Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 review

Recipient of both the audience and jury awards at North Carolina’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Frank Stiefel’s decidedly low-key yet profoundly humane study of artist Mindy Alper may fend off competition from Netflix and HBO at this year’s Academy Awards to take the Oscar for short documentary.

At first glance it’s a familiar study of an artist overcoming adversity in order to survive and create, but this is a documentary where the art is exceptional, and the subject even more so. 56-year-old Mindy Alper has battled a lifetime of intense mental illness spawned from an emotionally vacuous childhood, at the hands of her distant mother and – potentially – abusive father. Trudge through the first 10 minutes of the rough camerawork and gratingly cheery acoustic soundtrack and soon enough the extraordinary Alper shines through.

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Speaking in broken, rudimentary – though no less astute and insightful – English, due to profound periods of depression and anxiety which robbed her of her ability to form words, the film expertly draws you in to Mindy’s unique worldview. She refers to years as ‘times around the sun’, and speaks incredibly candidly about her childhood and family, though never maliciously or with judgement. Her face simmers with expression and emotion and proves impossibly captivating; a childlike countenance with the world-weary wisdom of an aged woman.

Frank Stiefel, the film’s director, utilizes animated versions of her pencil work to great effect and it’s a shame that this isn’t developed further – the film could easily have been conceived (and may have been even better) told entirely through her art work. It’s a cruel twist that her most debilitating bouts of illness give birth to her most spell-bindingly haunting pieces of work. The pencil work in particular I find remarkable –hugely imaginative scenes captured in basic pencil, but still somehow managing to skilfully render rich emotion and detail in the faces. One standout drawing that seared itself onto my mind was of a young girl (presumably Alper) with her head held in the mouth of a dragon like creature, itself extending from a human embellished with the faces of both Alper’s parents. It’s to the film’s detriment that Stiefel flicks through these works like the turning of a page, rather than holding the frame and allowing the eye to truly study.

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Less successful are the film’s own stylistic deviations in re-creating Alper’s extreme anxiety. It struck me as unethical to have Alper tour the aisles of a local ‘Costco’ – what she describes as her worst nightmare – in order for the film to serve up some unremarkable special effects in an attempt to evoke anxiety in the viewer. It seems tacked on and counter-intuitive to the film’s purpose; though his intentions are no doubt noble, his film breaks no ground in its exploration of mental health.

The final act follows well-trodden but no less gratifying footage of Mindy completing some incredible works of sculpture – of her art teacher, her doctor – and then facing her fears and displaying her work to a scrutinising public. Whilst reviewing her work and discussing her upcoming show at class, Alper humorously remarks that she’s ‘too much of a snob to come to lunch’. It’s a tiny moment of loveliness in a film filled with such heartbreak and joy; that someone who’s experienced an illness most of us will never know and come out the other side producing work of such high caliber, still with a smile on her face; if you can find 40 minutes to spare I highly recommend you do.

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