When potential homebuyer Kevin Carbone visits an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse and peeks through a window, he makes a startling discovery: the body of a middle-aged woman lying on the living room floor next to some scattered notebooks. Her name is Linda A. Bishop, a middle-aged homeless woman who suffered from bi-polar disorder and psychosis. She’s been dead for quite some time.
Like a good mystery, God Knows Where I Am begins with Bishop’s death, and then works back to reveal how it happened. But it is not a whodunit in the traditional sense. Rather, directors Jedd and Todd Wider have framed Linda’s story as a meditation on mental illness at the personal and societal levels.
God Knows Where I Am is a gentle film about a brutal subject. The pacing of the film is often glacial, to reflect the cold hard winter that its absent protagonist endured while holed up in that Concord farmhouse.
The soundtrack, by Robert Logan, Ivor Guest and Paul Cantelone is simple and effective. Their string drones and echoing piano are contemplative and perfectly complement the lingering camera of cinematographer Geraldo Puglia.
Shot mostly on film, except for the interview segments, much of the visual poetry of the film resides in Puglia’s drawn out takes of the empty interiors of the abandoned house, and his crane shots of the tree-filled surroundings. These images lack any trace of human presence and echo Linda’s isolation. They are doubly poignant because we are always aware that, despite her loneliness throughout her trial, she was never more than a few feet away from other people. But nobody knew she was there.
His images of rotting apples not only illustrate the diet of a protagonist who has bizarrely chosen to subsist only on the fruit she has picked from nearby trees, but also the physical and mental degradation that results as she falls prey to her delusions.
Paradoxically, it is her very absence that gives power to these images that recount her ordeal.
The story moves along two main narrative tracks. Actress Lori Singer reads passages from the journals Linda kept while she imprisoned herself in the house. Interviews with Linda’s family and friends, police officers and other players in her saga, take us back to an earlier trouble-free life that is then disrupted by the sudden emergence of mental illness.
Linda’s predicament grows increasingly desperate along both of these timelines and they come together at a crucial moment to trigger the gut-wrenching final act of this story.
It is in the depiction of final days of her suffering that the Widers’ decision to eschew reenactments truly pays off. Singer’s dramatic reading of Linda Bishop’s diary entries and the images of her deteriorating handwriting are devastating and poignant.
God Knows Where I Am is a challenging film that rewards the patient viewer. It is never exploitative or maudlin, and treats its subject matter with extreme delicacy without ever pulling punches. It earns your every teardrop without resorting to gimmickry or cheap emotional ploys. It eschews the usual tropes about mental illness and will stay with you for days.
God Knows Where I Am has its world premiere on Saturday April 30th at 9:15 pm at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, as part the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, and plays again on May 2nd and May 7th. For full details and to buy tickets, visit the Hot Docs website.