Everyone dies alone, but aloneness has degrees, and the death described in painstaking, slow-motion detail in “God Knows Where I Am,” the documentary directorial debut from noted producing brothers Jedd and Todd Wider (“Taxi to the Dark Side”; “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”) might just be one of the loneliest. Interspersing prosaic talking-head segments with poetically romanced images in a variety of formats, the brothers take care not to disturb the remains of Linda Bishop, whose lifeless body was found in an unoccupied house in New Hampshire, having lain there through a particularly nasty winter. Instead, the film gently and respectfully approaches the subject through the eyes of those who knew her, and also in her own words; excerpts from the diaries that were found by the body are not just read, but vocally embodied by Lori Singer in a vivid voiceover performance. The film gradually thaws out the stark, frozen mystery at its heart, but the warm-blooded, breathing truth of Linda’s life is no less tragic than that of her cold death.
For the purposes of suspense, the Widers parcel out information carefully, streamlining the narrative into a series of discoveries that are foreshadowed enough to never feel exploitative. These moments come not like revelations, but confirmations of the creeping suspicions we have about Linda’s increasingly erratic state of mind and her broken relationships with family and friends. She stores apples from a nearby tree for the coming winter (she will live for the last months of her life on apples, meltwater and prayer). But it turns out that what she’s fleeing, as she holes up in the expansive farmhouse through whose empty rooms Gerardo Puglia’s camera prowls, is something she can’t outrun. Fragment by fragment we start to understand that beneath the snow and the silken, occasionally over-literal photography, “God Knows Where I Am” is a chilling exploration of the misery of mental illness.
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Bishop, an intelligent, loving mother, sister and friend, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was on and off her medication and intermittently institutionalized for years before the series of events that led up to that awful end. The particulars belong to her specifically, but the broad outline feels depressingly familiar, and the Widers paint Linda with just enough color to make her real, without ever losing sight of the film’s greater ambition: to tell the story of many through the saga of one.
The question of blame hovers. How much was Linda’s own nature responsible for her decision to stop taking her medications and release herself from care? How much was familial estrangement or institutional indifference culpable for her ending up so alone and so unwilling to seek the help she desperately needed? The film lets its characters condemn where they will (Linda’s sister shakes with anger at the hospital that discharged her without informing anyone), but the documentary itself largely refrains from passing judgement on any one entity. If there are villains here, Linda’s illness — as a thing separate from its victim — and a society that stigmatizes mental health issues must suffice.
Those interviewed are a mournful group (in a story rendered still sadder by some overly lachrymose scoring), and there’s an innate sympathy for the kind of paralysis that so many of Linda’s loved ones felt in the face of her delusional paranoia. Inasmuch as “God Knows Where I Am” doesn’t point fingers, neither does it offer solutions to the issues it raises. Rather, it closes on a kind of ellipsis, by which it’s clear that Linda’s story might be over, but there are thousands of others that are ongoing, and as a culture, we are no better at dealing with them than we were a decade ago. And while the film’s title may represent an affirmation of faith to some, its more colloquial usage may be more apt here — a simple admission of being hopelessly, helplessly lost.