The opening minutes of Todd and Jedd Wider’s anguished docu-tragedy center on words that overwhelm in their horror: “To whomever finds my body — My death is the result of domestic violence/abuse.” Those come from the journals of Linda Bishop, a 51-year-old woman whose starved and frozen body was discovered in early 2008 in a Concord, New Hampshire, home in which she had been squatting — and surviving off apples picked that fall from the nearby woods. Seeking suspense, the Widers elide the specifics of Bishop’s death for much of this 100-minute film. Instead, they steep us in her journals, read aloud by Lori Singer, the real words of a woman dying as she waits for the arrival of a man audiences know isn’t coming.
A compelling journal, of course, doesn’t solve the problem faced by so many nonfiction filmmakers — that of what actually to put on the screen for us to regard — and the Widers opt for much footage of the still-empty house itself, inside and out, shot by gently gliding cameras. This conveys an appropriate lonely stillness, a sense of a soul wandering a static world, especially in early scenes, but by the end the footage seems repetitious – yes, we’ve nosed around this sad doorway before.
This sets the scene, sure, but does little to increase our understanding of Bishop. Much more helpful (if less ostentatiously cinematic) is the testimony of Bishop’s friends and family, from whose coyly edited talking-head interviews the truth emerges: Bishop, a vibrant and vital presence, suffered increasingly from schizophrenia, and often found reasons not to take her medicine. When unmedicated, she could come to resent the diagnosis and her hospitalizations, convinced of her sanity; Concord’s New Hampshire Hospital discharged her in 2007 without alerting Bishop’s family, and Bishop, preyed upon by her own mind, settled into homelessness and fantasy. Singer gives a committed performance reading Bishop’s journals, but when the end comes at last the Widers layer on a pushy score and such busy montage work that the film dispirits in ways its creators didn’t intend. It plays like the directors believe it’s their pushy technique rather than Bishop’s plainspoken account that will move us.
Bishop’s disorder and hospitalization get treated by the filmmakers like “reveals,” surprises to be built up to — and, essentially, the point of much of the first two thirds of the film. (That “abuse” she mentioned in her final words seems to have been her own invention.) The film shares a title, taken from Bishop’s journals, with consulting producer’s Rachel Aviv’s 2011 New Yorker report on Bishop’s death. Aviv’s piece, a more humane and informative work, is invested in the question of what we can do when patients reject a diagnosis; it lets us know about Bishop’s stay in New Hampshire Hospital in sentence one.
God Knows Where I Am
Directed by Todd Wider and Jedd Wider
Opens March 31, Lincoln Plaza Cinema