Of the 3 short-form Oscar categories, nominated documentaries feel the least like their online brethren, due to their length. Routinely pushing the Academy limit of 40 minutes, these documentaries carved out a unique niche, supported by an international TV ecosystem for sales, and by stateside patrons like HBO, allowing them to overcome the inherent difficulties that festivals have programming them, and the short attention spans of online audiences. Yet in substance they do follow the same kind of forms you see in shorter fare. Frank Stiefel’s Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is a quintessential artist profile—there are thousands of similar films on Vimeo, roughly following the same kind of emotional and narrative arc, and utilizing similar techniques. Yet each story is unique, and the confluence of subject and filmmaker still proves the possibility of making any individual film exceptional.
A rare dual-winner of the both the Jury and Audience prize at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is certainly one of those exceptional films. A moving portrait of the artist Mindy Alper, the film’s director, Frank Stiefel, finds her on the cusp of an important gallery showing of her art, and gives Alper room to reflect on her life’s journey through profound mental illness. Inspiring in moments, but gut-punchingly devastating in others, Alper relates to us a childhood filled with debilitating anxiety, exacerbated by an emotionally abusive father and a distant mother. From there things spiral downward into a stint in a mental hospital in her late 20’s, followed by frequent episodes where, for months at a time, she lost her ability to speak. Through it all she expresses appreciation for the mentors who’ve encouraged her art, and for the ever-tenuous peace she is occasionally able to attain.
I frequently speak of my three criteria for appraising profile docs: first is the inherent “hook” of the topic (including the visual quality of the art in artist profiles), followed by the quality of the performance given on-camera by the primary subject, and lastly the filmmaking panache of the director. Usually all three elements need to be good, with at least one element being great. For Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 it is Alper’s performance that is the revelation. For all of Alper’s success, she isn’t yet a “major” figure in the art world, and the tangential exploration of mental illness is not itself a huge hook. Stiefel is veteran photographer and filmmaker, his 2009 film Ingelore played HBO, and he brings great skill to the proceedings. That said, the construction of the film is very by-the-numbers, primarily utilizing talking heads, archival photographs and Alper’s drawings. These elements are spritzed with appealing elements, from rudimentary animations of Alper’s ink drawings to punctuate certain points, to short hallucinatory sequences that depict Alper’s mental illness in the world. But despite the competency of the work, particularly in the structuring of its narrative, Stiefel isn’t breaking new ground stylistically, or through his storytelling.
What thus makes the film exceptional is Alper herself. From years of taking anti-psychotic medications and even undergoing electro-shock treatment, her speech is stunted and awkward. Yet, despite odd phrasings, she is very articulate in communicating her thoughts. Her speech has a sort of “lolcat” affect on viewers. She struggles with certain pronunciations, and refers to the concept of years as “circles around the sun” for example. The effect of this produces a sense of child-like naiveté that demands affection and protection from the audience. Paired with her admirable openess in speaking about her own life in a way that is utterly without guile, she produces testimony of the hurts and depressions she has endured that are disarmingly emotional, juxtaposed as they are with her straight-faced retellings, and contextualized by the immense sympathy and admiration her bravery and perseverance engenders. Stiefel’s greatest skill in the film is setting these moments up at perfect intervals and allowing space for the impact to hit home.
Oscar is predictable, and the film is familiar formula from past nominees—take an outsider (in this case outsider artist) and document their perseverance through hardship. Sometimes it is illness or disability, sometimes it is race or poverty, that provide the hurdles, but ultimately these real-life stories of humans finding hope where we expect there should be none, prove to be immense crowd-pleasers. And you know what? I’m totally cool with that. These films, when done with the skill and thoughtfulness of this one, are immensely inspiring, and perform a valuable social function in building understanding and empathy. As distasteful as it is to admit, many folks are reflexive Darwinists at heart. How is it possible to live a life of worth and value through debilitating disease, or physical or mental disability? We have an tendency to discount, or devalue such lives, and so to provide an image of humans that not only survive, but thrive is an important corrective to our ingrained biases. That they make our minor troubles seem small in comparison is a relatively small bonus compared to the way they expand our understanding of humanity.