God Knows Where I Am documentary review: into her mind

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God Knows Where I Am green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A meditative, enormously sad, and sometimes angry-making portrait; provides a stark peek into a mind mentally ill yet remarkably confident and determined.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

In May 2008, the body of a middle-aged woman was discovered in an empty New Hampshire farmhouse, after one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record. She had been dead for some months. Her identity was not a mystery: she left a note with her name, date of birth, social security number, and other information, including where she would like to be buried. Did she commit suicide? If so, why, and why here, in a house she did not own and that was not fit for human habitation? If not, why did she think her death was a certainty? Perhaps answers to all these questions would be found in the diary that was beside her body…

Moody and melancholy, God Knows Where I Am is the directorial debut of brothers Jedd and Todd Wider, documentary producers who’ve frequently collaborated with Alex Gibney. (They produced Mea Maxima Culpa, among others of Gibney’s films.) The Widers paint a meditative, enormously sad, and sometimes angry-making portrait of a troubled woman — her name turned out to be Linda Bishop — partly through interviews with family and friends, all of whom express frustration over their inability to cope with a person who was unable to fully care for herself but who rejected the help she required. But the most remarkable aspect of the film is the hauntingly gorgeous reveries of the house and surrounding countryside — shot by cinematographer Gerardo Puglia — just as it all would have been during the winter Bishop spent there, overlain by excerpts of Bishop’s diary read by actor Lori Singer (Experimenter), which provide a stark peek into a mind mentally ill yet remarkably confident and determined. Bishop suffered from bipolar disorder, and as we delve deep into her delusions and listen to the exasperations of the people who knew her, the challenges of coping with mental illness for our medical and legal cultures and for our society at large are laid bare in devastatingly poignant ways.

Linda Bishop in happier, healthier times.
Linda Bishop in happier, healthier times.

In some ways, God Knows recalls Into the Wild, the true story of a young man called Christopher McCandless who wandered off into the wilderness wholly unprepared to live there, and so he died there. McCandless was perhaps not sick, merely dangerously naive, but Bishop shared with him a love of nature, a rejection of material things, and an embrace of solitude; at one point in her diary she wrote that she was “definitely enjoying not having to be with people for a while.” The horrors of Bishop’s story are different from McCandless’s, but both speak to our inability to make space for those who need more space — mentally as well as physically — than many of us do. Some found tragic romance in McCandless’s story; there is nothing but tragedy in Bishop’s.

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