or institution. Do you feel as though the film has similar goals as to what the movement hopes to accomplish?

Haaken: I'm glad you caught onto that. Often I'll be pushed into supporting a particular piece of legislation, or someone will ask, 'What's the remedy?' There's a place for that, but what I'm attracted to right now about the Occupy Movement is that it is more about creating dialogue. And out of that dialogue, of course there will be reform. There needs to be some sense that these issues - problems with jobs, the bone-chilling problems with the environment, the problems with care - are all connected and not isolated.

Tribune: You just returned from filming your latest documentary in Afghanistan, 'Therapists Behind The Front Lines.' Could you tell me a little about it?

Haaken: It's similar to other projects I've been involved with in that it's about understanding work behind the walls that we've erected in our dominant society to keep people with problems out of view. The army has been particularly active in sending therapists to war zones, which has been very controversial in my field and among people in the military. People in war zones build defense mechanisms for a reason, so I began this process with a very specific question: Is this a good idea or not? And, is it really in the best interest of the soldiers?