Filmmaker Todd Wider was first inspired to make a documentary about mental illness when he experienced it firsthand in his hometown of New York City.
Wider came home one night to find that a homeless man had broken in because he was cold and trying to get warm. Wider called the police to get the man and take him to a shelter, but he bounded out of the police cruiser and fled into the cold winter night.
The same man was back on the filmmaker’s front stoop a few days later, sitting in plastic chair – soaked in his own urine and talking to himself incessantly.
So Wider called the police again, only to be told by a dispatcher that if they had to come arrest every homeless person in New York City, they wouldn’t have time to do anything else.
“This is not a law enforcement problem,” the dispatcher said. “This is a societal problem.”
There are more than 60,000 homeless in New York City, many who suffer from mental illness, but Todd and his brother Jedd Wider turned their attention to Concord to tell a story about homelessness and mental illness.
The brothers’ new documentary God Knows Where I Am tells the story of Linda Bishop, a mentally ill woman who was discharged from New Hampshire Hospital and ultimately starved to death in an abandoned farmhouse on Mountain Road in early 2008 during a very cold winter.
“These people become faceless, they become nameless,” Jedd Wider said. “We wanted to bring a name to this intelligent woman.”
The brothers had initially read about Bishop when she was profiled in a 2011 New Yorker piece. What drew them to her story was the fact that she was hidden in plain sight.
Over the four months she lived in the abandoned house, Bishop was close enough to see the TV flickering in the neighbors’ living room across the street. As she struggled with no heat, no electricity and only scavenged apples to eat, a handyman came to mow the lawn and the siblings who co-owned the house came to collect old items.
No one saw her.
“The house is only a few hundred feet from the road. No one knew she was here, yet here she is, starving to death,” Jedd Wider said. “That element and that horrifying notion drew us to this story.”
It took the brothers about four years to complete the film; two years to shoot the footage and another two to complete postproduction.
Their aim was to create an experiential documentary, not just to tell Bishop’s story, but to put viewers in her place, seeing and hearing the sights and sounds of her days in the farmhouse.
“We wanted to bring a dignity back to this woman who died in perhaps the most undignified way,” Jedd Wider said. “As life was going on outside this window, her life was fleeting.”
They painted Bishop’s life in rich detail, using old photographs and home videos from her childhood and early adulthood that family members provided.
She wrote daily in diaries she kept during her stay at the house about her mood and her everyday activities.
Bishop was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychosis by doctors at New Hampshire Hospital, but her intelligence still shone through.
She was also very strong-willed, signing a form that made it so her family could not know if she was discharged from the hospital, and making sure she was in charge of her own medical decisions.
Ultimately, that strong-willed nature would lead to her demise, especially when doctors went along with her wishes.
“She didn’t want the medication,” Todd Wider said. “That reinforced her sense of being right.”
After being discharged from New Hampshire Hospital, she spent a few days walking over to East Concord, where she happened upon the abandoned farmhouse and decided she wanted to stay there because it was quieter and calmer than the hospital she had just left.
She lived in solitude for the next four months, picking a stash of hundreds of apples and collecting water out of a stream on the property. Her diaries reveal a hope she would be rescued, but a fear that there would be demons in homeless shelters.
That illness ultimately overwhelmed what resourcefulness Bishop had.
Years later, as the Wider brothers filmed in the farmhouse during cold winter months, they said it gave them an appreciation of the conditions Bishop lived through.
“It really speaks to her endurance ... but also her cognitive impairment,” Todd Wider said.
God Knows Where I Am will be shown at Red River Theatres on Friday, April 21, at 7 p.m., with a discussion following. The film is also being released in 40 theaters nationwide.
(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)