February 7, 2012 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Documentary filmmaking threatened by court ruling on autism documentary

Reporters Without Borders is deeply disturbed by the precedent that a court in the northern city
of Lille set on 26 January when it ordered documentary filmmaker Sophie Robert to remove
interviews with three psychoanalysts from her film about the treatment of autism and to pay them
a large sum in damages for “misrepresenting” their views.

“By basing his ruling on how Robert chose to edit her film, the judge assumed the mantle of
journalism critic,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The ruling’s consequences increase its
gravity. Even if she appeals, Robert is now at the mercy of bailiffs who are demanding immediate
payment of more than 25,000 euros. After the seizure of the original interview footage in October,
we are shocked yet again by the disproportionate nature of the judge’s decision.

“His arguments are extremely dangerous for the future of documentary filmmaking. Taking a
position, defending a point of view – which is only natural with such a controversial subject – has
been treated as misrepresentation. Will any person interviewed for a documentary now be able to
request seizure of the footage and its withdrawal from the documentary? Will only toned-down,
anodyne documentaries now be tolerated?”

The court ordered Robert to pay between 5,000 and 7,000 euros in damages to each of the three
psychoanalysts – Eric Laurent, Esthela Solano-Suarez and Alexandre Stevens – she interviewed
for her film, “The Wall – Psychoanalysis put to the Autism Test.” The court also ordered her to
withdraw the interviews from the film and publish an apology, and ruled that its orders should take
immediate effect, even if she decided to appeal.

The film is a scathing criticism of the way French psychoanalysts treat autistic children. It
portrays their methods as backward and accuses them of blaming the parents. Although the
three psychoanalysts she interviewed signed releases allowing her to edit their comments, they
nonetheless brought a suit accusing her of distorting their views.

“The Wall is a contribution to the debate on a issue of public interest – using psychoanalysis to
treat autism – and is therefore by protected by article 10 of the European Convention on Human
Rights, which concerns free expression, and by the jurisprudence stemming from this article,”
Reporters Without Borders said.

“At no time did the judge refer to the right to inform the public or the principles recognized by the
European Court in Strasbourg, namely accepting a degree of exaggeration, taking account of
good faith and tolerating ideas that shock or offend. He also ignored the principle that a penalty
should be proportionate to the harm inflicted and the defendant’s ability to pay. Applying article
1382 of the French Civil Code, concerning civil liability, was also regrettable as it prevented
Robert from benefitting from the guarantees granted by more specific legal provisions.”

Reporters Without Borders supports Robert’s appeal and hopes that the appeal court will take
account of the principle of free expression, as enshrined in the constitution..