By Greg Klymkiw
Too many filmmakers forget about the power of poetry in cinema. This is especially endemic in documentary work where far too many pictures seem limited to imparting facts and/or become so wrapped up in “story” (demanded by narrow, vision-bereft commissioning editors) that no matter how proficient the films are, they are – as films – all about the issue and/or subject matter at the centre of the work.
There is no such problem plaguing God Knows Where I Am. The picture is an absolute heartbreaker and a good deal of its success is directly attributable to its pace, style and structure which yields a film infused with all the qualities of the sublime. I challenge anyone to not weep profusely at several points within its elegiac 99 minute running time.
The picture charts the last weeks of Linda Bishop, an intelligent, sensitive middle-aged woman found dead in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Existing only on rainwater and apples from a bountiful tree, she felt trapped by dangers which threatened and frightened her to such a degree that she was unable to leave the comfort and shelter afforded to her by this lonely enclave. Eventually, as the apples ran out and the unheated house was battered by one of the coldest winters on record in New Hampshire, comfort gave way to agony and agony gave way to grace.
Directors Todd and Jedd Wider have constructed their film using a seemingly endless series of gorgeously composed and lit shots (gloriously mastered on FILM by cinematographer Gerardo Puglia), many of the dollies and tracking shots moving with the kind of slow beauty Vilmos Zsigmond employed in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. These haunting images, many of which are so stunning they’ll be seared on your soul for a lifetime, are accompanied by off-camera readings from Bishop’s actual journal by actress Lori (Footloose, Trouble in Mind, Shortcuts) Singer. Singer’s performance here is astonishing – she captures the pain, desperation and even small joys in Bishop’s life during these sad, lonely days with a sensitivity and grace linked wholly to the “character” of Bishop.
The aforementioned sequences are interspersed with actual 8mm home movie footage of Bishop as a child – once, bright, happy and full of the promise of a full life to live. The filmmakers also wend interviews into the film’s fabric with such figures as Bishop’s adult daughter, various friends and relatives, and a local police detective and medical examiner – all of whom contribute to a mystery which unravels with spellbinding dexterity.
In addition to the cinematography, the key creative elements in the picture are simply astonishing. Editor Keiko Deguchi creates a gentle, yet always compelling pace that contributes to the poetic nature of the film (and a few dissolves so powerful that each one knocks the wind out of you) while Paul Cantelon, Ivor Guest and Robert Logan have created one of the best scores I’ve heard in any documentary. Elements such as sound, art direction and visual effects are on a par with the best cinema can offer.
I’ve seen God Know Where I Am three times. It’s not only rich and layered enough to hold up on every viewing, but on an emotional level, I wept profusely – again and again and yet again.
This is great cinema and certainly a contender for one of the best documentaries of the new millennium. It captures profound poetic truths about homelessness, mental illness and loneliness which are rendered with such artistry and sensitivity that this is a film for the ages. 5 out of 5 stars.
by Andy Webster
“It will haunt you.”
by Kimber Myers
“A lyrical exploration of both a person and the place she died in, as well as a devastating commentary on American society’s approach to mental health.”
by Amy Ellis Nutt
“This is a film that lingers with the viewer. When the difference between living and dying is a walk across the street, it’s impossible not to feel how acutely America is failing the millions struggling with a mental illness.”
by Jessica Kiang
“God Knows Where I Am” is a chilling exploration of the misery of mental illness….The diaries are not just read but vocally embodied by Lori Singer in a vivid voiceover performance.”
by Bob Mondello
“They’re using the pacing and the lachrymose visuals to get us inside Linda’s head, giving us a sense of how she saw the world as it closed in on her: the loneliness, the ever-slowing pace of a life ebbing.”
by John DeFore
“God Knows Where I Am, the directing debut of brothers Jedd and Todd Wider. Producers of award-winning docs by Alex Gibney and others, the Widers apply great artistic ambition to a story few would handle in this manner, resulting in a haunting film that deserves the special jury prize it was awarded at Hot Docs. At its heart, it remains a quiet elegy for a woman who needn’t have died so soon, or so alone.”
by Christopher Orr
“Throughout the beautiful, evocative, and ultimately heartbreaking tale of Linda Bishop, the Widers use a variety of cameras and film formats to grant the movie an almost dreamlike feel, and they’re aided immeasurably by Bishop’s meticulous daily journal, which is read with tenderness and humanity by Lori Singer, bringing Bishop elegantly to life as the chronicler of her own story.”
by Andrew Parker
“The Widers pair stunning cinematography with expertly performed narration provided by actress Lori Singer. The actress steps inside Bishop so completely that it’s impossible not to sit in stunned silence listening to every word of the journals as they’re delivered. It builds to a conclusion the audience knows is coming, but also to a message that something needs to be done to help those who need it most. God Knows Where I Am one of the best, subtlest, most deeply personal looks inside the failings of the mental health care system in some time.”
by Norman Wilner
“The Widers don’t sensationalize any of this. God Knows Where I Am is a gentle, elegiac work, with great compassion for its subject. Indeed, it’s Linda’s own voice that comes through most powerfully, represented in readings from her journal performed by the actor Lori Singer. 4 out of 4 stars.“
by Nina Metz
“The story of Linda Bishop — both her life and the initially mysterious circumstances of her death — is carefully and entrancingly told in the documentary “God Knows Where I Am” (opening at Facets this week). Unfolding much like a well-paced episode of “This American Life,” the film succeeds largely on the strength of its gorgeous cinematography and the immediacy of Linda’s journals from those final months, heard in voiceover as if she were narrating the film itself.”
by Lloyd I. Sederer, M.D.
Medical Director of NYS Office of Mental Health
“When you watch this powerful film, which is artfully rendered with compassion and intelligence, you will appreciate that these types of cerebral arguments should fall to the wayside when a person’s life is at stake. Linda Bishop did not need to suffer, nor die. Her death was a failure in care produced by blind obedience to spurious logic and to professional diffidence.”
by Walter Addiego
“A dead woman tells her own harrowing story in the documentary “God Knows Where I Am.” It’s the kind of movie you need to be prepared for — its most intense moments have echoes of tragic literature.”
by Ben Sachs
“The film presents a heartbreaking portrait of Bishop, with haunting testimony from people who knew her and passages from her journal read movingly by actress Lori Singer.”
by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
“Let us hope and pray that this disturbing documentary opens more hearts and minds to mental illness and the crucial-but-neglected issues surrounding it.”
by Mike Scott
“God Knows Where I Am is, above all, a very human story and a very well-told one — which, in the end, makes it very hard to forget.”
by Ted Metrakas
“A strange, sad life that met an unimaginably cruel end, God Knows Where I Am is the scariest, saddest film of the year.”
by MaryAnn Johanson
“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.”
by Brad Gullickson
“God Knows Where I Am finds the emotional pain of the forgotten.”
by Joe Bendel
“God Knows Where I Am is a quiet contemplation of human frailty and mortality.”
by Kimberly Vetrano
“God Knows Where I Am is a deeply moving story about one woman and her struggles with mental illness. Linda’s story – although not typical – is similar to what thousands of others are going through right now in our country.”
by Shane Slater
“It would have been easy for the film to approach its advocacy role through sensationalism. But the film comes from an altogether more inspired and intimate perspective.”
by LC Cragg
“GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM is an emphatically touching story that needed to be told.”
by James Van Maanen
“God Knows Where I Am is beautifully filmed, the events reconstructed in simple, often stunning ways that never try to hide their “re-creations” while also making them seem part and parcel of Linda’ life. Lori Singer’s readings are spot-on, and though, during the many interviews included here, you may look for a villain or two, I doubt that you will find one. Everyone — including, yes, Linda herself — seemed to do his or her best under difficult circumstances. The movie brings us closer to understanding, even experiencing, mental illness that almost any I can remember.”
by Friedl Kreuser
“The cinematic challenge of an intimate documentary with an absent protagonist is met with stylistic flair by directors Jedd and Todd Wider, and cinematographer Gerardo Puglia, opting for haunting, detailed camera work that captures the wintery atmosphere of Linda’s final months, floats through the empty spaces of the house she hid herself in and makes visceral her starvation by documenting her dwindling supply of decaying apples.”
by Ulkar Alakbarova
“God Knows Where I am” is a documentary film that must be seen with no excuses. It’s superbly directed. Imaginative. Seemingly, a passionate project for the Wider Brothers, who I wish continue their collaboration the same way.” 5 out of 5 stars.
by Michael Thomas
“Audiences are treated to some of the most beautiful cinematography to ever be seen in a documentary. God Knows Where I Am was created to give back some dignity to Linda Bishop, a wise and funny woman whose life turned tragic and it succeeds beautifully. This documentary is pure poetry.”
“God Knows Where I Am rewards the patient viewer. It is never exploitative or maudlin, and treats its subject matter with extreme delicacy without ever pulling punches. It earns your every teardrop without resorting to gimmickry or cheap emotional ploys. It eschews the usual tropes about mental illness and will stay with you for days.”
“While Lori Singer gives voice to Bishop’s words, Jedd and Todd Wider paint us a picture of what her last days would have looked like with truly stunning and poetical cinematography. Hopelessness and beauty intermingle, making for some stirring, if haunting, images. Combined with her journal entries read aloud, these images make her story all the more personal. God Knows Where I Am is both an intimate portrait and a rousing call to action.”
Thirty Four Flavours
“MUST SEE AT HOT DOCS: God Knows Where I Am will break your heart but also empower you to question, be helpful and provide encouragement to the vulnerable in our lives. God Knows Where I Am is wonderfully shot and captures the isolation, desperation and human condition at its essence.”
by Bob Ignizio
“The Wider’s film has a bit of an Errol Morris feel to it, combining the expected on camera interviews with Linda’s family, friends, and other involved parties with more artistic passages utilizing the apples Linda lived on as their primary motif. It’s the kind of thing that takes what was already a compelling and informative film into the realm of art. 4 out of 4 stars.“
by Daniel Cook Johnson
“GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM is a chilling, dark doc debut from the Wider brothers, who have learned well from producing several of ace documentarian Alex Gibney’s project. I know that Linda’s sad, haunting story will stay with me for some time.”
by Evan Dorrycott
“The quality of this film making is something I must continue to acknowledge. God Knows Where I Am features some of the best cinematography I’ve seen, and by far the best I’ve seen within a documentary to date. The film opens to the most stunning picture, and continues throughout the feature with devastatingly gorgeous shot after shot, all while keeping the suspenseful theme alive and not taking anything away from the heartbreak of Linda’s story. Directors Jedd Wider and Todd Wider masterfully accomplish a beautiful flow to this doc, accomplishing a balance between the narration and the input from family and friends. I found myself encapsulated in this story, knowing the inevitable ending but still clinging to any hope that Linda comes around. 5 out of 5 stars.“
by Molly Laich
God Knows Where I Am is one of those rare, beautiful films that has the courage to dwell in its own sadness. The title comes directly from the diary of Linda Bishop, so from this, if nothing else, we know she’s a gifted writer. At the start, we meet her corpse, found in an abandoned farmhouse after she’d been living there off of scavenged apples and melted snow for four months during a particularly harsh New Hampshire winter in 2008.
Prospective buyers found her inside the house with the doors locked from the inside. The film begins like a ghost story and more or less ends that way. It looks at first glance like a suicide, but the diary they found laid out helpfully next to the body reveals a story far more complicated. It’s a testament to directors Jedd and Todd Wider that the film manages to be so enrapturing with so little actual footage to work with. (The Widers worked previously on the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Darkside.) The film consists of some pictures and footage from Linda’s childhood and middle life, interviews with friends, family members, doctors and police officers, and really not much else. The bulk of the story comes from artistically shot interiors of the old farmhouse, where the apples she picked from the orchard serve to mark the passage of time. In October, she has 300 apples, until that number dwindles down to 190, a couple of dozen, three or four and then, tragically, none.
Actress Lori Singer ties the picture together with her inspired voiceover reading of the diary entries. You don’t need to be a doctor to intuit that Linda was very likely mentally ill. Who else would let herself slowly starve to death alone instead of reaching out for help? Not a well person.
From there, the film opens up into a fascinating exploration of the complicated issues surrounding patients’ rights for the mentally ill. Linda Bishop never believed she was sick, and under New Hampshire law she couldn’t be forced to take her medication. The film seems to lean toward a thesis that the system failed to protect her, but I wonder if there’s room for a more nuanced interpretation. The symptoms of mania and/or schizophrenia are no picnic, but neither are the drugs we use to treat them. It’s complicated. This is the kind of documentary that inspires and really insists on long deliberations over coffee afterward. (Molly Laich)