What happens when the inmates run the asylum? Mark Aitken's forthcoming documentary "Dead When I Got Here" answers that question. It is a film about a Juárez, Mexico mental asylum where the patients are the administrators. I first saw excerpts from this film-in-progress at the flat of my friend Mark Pilkington who is composing the soundtrack. The striking images of madness, poverty, humanity, and hope have stayed with me. From the director's diary:
Just past the last junkyard on the curdled fringe of Juárez, Highway 45 begins to cut through open desert. Distant mountains frame scattered abandoned houses. Silent witnesses to thousands of people escaping poverty and violence or those dismissed in shallow graves. The US border is only several miles away. There's good reason why a mental asylum run by its own patients exists here.
In 1998, 'El' Pastor Galvan, a street preacher from Juárez, started to build the asylum in the desert for the dispossessed. He called it Vision and Action.
'We started with four rooms – abandoned houses without a roof. 25 patients and 2 donkeys – the donkeys where utilized to carry firewood to the kitchen. My wife was with me and she was the one who cooked and cleaned the dishes.'
Some years later Juárez photographer Julian Cardona was driving down Highway 45 with his friend, writer Charles Bowden. Julian was going to take advantage of the late afternoon light to photograph a replica of the English Uffington White Horse etched into a mountain. The horse was paid for by Juárez cartel boss Amado Carrillo Fuentes, so called 'Lord of the Skies' because of his fleet of Boeing 727s.
While taking pictures they encountered people wandering the desert, draping mesquite bushes with blankets so as to burn off bloodsuckers in the sun. These people said they ran their own mental asylum nearby. The photographer and writer were amazed at what they found.