When filmmaker Todd Wider read about the story of Joan Bishop in a New Yorker article, he knew he wanted to make a film about it. “God Knows Where I Am,” the resulting documentary, takes the viewer inside the New Hampshire woman’s final days via the diary discovered next to her body in the abandoned house where she died.
Though the film starts out mysteriously, it does not tell the story of a murder or even a suicide — it tells the story of how Bishop’s mental illness led directly to her death, and raises questions about mental health care in the U.S. and what could have been done to prevent it.
After a screening of the film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series in Los Angeles, Wider said that Bishop’s story struck him as “particularly tragic and lonesome.”
Bishop was diagnosed as schizophrenic and slowly transformed from a dedicated mother into a paranoid, homeless woman who refused to take medication for her disease. She eventually died three months after being released from a state mental hospital — where her family thought she was still safely living.
“It defies the imagination that we live in this country that is so rich and so powerful with so many resources and has the capacity to be incredibly generous, actually, in many respects,” Wider said, “but yet we live among people who are so severely mentally ill and in such dire circumstance.”
He added, “I wanted to get inside someone’s head in that situation because I wanted people to be angry and feel sad…I wanted people to be shaken a little.”
Bishop kept a detailed diary of her final days living off of apples and snow in an empty Concord, New Hampshire home, and Wider recruited actress Lori Singer to bring her voice to life so that the film would tell Bishop’s story from her point of view. Though Wider and his filmmaker brother, Jedd, interviewed plenty of mental-health experts for the film, ultimately none of them appear in it.
“The more we got into this, the more personal this became and the more, frankly, powerful we thought it would be without those talking heads,” he explained. “I don’t think one necessarily needs to spoon-feed an audience.”
Though there’s not an explicit call to action at the end of the film, Wider said he hopes people will be inspired to push for mental healthcare reform.
“Our prison system has become the primary caregiver of the mentally ill in the United States,” Wider said.
Because Bishop was declared competent enough not to need guardianship, she was allowed to refuse the medication that would have likely helped save her life.
“You may have the right to do so, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to occur,” Wider, a former doctor, said. “There’s a permissiveness, almost like a laziness, in terms of exercising one’s civil liberties. As one doctor said, your civil liberties don’t serve you if you’re dead.”
Watch clips from the Q&A below:
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.