The art of filmmaking is when you’re able to tell in your movie an ordinary story in an extraordinary way. It’s when you put everything you have into your story in order for the viewer to grasp it from the beginning and to be drown up until its over. Todd and Jedd Wider have achieved something incredible in their documentary film “God Knows Where I Am”. It`s imaginative. Great! Well-crafted film about subject that will disturb any sane mind.
During the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto, I got an opportunity to interview Todd and Jedd Wider to discuss ‘God Knows Where I Am”.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the editing?
Todd Wider: The editor we chose was Keiko Deguchi, who’s a Japanese American woman and a brilliant editor. We were blessed to have her; she actually took over the project from someone else. She came on and turned in a rough cut in a couple of months and I thought, “Okay, we’re done, this is exactly what I wanted!” She said, “No we’re not done.” We spent another year editing that! She has a very beautiful way of understanding imagery and she cuts in a musical way; it unfolds gradually. The piece as a whole is sort of an elegy to the idea of memory, nostalgia. We chose certain musical elements to echo that, there was a specific waltz that was written. These films live and die in the edit room. A lot of the movie has been shot in film.
MOVIEMOVESME: Why did you decide to tell the story of Linda Bishop?
Todd Wider: The inspiration came from an encounter I had, when I came home one night and a homeless man had broken into my apartment in New York City. It was a very cold February night and he said he’d broken in because it was very cold and he didn’t want anything but to be warm. I called the police, they came and asked, “Do you want to press charges?” I asked them what happens to him if I press charges. They said that he’ll be taken down to the precinct and let him go in an hour or two. I said that I’d like him to go to a shelter and I wouldn’t press charges if they promised to take him to one. They agreed and I see them take him and after a couple of blocks they dropped him off and he disappears into the dark night. A few months later I walk outside the place I live and see a gentleman sitting on a chair. He was muttering, completely delusional, not eating, shaking back and forth and screaming. After a number of calls they sent the community representative to talk to me. She asked why did I keep calling them. I said to her that I think she should take him to the hospital. She said he’s not hurting anyone and he’s not a risk to others. She said if you want to change this, change the society. That was the fire I guess that started the desire to make the film. Then we found the specific story from an article in the New Yorker about Linda Bishop. We started doing a deep dive into what happened with her. So we started the film as a polemic, examining a bigger societal issue but we quickly decided we would focus down on Linda’s story to give a creative expression of her journey. We wanted to put a face and a name on this issue to get people’s empathy regarding the issue.
MOVIEMOVESME: Do you think the society has been built in a way that people turn a blind eye to things going around them?
Jedd Wider: When you look at the property there, it’s over 100 acres. Right across the street there was a home that’s next to this house but looks further down, several hundred feet away. Everyone knew that the owners were not there, the house was left on its own. The owners came down periodically. You can see through one of the windows the large television screen. She really did her best to avoid being found and caught. There was a paranoia element to what she was suffering from. She writes about this pretty extensively in her journal. She went out at night to collect apples.
Todd Wider: She suffered from an extreme paranoia delusionality; she believed that people were looking for her. When she leaves the hospital and she’s not medicated, she spies a plane flying overehead and she thinks the plane maybe is looking for her. So she backs up and changes path and when it starts to rain she finds herself a shelter and hence the house. She would not have found the farmhouse if not for the paranoia. So for her not being found was important. The neighbors knew nothing what was going on. What you’re talking about is the Bystander Phenomenon when people witness a crime but for some reason the chance of the people stopping the crime decreases. This case however was not the bystander phenomenon. However, it’s this phenomenon in our society that allows the overlooking of homeless people.
Jedd Wider: Just to be clear we are extremely confident that neighbors had no idea that she was there. We spent time with the neighbors, they were concerned afterwards and horrified about what had happened.
MOVIEMOVESME: What do you think can be done to avoid incidents such as this?
Jedd Wider: I think this issue of mental illness and homelessness and how it’s treated is a very nuanced, multi-faceted issue that has many different answers to it. We wanted to shine a light on it. In this case there were multiple instances where you can say that if something had been structured differently or had action been taken the result perhaps might have been different. The hospital could have legally held her longer. I think there’s an issue, at least in the US, it is somewhat problematic that the family members are not part of decision making whether to accept treatment or not. The other issue is that in many states in the US there are judges making decisions with respect to mental care.
Todd Wider: And they have no idea about it; they have no medical training or understanding of illnesses. They are not able to judge a person’s mental status or competence.
Jedd Wider: There are states in the US where there are mental health courts and decisions are made by people who are trained. But there are numerous areas all around the world where these decisions are being made with respect to severely mentally ill people and the decisions are just flat out wrong. There’s no justification, no rationale behind many of these decisions. If they would’ve taken a look at the medical records, they would’ve seen that Linda was filled with delusionality.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the structure of the movie?
Todd Wider: I think we wanted to touch the audience; we wanted the audience to feel something for this woman in an attempt in our own way to restore some of the dignity that was robbed from her and how she died. The way the film is structured, the visual nature, soundtrack has a certain beauty. We wanted to honor her memory and her sense of artistry. We wanted to resonate emotionally with the audience. It’s not a talking heads documentary with dry data and facts.
Jedd Wider: We wanted to create what we thought would be an experiential documentary. More important was her own voice, which was the journal. In that journal she writes about things that she saw through the window like robin’s landing on lilac branches. She writes about astrology, plants and flowers, food, other human elements. She was a woman with an art history major and had an incredible passion for art, life and love. So we set out to structure the film in a way where as the viewer you are left in that house and see, hear and feel what Linda did. That for us was what we wanted to accomplish.