Brothers Take Chances With Documentary Addressing Mental Health

Todd Wider, at left, with Jedd Wider and Lori Singer discussed their film "God Knows Where I Am" following Friday's screening. Christine Sampson

In introducing the film “God Knows Where I Am” on Friday night, David Nugent, the artistic director of the Hamptons International Film Festival, said he loves documentaries that “take some chances and bring some artistic elements” to the table.

The film's directors, Todd Wider and Jedd Wider, who are natives of Stony Brook, said they set out to accomplish exactly that in their effort to chronicle the life of Linda Bishop, a once-vibrant woman held captive by a mental illness she refused to acknowledge but which was painfully evident to those who loved her.

Their documentary serves as a larger comment on the way the mentally ill and homeless are treated in this country and their message is that treatment is not one of good will. The film goes beyond the typical interview format that often characterizes the documentary genre, taking on a narrative feel with passages taken directly from the journals Ms. Bishop kept while she hid, holed up in an empty house that didn't belong to her following her release from a state mental hospital, during one of New Hampshire's coldest winters on record. The film also draws upon cinematography techniques the filmmakers say are not typical of documentaries, including shooting on 16- and 35-millimeter film.

“God Knows Where I Am” made its 25th festival appearance on Friday, and has won wide acclaim. It will even be screened next month at a Congressional hearing in relation to a Senate bill involving mental health funding. The festival will screen the film again at Bay Street on Sunday at 3 p.m.

“There is a large, out-of-control, homeless and mentally ill population in our city of New York and every city in this country,” Todd Wider, a former plastic surgeon, said after the screening Friday. “The mentally ill and homeless go largely unnoticed. They're taken for granted and by and large nameless. . . . To me, the point of our society is to help and shield and protect the most vulnerable among us. It seems to me that we have a responsibility of members of any humane society to do that. Certainly, people within our own country. At its core, that was the inspiration for this film.”

Lori Singer, the actress who has played for the artists' team in East Hampton's Artists and Writers Softball Game, narrates “God Knows Where I Am” as Ms. Bishop, who herself spent part of her childhood on Long Island. Ms. Singer reads Ms. Bishop's journal entries with a tone that becomes more and more urgent, yet more labored, as the days pass and Ms. Bishop waits for a savior she believes will come on the first Sunday in Advent. In Ms. Singer's delivery, she was directed by the Wider brothers to perform a character in a script rather than execute a typical documentary voice-over. Her performance, too, has won the praise of reviewers.

“I felt as if Linda was very, very much connected to all of us that are artists and maybe everybody who has some struggle of some kind with their family,” Ms. Singer said during a question-and-answer session Friday night. “She saw herself as an outsider, and I identified with that. I identified with her struggles trying to make ends meet in a complicated world.”

Indeed, until the end, viewers are kept on the edge of their seats waiting to learn the true cause of Ms. Bishop's death. Was it, in fact, due to the domestic violence that she claimed in her journals? Was it suicide, as is the fate of so many others with mental illnesses? Was it some other sort of attack or illness? 

“We sort of gave it our all, this film. It took about four years to make,” Todd Wider said. “We threw everything we had into this. It really was a real labor of love . . . to honor her spirit and bring some integrity back to a woman who died in such a tragic manner.”

A scene from the film