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GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM (2016) review

May 8, 2017

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produced by: Jedd Wider and Todd Wider
directed by: Jedd Wider and Todd Wider
rating: unrated
runtime: 97 min.
U.S. release date: April 7, 2016 (Cleveland International Film Festival) & May 5, 2017 – May 11, 2017 (Facets Multimedia, Chicago, IL)

 

“God Knows Where I Am” should make you think (perhaps rethink) about certain people you encounter repeatedly in your life. The kind of people in our lives that we see all the time, yet we just don’t know that much about. They could be a co-worker, a fellow student, a neighbor or someone we always see as we go about our day.  He or she may be outgoing and helpful or socially inept and withdrawn. I thought of these people and what little I knew of them while watching this documentary from directors Jedd Wider and Todd Wider  (“Taxi to the Dark Side”; “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”), which focuses on Linda Bishop, a homeless woman whose dead body was found in May 2008 in an abandoned farmhouse in New Hampshire, months after she had died alone. What happened here? What was this person’s life like? What were her hopes and dreams in life? How did she end up like this?

These questions and more is what I can only assume led to the production of this documentary. It has both an investigative approach and a creative, contemplative yet haunting vibe to the film. Still, there’s something about “God Knows Where I Am” that found me wondering why this person’s story is being told as I  was watching it.

 

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All that was found near Bishop’s body was a journal that she used to document her time there. In it she states her death “is a result of domestic violence/abuse,” yet it’s unclear where she arrived at that proclamation. As the documentary unfolds, there’s a palpable true-crime approach with the inclusion of  home video footage, digitally shot interviews, much of which are filmed in a romanticized fashion on 16mm and 35mm film that covers the vast location where Bishop hid out during her last months. To further place the viewer in Bishop’s mind, actress Lori Singer (“Footloose”, “Short Cuts”) recites Bishop’s journal entries, at times turning sentence fragments into more complete and elegant sentences. Between Singer’s delivery and the filmmakers keen eye for the beauty and nature that surround the location, there is almost a peaceful and serene evocation, despite the dour foreboding tone that builds.

What we learn from the talking heads that either know her (family), discovered her (owners of the empty house) or add input to her situation or condition (law enforcement officials and medical specialists), forms a picture of who she was and what could possibly have happened to her – not to mention the options that were well within reach of her surroundings. Between her journal and what medical professionals could ascertain, Bishop died of starvation and a mental illness. One certainly did not help the other. She lived off of apples from nearby trees, which she would only pick at night, and rain water or, when winter set in, snow was added to her sustenance. She would spend her days eating, reading, and sleeping and at night she would harvest apples and/or bathe in nearby running water. Bishop survived on this regiment for nearly four months, waiting for God to save her, as she experienced one of the coldest winters in that area.

Through the recollections of people who knew her best – primarily her sister, Joan Bishop, and her sole daughter, Caitlin Murtagh – we discover that Linda Bishop was a well-educated mother suffering from severe bipolar psychosis, who was committed to a state psychiatric hospital for three years before successfully fighting off her sister’s protective attempts to be named her legal guardian. She determined the facility wasn’t helping her and left on her own volition in 2001, making her way presumably on foot all the way to Ground Zero where she become something of an “angel” to volunteers. There was obviously a desire to help others within her, but she obviously couldn’t face helping herself.

While the filmmakers apply a definite reflective visual style toward the documentary – it opens with a dramatic camerawork that circles an apple tree, richly illuminated under a starry sky, establishing a connection between art and nature that honors both Bishop, an art history major, and the food that kept her alive through her last weeks – overall, it feels too deliberate. Like they’re trying to deliver a rehearsed style that doesn’t ever really feel like it’s coming naturally.

There’s also a moment in the film where it seems like its grasping for blame, to point to a reason why this happened. In doing so, there’s a not-so-subtle attempt at making a statement about our nation’s treatment of the mentally ill. There’s a moment where Linda’s sister states “the system failed her”, which is an oft-used broad statement applied to situations where someone in need doesn’t get the help they require. The only way I can see “the system” failing someone like Linda Bishop is when it becomes clear how easy it is for a patient to just check themselves out, when they definitely should remain in inpatient care. I’ve seen this before in my own life and it’s as frustrating as it is heartbreaking.  Bottom line: a person has to want to receive help.  The only way a system can protect those who cannot protect themselves is if the person needing help allows it.

 

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The film is at its most emotional when we hear from Bishop’s sister and daughter. Here is where it takes on a more dynamic approach to discussing her mental illness, allowing the family members to discuss the ways in which they were hurt and abandoned by Bishop. There’s no finger-pointing during these moments, it’s just raw and natural unloading, like a form of catharsis for those inadvertently left in Linda’s wake.

Certain aspects of Bishop’s life, like her newfound faith in God (or religion? It’s never clear) in her later years and, are only touched on. The sadness and futility of her situation however is unsettling to take in as the film progresses to what we already know to be a fatal end.  However, more than once I couldn’t help but wonder what this film was trying to touch on or say.

Apparently, Bishop’s story was first brought to light in Rachel Aviv’s 2011 New Yorker article published under the same title, but I can only assume that Aviv’s written work offers a more poetic look at a life lost than this documentary. The confounding thing about “God Knows Where I Am” is how it made me think of the thousands of disenfranchised homeless that live throughout the country. Linda Bishop is just one person.  The saddest part of it all, the part that weighs heavily on our chest as we watch it and never truly lets up, is that Bishop remained trapped in her lonely, desperate state, even though help was within reach.

Since premiering last year along the festival circuit, “God Knows Where I Am” has received eight awards, including Best US Documentary Feature Film (American Documentary Film Festival), Special Jury Prize (Hot Docs) and Best Documentary Film (Maryland International Film Festival). It is now slowly received a limited theatrical release.

 

RATING: **

 

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