Upper East Films Reviews

Review for Drinking Apart by Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times

The hot trend in television this summer is the so-called reality shows, such as "Survivor" and "Big Brother." But that kind of programming pales in comparison with the reality offered up by documentarian Ken Rosenberg in this new HBO special.

"Drinking Apart" follows three New York City families as they cope with substance abuse. Rosenberg, a psychiatrist who recently received an Emmy nomination for his work on another health-related documentary, films the families with a hand-held camera during various episodes over a three-year period. The families are shown at home, on the street and at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, where all go for counseling.

The documentary depicts the unique tension that exists in relationships that are warped by substance abuse--and how complicated therapy becomes when both love and addiction are at issue. Many of the scenes are filmed at the Ackerman Institute, and one can't help but sympathize with the therapists as they try to guide these families through what seems to be insurmountable conflict. Anyone wary of therapy, however, would be reassured to see how gentle, and gently persuasive, it can be.

Despite the sometimes rushed feeling created by trying to tell three stories in 75 minutes, it's easy to care about these tortured people. The devastating impact of addictions on spouses, lovers, parents and children is nothing new in the world of documentary filmmaking, but here it is on particularly heartbreaking display.

In one segment, Toinette, an alcoholic experiencing a fragile recovery, is shown trying to make amends to the 14-year-old daughter who was removed from her custody years ago because of Toinette's addiction and neglect. The girl wants nothing to do with her mother. In another scene, Toinette, now in a residential recovery center, places a call on a pay phone to another of her children, a toddler at home. Tears stream down Toinette's face as she asks, "Are you mad at Mommy?"

Perhaps the story that best illustrates how drug use changes relationships is that of Eric and Jillian, a young couple who met in a bar and moved in together. They are shockingly heavy drinkers. But they appear unable to recognize that alcohol is at the center of their relationship woes. Jillian is sadly unaware of how seriously ill she is. This story points out the need for some relationships to end in order for at least one person to survive.

The most gripping story, however, is that of Patria, a former heroin user, and her daughter, Erica, 17. As a child, Erica watched her mother destroy her life with drugs and begged her to stop. After four years in a residential treatment center, Patria recovered and rejoined her family. But the damage to Erica was done, and she reverses roles with her mother, becoming an alcoholic runaway while Patria tries vainly to help her.

"Drinking Apart" has no dry statistics on substance abuse or lectures from experts; Rosenberg takes care to let the stories speak for themselves. It has no narrator--only occasional sentences flashed between scenes to provide time references or fill in details.

In the end, viewers will be moved to tears by the discovery that love sometimes survives the very worst of addictions.

Review for Back from Madness by Walter Goodman, New York Times

"Back From Madness: The Struggle for Sanity" is a conscientious effort to look into the disturbed minds of four psychiatric patients at Massachusetts General Hospital. That it provides no revelations is not so much a failure of the reporting as a testament to the mysteries of mental illness.

The three men and one woman are articulate; perhaps that is one reason they were selected. They are able to describe how they are feeling and what they are feeling, yet much seems inexpressible.

Naomi, a 23-year-old student at Barnard College, hears "voices from the sky" that overwhelm her. Her mother, father and brother all had symptoms of mental illness. A doctor says she may be schizophrenic.

Glen, a 53-year-old Seattle man, is unable to work at his job as a wedding photographer because of an obsessive-compulsive disorder that keeps him washing his hands and doing other mindless yet mind-absorbing tasks over and over.

Eric, a 27-year-old musician trained at Juilliard and a viola player in major orchestras, is in a suicidal depression. He cannot play and fears that the most important part of his life is lost.

Todd, closest to the popular image of craziness, is a 25-year-old itinerant manic-depressive who proclaims that he finds freedom in his manic states.

The hourlong documentary follows their ups and downs. Naomi, who has been under medication for years, is given yet a new drug. Glen submits to surgery aimed at destroying the hyperactive parts of his brain, an operation that doctors say is far more sophisticated than old-style lobotomies. Eric undergoes electric-convulsive therapy, a less violent version of the shock treatments that were popular a few decades ago. Todd, who hates the effects of his prescribed drugs, wins a court order releasing him from the hospital.

To judge by the results, all the treatments work to a degree, but success in such cases can be a sometime thing. The program tells more about current medical approaches (excluding psychotherapy, untreated here) than it does about the elusive nature of mental illness, but the glimpses into the suffering it brings are direct and affecting.

Review for Through Madness at Filmakers Library

This penetrating documentary de-mystifies psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and manic depression, and humanizes those who suffer from them. It is essential viewing for mental health professionals and students who need to understand mental illness, as well as for general audiences.

In this half-hour program, we hear about psychosis from three people who describe it from the inside out.

* Eileen, a once promising actress, now lives in a half-way house. She has a severe form of schizophrenia and must live in a sheltered atmosphere.

* Lionel, a former NFL football star who played with the Green Bay Packers, had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. For a time his illness forced him to live on the streets.

* Joe, troubled since adolescence with delusions and hallucinations, is diagnosed as manic/ depressive. He and his wife describe their struggles with sickness and recovery.

Each of these individuals presents an engrossing tale of despair and hope and teaches us about the fragile boundary between insanity and sanity.

Psychiatrist/producer Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, M.D., undertook a nation-wide search for the three individuals profiled. He was assisted in the project by the American Psychiatric Association (NY Branch), the Foundation for Education in Psychiatry, and patient advocate groups.

Review for An Alzheimer's Story by Don Fidler, MD in Hospital and Community Psychiatry by the American Psychiatric Association

We can read and hear about people's experiences, but only when we stand in the shoes of another person do we really begin to know and understand what they feel. We gain that insight from the brilliant effect of the videotape An Alzheimer's Story as it teaches us how the dreaded disease affects Anna, her husband, and their daughter.

Under the skillful direction and production of Ken Rosenberg and Ruth Neuwald, a videotape crew not only videotape a family, but seem to live with them for 19 months. The crew do not attempt to be invisible in the family; they become such an important part that the family members refuse to make major decisions without the crew present. It is this essentially intimate relationship that allows the family to go about their routines with the crew present and allows the daughter and father to open their hearts to us, momentarily turning away to turn back to confide like a best friend.

This is documentary at its best. Because of the crew’s loving craft, we do not feel intrusive or exploitative; we feel invited and privileged, and with invited and privileged, and with that privilege comes the deep feeling of being a part of the family.

No narrator is needed to explain events. The images tell everything. In September 1982 the daughter says to her mother, “I love you” and Anna responds with a smile and a kiss, and with gaiety and charm repeats “I love you” over and over in rapid succession. By April 1984 Anna forgets her own name, and when her daughter says “I love you,” Anna no longer responds. A narrator would have diluted the material, but nothing protects us from the pain, and it is easy to forget there is even a camera between us and these inspiring people. We are impossible to walk away without being transformed.

Rosenberg and Neuwald have assembled a college of images that linger long in the mind’s eye. We watch and listen eagerly as Anna remembers Russia, and we see black-and-white photos of her as a young, beautiful, and strong woman. We watch as Anna is reduced to arm exercises in the nursing home, and as a nurse gives Anna a flower and she confusedly tries to eat it. We watch the daughter clean out her parents’ home, saying that her father died “from the pain of watching mom” deteriorates from Alzheimer’s. Finally, we sit stunned as a toothless woman in the nursing home pathetically hums “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

This production has excellent sound, lighting, camera work, and editing, but it is the intimacy it achieves that raises it above other documentaries and teaches us from the inside out. It is recommended for all mental health and medical care specialists, and it could also be useful in work with groups of families.

Review for Stories of Coming Out in America by Walter Goodman, New York Times

No conclusive answer to the title question, "Why Am I Gay?," is provided by these "Stories of Coming Out in America." But the profiles of four homosexuals -- three men and a woman -- leave a strong impression that they had little to say about it.

All tell of their childhood confusion and distress when, as Edgar, a Bronx police sergeant, recalls, "I didn't think there was anybody in the whole world like me." Michael, a member of the Flirtations -- advertised as "the world's most famous openly gay, politically aware a cappella doo-wop singing group" -- is reminded on a visit back to the Midwest of the growing-up miseries of being picked on as a sissy. Susanne, a 46-year-old divorced woman, says she never wanted to be different but found herself strongly drawn to her own sex.

The revealing documentary also offers a look at two organizations with very different approaches to homosexuality. In Texas, the Houston Area Team Coalition for Homosexuals offers social mixers for teen-agers who feel ostracized by straight society, which may include their parents. But the Freedom-at-Last Ministry in Wichita, Kan., relies on a strict regimen of work, Bible study and supervision to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals.

If the comments along the way by a psychiatrist, an anthropologist, a geneticist and a neurobiologist are close to the mark, the Kansas ministry has its work cut out for it. The consensus tonight is that homosexuals are born with powerful tendencies in that direction.

Parents' reactions to the revelation of their childrens' homosexuality range from revulsion to support. Edgar's mother and father seem to have got over the initial shock. Michael says that his parents, who would not appear on camera, are still ashamed. Ira's father declared that when he learned of his son's propensities, "I didn't want to have anything to do with him." (Ira, who comes from what is described as a Christian home, is enrolled in the Wichita homosexuality-suppression effort.) Parents in Houston are shown trying, if somewhat uncomfortably, to stay close to their children.

In every case, coming out seems to be connected to reaching out. Edgar is seen necking with his new boyfriend and Susanne is seen taking marriage vows with her longtime lover. Michael, who reveals he has AIDS, has found comfort and fulfillment in the Flirtations. Ira, too, determined to overcome his homosexuality, draws on others in the same struggle. So one simple message of this blessedly nonmessagey program is that however homosexuals got that way, they long for acceptance and affection. Just like heterosexuals.