I once had a director at a festival (not Jedd or Todd Wider) admit that while he didn’t mind negative reviews too much, he did get annoyed by critics instructing him on how he should have directed his film.
The line between lamenting the movie we just saw and rhapsodizing over the film that might have been is a fuzzy one. Formal criticism of a film often implies (or outright states) how it might have been better. But critics also can fall into the trap of citing as a fault the fact that a film had a different tone, approach, or focus than what they were expecting. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for an artist to ask the critic to critique a film for what it is rather than for what it’s not.
Yet in citing reservations about God Knows Where I Am (★★★), it’s hard for me to bracket out what I know from its press release, from its advanced reviews, and from the directors’ comments during Full Frame’s Q&A session. The documentary begins with the discovery of a woman’s dead body in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. How she ended up there is one story. Her experience in that house leading up to her death, recorded in a journal, is another. The documentary tries to weave the two stories together. The first is tragically but prosaically told; the second is poetic, haunting, and oddly beautiful.
Linda Bishop’s story came to national attention through a New Yorker article with the same title as the film. Journalism–or even creative non-fiction–can be tough to translate to the screen. There are narratives embedded in reportage, but they are often interrupted to make broader points about the context and causes of a central “story.” This principle can be especially true of magazine or journal articles (as opposed to non-fiction books) where the underlying events are less often feature-length narrative than incidents or anecdotes used to exemplify or contextualize some broader issues.
The issue here is mental illness. Both the film and the New Yorker article use the story of Bishop’s life and death to present us with hard questions about mental health laws and the treatment of the ill in our society. How can universal rights–including the right to refuse drugs or other medical treatment–be balanced with the best interests of the society and the patient? At what point does consent cease to be informed consent? Is it better that one hundred sick people should die than that one healthy person be wrongfully forced to endure a violation of civil liberties? Or would we prefer that one hundred healthy people have their rights taken away if doing so might save just one sick person?
Those are compelling questions, but debating them doesn’t necessarily make for compelling film. What is woven in and out of a narrative in a magazine article can cause a documentary to grind to a halt. And in film we can’t flip the pages ahead to pick up the parts of the story we want to know.
The version of God Knows Where I Am clocked that played at Full Frame was 99 minutes. That’s not bloated by contemporary standards, but the film still felt elongated. Here’s the directors’ problem, though. One respondent at the festival criticized the theatrical version for not giving more time to the public policy debates about treating the mentally ill. Those were the very elements this critic would have had them cut even further.
The Widers told the audience that they did not want to make an advocacy film so much as an immersive one. What is unique about this story is not that a mentally ill patient was lost in a sea of byzantine regulations. It’s that we have a poignant journal that paints a vivid portrait for us of what it is like to be in the head of someone who is paranoid and delusional. The heartbreaking part of the film is not that Linda is sometimes incoherent–it’s that she is sometimes not. In moments of lucidity, through vivid descriptions, we catch a glimpse of the person we think may still be trapped somewhere beneath the illness. The extent to which the film, beautifully photographed by the Widers and performed by Singer, gets us to identify with Linda is the extent to which it succeeds. That’s what film (at its best) can do even better than print journalism; it can help us to vicariously experience another’s story rather than just tell us about it.
The Widers strive mightily to inject some of the diary’s and setting’s atmosphere into the talking heads portion of the film. Interviews with a police investigator is held in the same room where Linda’s body was discovered. Shots of Linda’s sister talking about driving past the farmhouse are interspersed with a view of the house from the nearest highway. But these images, while not as static as some talking head shots are, at best, still literal. They are illustrations of the information being imparted rather than images that inform our understanding of that information. In contrast the photography in the empty house is haunting. A small grate, a handful of apples on a table, a chair moved next to an attic window, a box of abandoned school books…each resonates deeply.
There are a number of images here that are beautiful in their own right and whose beauty is only enhanced by the significance imbued in them because of their function in the narrative. An apple grove at night. A pond almost frozen over. A page with a short line of handwriting, the reduction of a once promising life to the last fragile, frozen threads of physical existence.
God Knows Where I Am may well present a special challenge to Christian viewers. Linda’s journal evidences a life well versed in the Bible’s answers about why God allows suffering and illness. When she insists that all things work for the good of those who love God, the knowledge that the woman who writes that will soon be dead forces us to confront what we think those oft-cited words truly mean. Is it possible that a few hard weeks of freedom are better than years of institutionalized, narcotic somnambulance? When she asks Jesus to carry her home, do we rest in the confidence that he actually did? Is the point of God knowing where you are always, only that He can save you? Or that however hidden by snow and walls and sickness your body might be that your soul is never out of view from the one who made it?