By Seth Shire
Director Paige Goldberg Tolmach’s fascinating and unsettling documentary, “What Haunts Us,” could not have come at a more appropriate time, which can be fortunate or unfortunate, depending on how one looks at it. The film is part of DOC NYC, which runs from November 9-16.
In the college sociology classes that I teach, we discuss the concept of deviance. I make the point that what, at one time, might not have been thought of as deviant behavior, now, as society progresses, is seen as deviant. The recent revelations about sexual harassment that dominate the news, including testimonies from those who knew what was going on but chose to say nothing, until now, are great examples of this.
“What Haunts Us” concerns Charleston, South Carolina’s Porter Gaud School, the high school attended by Goldberg Tolmach. Alarmed by the number of suicides of male students in her graduating class, from over 30 years ago (six suicides out of a class of 49), the filmmaker delves into what was going on, beneath the surface, particularly with a popular teacher named Eddie Fischer. Fischer sexually abused male students for years and was protected by a wall of silence, from both administrators and students. As one former, now middle-aged, student puts it, “You’re dying to tell someone about it, but you’re scared as hell someone will find out.”
“Far From the Tree,” profiling children who are not what they’re families expected, will be screened on November 10 at the SVA Theatre.
By Seth Shire
Two of the most interesting films at the DOC NYC festival, “Mole Man” and “Far From the Tree” concern the definition of what is “normal.” DOC NYC runs from November 9-16.
I was intrigued by the title “Far From the Tree,” based on the bestselling book by Andrew Solomon. The title reminded me of something my father used to say when I did, or said, something noteworthy: “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” What Dad meant was that I was the apple and he was the tree and that my accomplishments were in accordance with his standards. Keeping with the theme of family standards, “Far From the Tree” concerns families in which the offspring are, perhaps, not in line with what their respective families expected. The issues involve children who are gay (as was the case for author Solomon, profiled in the film), autistic, have Down syndrome, and dwarfism.
Filmmaker Rachel Dretzin cuts back and forth among these non-conforming offspring, none of whom made the choice to be who they are (do any of us?) but who have embraced who they are and who do not want to have their “abnormalities” cured.
A man with dwarfism questions a drug that will prevent children from manifesting their genetic pre-disposition to dwarfism. Is dwarfism something to be eradicated?
At the center of the film are the reactions of the parents. Some are accepting, or working to get to a level of acceptance. An autistic boy acts out violently and his mother wonders if there is “anyone in there.” Once he learns to communicate, using a keyboard, she can, at last, see the person inside. Their relationship improves immeasurably.
While any of the subjects might have provided material enough for a feature film, Dretzin has created fully realized portraits of these offspring who have made their own ways in the world.
“Mole Man” also deals with the question of what is normal. The film concerns Ron, a 66-year-old autistic man who lives with his widowed mother in rural Pennsylvania. Ron has built, in his seemingly endless back yard, a 50-room structure all on his own. His building materials, and the contents that fill its rooms, were taken from abandoned homes in nearby towns that experienced horrible economic downturns. The ingeniousness, creativity and sheer physical labor of Ron’s feat is impressive, to say the least. It speaks to a larger intelligence and talent hidden beneath, or maybe because of, Ron’s autism.
The issue at hand though, is not Ron’s obvious abilities, but what his future will be. Ron’s mother is 93. Once she dies, what will happen to him? Could Ron function anywhere else? After a lifetime of having the run of a large property and indulging his expertise, living in a group home most likely would not be for Ron.
Could his talents be put to use in the so called “normal” world? His siblings struggle with how to plan for the future, while Ron claims to know of a treasure that could cure all problems… if it actually exists.
“Mole Man” will screen on November 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Chelsea Cinepolis, 260 West 23rd Street and on November 13 at 12:15 p.m. at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue. “Far From the Tree” will screen on November 10 at 6:45 p.m. at SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street. For more information, visit docnyc.net.