[Editor’s Note: One of the principal reasons documentary film is currently experiencing such recent rebirth is directly attributable to the advent of digital cameras. Not having to be precious about burning expensive film, nonfiction filmmakers are free in a way they never were in the first hundred years of cinema. Which is why, when a rare doc like “God Knows Where I Am” chooses to shoot in 16mm and 35mm, it tends to stick out.
“God Knows Where I Am” is a feature-length documentary film about Linda Bishop, a well-educated mother suffering from severe bipolar disorder, who became homeless and was eventually committed to the New Hampshire State psychiatric hospital for three years. After refusing treatment and wandering ten miles away from the hospital, Bishop broke into an abandoned historical farmhouse where she lived off rainwater and apples she picked from a nearby orchard during one of the coldest winters on record in New Hampshire. When they found her dead, they also discovered a diary she kept daily during her four month stay at the farmhouse that documents her loss of sanity but also her insight, humor and spirituality.
Indiewire asked the award-winning directors Jedd and Todd Wider what it was about Bishop’s journey that called for a return to celluloid and using a variety of cameras that ranged from a 1939 Eyemo to the modern Arri Alexa.]
Depicting Mental Illness
In tackling the subject matter, we focused on the important social justice issues of the film through an intimate and artistic exploration. How does one depict insanity? How does one depict the interior landscape of a person who is imprisoned by the mind? How do we, as filmmakers, build empathy for a person who is no longer alive? The film is told from a variety of perspectives, including Linda’s own, through recollection and first person narrative. It unfolds in a way that echoes films like “Rashomon,” where the audience sees different versions of an event. Here, the audience is presented with different views of the unraveling of a human being, including her own view. Which view do you trust? We wanted to create a unique documentary that pushes the boundaries of the medium artistically and, at the same time, questions our societal norms for dealing with the mentally ill.
In creating the film, we, together with our cinematographer Gerardo Puglia, were very conscious of exploring the visual medium in a purposeful manner. We chose to use film as well as digital video. As Linda was an art history major before her break with sanity, the aesthetic and visual nature of telling the story was explored in ways that reference both film history and art history. The work of specific painters such as Hammershoi, Wyeth and Magritte, and filmmakers such as Tarkovsky and Malick influenced the palate of the film. Subtle reference to religious iconography was also made because Linda’s diary becomes increasingly spiritual as it moves towards the end of Linda’s life.
Shooting in Film: Using Historical Cameras
The depiction of Linda’s conscious state was shot in film, using 35mm, 16mm, and Super 16mm for different reasons. We employed a variety of cameras, including a 1939 Bell & Howell Eyemo (a camera used in WWII war photography) and a 1980s Aaton XTR Prod, each for thematic reasons to underline notions of dreamscapes, personal nostalgia and commercial memory. We tried to elevate the visual quality of the film as a way to honor Linda, who was an extremely insightful and visual person.
Shooting in Film: Super 16MM
Linda hid in an attic in the farmhouse, trying to avoid being seen by neighbors, where she found magazines from the 1970s, many of which depicted advertisements for food. Those ads had a certain patina and do not feel like ads from today. We tried to echo the nostalgia of the ads and when we turned to capturing the numerous recipes and food segments in the diary Linda wrote about, we felt it was appropriate to shoot those scenes in Super 16mm.
When Linda writes about how hungry she is while she is starving and how she is dreaming of a Thanksgiving dinner, we wanted to present the imagery of food in both an enticing and dreamy way. We wanted the audience to feel hunger but also feel they were seeing a dream. Many of the food shots were shot in Super 16mm with an Aaton XTR to capture a sense of nostalgia, but also a sense of unease as further enhanced by the graininess of the film. These were images that represented, to a certain extent, a distorted reality of a mentally ill woman yearning for and imagining food, but yearning for food as she imagined it from food commercials she had seen years before when she was more lucid.
Shooting in Film: 35MM
When we turned to depicting what Linda may have seen looking outside the window of the farmhouse over the four month period she was there, or within the room that she died, we did not want to use a medium that felt too immediate or hypertransient, so we chose 35mm film, which requires patience and deliberation to compose shots. While in the farmhouse, in a metaphoric sense, Linda lived in a world of film, a world not completely rooted in modernity. There was no electricity or heat, and she spent her time writing in a diary, collecting apples and dreaming, not surfing on the internet. 35mm film image also has an extremely beautiful quality to it, and much of what Linda was looking at outside including rolling fields, an historic barn, lilac branches, a rambling brook, deer and birds, etc. was extremely beautiful. The 1939 Eyemo was used to help map the internal landscapes of the house as well as evoke a sense of memory. One of our Eyemos was also spring-wound which gave the images a sense of uneasiness in its inconsistent exposure uniformity and flicker quality.
Shooting in Film: 16MM
When Linda was released from the state psychiatric hospital, she wandered through various paths in the forest feeling a sense of freedom until she arrived ultimately at the farmhouse. We shot these scenes with a 16mm 1966 Bolex and a 16mm 1972 Canon Scoopic. 16mm was ideal to capture the vigor and agitation of her journey from the hospital which was helped by the grain of the film. We wanted to free these shoots from any sense of formalism and we openly embraced the streaks of light, soft grainy over-exposed images and lens flares that naturally came with shooting in 16mm. We freed the camera without even looking through the viewfinder. In these 16mm scenes, the viewer does not merely see but actually experiences the act of Linda walking vigorously from the hospital, away out of town and through the forest towards the farmhouse.
Shooting in Digital Video
We conducted many of the interviews in the actual farmhouse where Linda lived and ultimately died. These interviews were shot in digital video with a Canon C300 to capture the truth of those who came to know Linda over the years and to create a feel of those interviewees being truly present or immediate.
We used an Arriflex Alexa in most of the nature shots in the film. Linda lived through one of the worst winters in New Hampshire history. The fall and winter months play a prominent role in the film as Linda struggles through a frozen landscape to attempt to survive longer as she runs out of apples and water. Her desperation in running out of food is mirrored in the desolation of the physical surroundings around her. As she slowly approaches death so does the farmhouse and nature under the weight of winter. The Alexa was stunningly effective in helping us to search for nature’s soul in the sun, clouds, snowstorms, icicles hanging from the farmhouse windows and frozen hills throughout this desperate New Hampshire winter. We used the Alexa for the eye-of-God shots.
Using a Technocrane
We also used a Technocrane with a 60-foot telescopic arm and remote-controlled camera. The smoothness of the arm helped us to recollect the meditations of a solitary soul moving through the interiors of the farmhouse and landscape with a great sense of precision and composition. The beam of light near the end of the film reminds one of the “camera obscura” when images of memory are pushed / forced through a tear in the curtain. In addition, the death scene at the end of the film was shot with a Lensbaby where the lens was actually attached to a piece of accordion like rubber giving the impression of losing consciousness just by moving the optics in and out between one’s fingers.
Sound: Creating an Experiential Documentary
One of our goals in making this film was to create what we call an experiential documentary. We wanted the audience to experience and feel a little of what Linda might have felt. When she writes about silence in her journal, we wanted the audience to feel what silence sounded like inside the farmhouse as she sat alone in the attic in the middle of the night. Likely sounds Linda may have heard were the sounds of the wind swirling through the double-hung windows, the distant sound of cars, occasional dogs and birds, lapping water from the brook near the farmhouse and the creaking of the old floorboards in the farmhouse. We captured those sounds in the same rooms where Linda sat.
Celebrating The Humanity of the Film Subject
We strived to celebrate the humanity of Linda Bishop by not only telling her story, but by portraying cinematically what she most likely experienced in the New Hampshire farmhouse where she lived for four months prior to her death – what she saw, what she heard, what she thought. By paying close attention to the use of film and camera we attempted to elevate and highlight those experiences and respect the dignity of Linda’s journey.
Jedd Wider and Todd Wider have produced seventeen critically and commercially successful feature documentary films over the past 15 years including Academy Award, Emmy Award and Peabody Award winning “Taxi to the Dark Side” (directed by Alex Gibney), Academy Award nominated “Kings Point,” Primetime Emmy Award winning and Peabody Award winning “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” Emmy Award nominated “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” and Emmy Award nominated “Semper Fi: Always Faithful.”
“God Knows Where I Am” is their directorial debut. The film will screen at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this weekend and at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival later this month.