Broken Head is a documentary which follows Andrzej, a prison inmate, who, coming off the back of a suicide attempt, decides to pursue therapy. We’re gonna put a pin in the ethics of that, and come back to it later.
Andrzej has spent his life in and out of prison, addicted to various drugs, mostly amphetamines. He chews his lips, and his mouth is marked with scabs. He’s trying to get clean for good, but he hasn’t got much experience on how to handle his emotions without getting high. He misses his girlfriend, who he is struggling to make tenuous contact with from inside.
The film begins with him having tried to slit his own throat. He is offered therapy, which he finds helpful, if overwhelming. The therapy is teaching him to identify his emotions, so he can anticipate them, and mitigate behaviour patterns that lead to negative outcomes. The first step is the hardest – to just identify what he is feeling. All he is able to grasp clearly is his anger, all other emotions are vague notions. On a social level, this is because we raise boys to consider expressing any emotion, other than anger, as unmasculine. So they lose the tools for necessary introspection and articulation. On a personal level, Andrzej grew up in an abusive household with an alcoholic father, so no one really gave a fuck what he felt. Meaning he grew to adulthood without ever really being given the tools to assess his emotional state, or believing it was a priority.
Andrzej finds therapy overwhelming, but hopeful. For the first time he feels he’s making progress to an envisionable future where he is not on drugs, and can maybe make a stable home with his girlfriend. He wants to have a child with her, make a family, create that safe and loving homelife he was denied.
But how is he going to react when another inmate points out to him that kids aren’t tools you use to fix your own issues? Or when his girlfriend starts to pull away? Or the therapy sessions schedule is interrupted?
This film is really good at getting you genuinely care about someone who might not pose the most sympathetic subject. Andrzej is in jail for a reason, he’s a violent drug addict, and he is the first to admit that he is there because of his own bad choices, his own bad behaviour. He doesn’t make any excuses, and is even touchy about being labelled an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, being defensive on his father’s behalf. He knows his own behaviour put him where he is, but he honestly doesn’t know how to change. The elation he feels when therapy provides him with that chance is easy to empathise with.
And the film feels very paired back, allowing you to feel what you want about what you are seeing. There’s no massive score trying to tell you how you should feel or saccharin stylistic manipulations. It’s just very intimate and very bald.
However, I am now going to take the pin out of the question of ethics. Because how ethical is it filming up close and personal someone who is literally suicidal? The opening shot is of him removing the bloody bandages from around his neck, showing the recently closed scar. Is this the moment, do you think, to point a camera in someone’s face? The whole rest of the film is made with him recovering in therapy. This is an incredibly vulnerable person at an incredibly critical time. There needs to be serious consideration about whether this film is right to make at all. And since it is made, how the filmmaker’s presence might influence this life-or-death process for someone so on the edge?
While I feel like it could definitely done with more overt self-reflection on the part of the documentary maker, Broken Head is a very well made, intimate, and raw portrait of a man searching for the tools to turn his life around.