Our latest interview with talent from this year’s Nantucket Fest is with the directors of the feature documentary, GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM, which just won a Special Jury prize at HOTDOCS. Veteran documentarians, Todd and Jedd Wider are brothers and creative collaborators on this powerful film which tackles the subject of mental illness through the personal journey of its subject, Linda Bishop. We recently got to chat with Todd and Jedd.
NFF: The New Yorker did a profile of Linda Bishop’s story, but yours is a much more artful approach than one might expect from a documentary. When did you first learn of Linda Bishop, and how did you decide to approach telling her story?
Todd: My inspiration came from an encounter with a homeless man in New York. I would see him in the neighborhood, and called the Police to help him and they asked me why I kept calling. It led to a discussion around social services for the mentally ill who fall into this gap where they’re not under medical treatment, aren’t necessarily criminal, and may only come into light if they’re being considered a public nuisance. I also came across Rachel Aviv’s article (from the New Yorker) and she was a great resource. She’s listed as a consulting producer on the film. As to the approach to telling the story, that came in the filmmaking. Our thought was we should show Linda Bishop’s state of mind in depicting her story, because that would be the best means for gaining empathy from the audience.
Jedd: We are documentary veterans and are attracted to stories with socio-political relevance and we like to shine a light on under-discussed topics to, hopefully, inspire people to do something. For this topic, treatment of the mentally ill and homeless is lacking in our society. Linda’s story should be a cautionary tale for us as a society; she fell through the cracks and suffered an experience no one should have to go through.
NFF: The photography of the film has a weightless feel; almost trippy. Can you describe how you developed the look with your cinematographer?
Jedd: Our Cinematographer, Gerardo Puglia, is so gifted and was a brilliant creative partner. We wanted to make an experimental type of documentary, lending the viewer Linda’s perspective as she lived in the house, so the film was crafted to put the viewer inside the farmhouse. Linda’s food writings and recipes were written in great detail and we shot all of it. Her writings are so descriptive, it’s clear she wrote from memory, but her fixation on food was around the time that she was actually running out of food and beginning to starve. So we used 16mm for the food shots to give it that aged patina look. And the floating camera that’s used throughout is meant to convey ‘the eye of God,’ or an omniscient viewpoint.
NFF: Linda Bishop’s journal gave you this rich resource of her voice. Did you know you wanted to have the entries performed from the start? Talk about your casting of Linda’s voice.
Jedd: We always knew we wanted to incorporate the journals because it’s Linda’s voice, but we also wanted to have a window into her state of mind which evolves and eventually disintegrates. The matter of how it would be used evolved during the making of the film. We considered using passages or doing a dry read, but it soon became evident that the best use would be a performance read; that it would the best way to pay respect to Linda.
Todd: Lori Singer, an accomplished actress and musician, was who we cast as Linda’s voice. She approached the performance in a lyrical, almost musical way. She examined how Linda wrote, the impression of the pen on the page and if more words were squeezed into a line. Lori created a character of Linda in her head, then translated it. As a form of rehearsal, she recorded performances in the closet of an abandoned house and didn’t eat, to get into character. Many of her original rehearsal recordings would up in the film. We want you to feel something for the voice, and towards the end of the film, when the voice disappears, we want you to feel the loss.
NFF: This is clearly a personal film—about Linda, her family and their journey with her illness—but of course there’s an issue at its core. What sort of an engagement with that issue do you hope audiences will have?
Todd: People often ask for an “action plan” from documentaries, as though we’re expected to provide a blueprint for activism, but as much as we care about issue impact, we’re filmmakers first and we want you to have a cinematic experience. The film is photographed on different film stock to provide photographic texture; Lori’s performance creates a narrative, and Rashomon was an inspiration for story structure: the same question is at the beginning--there’s a dead body in the house; who put it there? We want the film to linger with the audience.
NFF: In your own words, why should people come to see your documentary at NFF?
Jedd: See it to go on a journey and if you join us, your mind will be blown away in a beautiful and elegiac way. It’s a worthy way to spend 90 minutes and worth forgoing the beach!
Todd: Linda Bishop is from New England (NH), much of what she writes is about living there and will be familiar to the community, and this is a major issue, not only there, but throughout the nation.
GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM plays Nantucket Film Festival on Friday, June 24th and Saturday, June 25th. Jedd and Todd will be in attendance at both screenings.