“God Knows Where I Am” is a documentary that is as depressing as it gets. Centering on the final days in the life of a woman named Linda Bishop, it examines an issue that evidently needs urgent attention. The villains in the story of her death aren’t sadistic serial killers, but they are equally effective. Framed around her own lonely thoughts, directors Jedd and Todd Wider deliver a harrowing but insightful account of the failures of the mental health care system and its dire consequences for the mentally ill.
The film begins with Bishop’s death, as her body lays lifeless on the floor of a farmhouse in New Hampshire. Accompanying her was a note claiming that she suffered at the hands of domestic abuse. But the truth was even more shocking. This was not her home and she died of an entirely different cause.
With the help of interviews with her loved ones, we learn of her tumultuous psychological journey from her happy youth and later motherhood, to a subsequent struggle with bipolar disorder and psychosis. The illness eventually leads to her being committed to a psychiatric facility, from which she escapes to an abandoned farmhouse. Once there she succumbs to bouts of delusion and ultimately starves to death, a fate that is revealed to have been entirely avoidable.
Indeed, Bishop’s ultimate demise came as the result of the law that allows mentally ill patients to refuse treatments, even when under the loving advice and protection of a legal guardian. And the filmmakers make a strong case for reform, revealing the disastrous implications for this ineffective practice. As she became a prisoner of her own mind, her story becomes increasingly unsettling as we learn of her various delusions and psychotic breaks.
With her self-imposed captivity and paranoia (including fear of the Chinese mafia), it would have been easy for the film to approach its advocacy role through sensationalism. But the film comes from an altogether more inspired and intimate perspective. Recognizing the difficulty in translating the experience of someone so mentally unstable, the directors used her words (she dutifully wrote in her daily journal) and the idyllic farmhouse setting to immerse the audience in the world that became her home.
The result is a documentary of uncommon beauty, with cinematography so picturesque that it borders on indulgent. It immediately puts us in her contemplative state of mind, as the film showcases the peaceful environment of rolling rivers, lush fields and dazzlingly bright snow. And as the film patiently explores her written thoughts and the fond memories of her loved ones, the sad irony hits home. Namely that such observant, poetic musings would come from someone with such severe psychological problems.
And such is the sobering reality that “God Knows Where I Am” elegantly presents. Mental illness can arise unexpectedly in even the sharpest of minds. But it need not be a death sentence, if we work assiduously to provide sufferers with the support they so desperately need.
“God Knows Where I Am” opens in select theaters March 31.