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Sundance 2019: Always in Season, Bedlam

In October 1934, Claude Neal was taken from a county jail in Alabama by a white mob who literally sent an invitation to a lynching. They tortured Neal, murdered him, and sold photos of his mutilated body so the hundreds of people who attended could remember the day. In July 1946, two married couples were pulled from their car on the Moore’s Ford bridge by a white mob, dragged to a nearby dirt road and shot. One of them was pregnant. Her baby was cut from her dead body. In August 2014, the body of a 15-year-old North Carolina teen named Lennon Lacy was found hanging from a swing set. The police immediately ruled it a suicide, but there is great deal of evidence to suggest it was not, and that the boy was lynched. None of these cases have resulted in anything resembling justice and Jacqueline Olive’s powerful “Always in Season” uses the three incidents to illustrate not only the history of lynch mobs or the fact that they still exist today but how they have impacted our culture and humanity.

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There’s a group of people in Monroe, Georgia, who reenact the Moore’s Ford lynchings every year, complete with fake blood and screaming victims. The first time it appears in “Always in Season,” it’s tempting to look away. I’ll admit I did, and my first instinct was to question why it was included or even why something so horrifying should be reenacted in the first place. And yet I came to understand that Olive’s film is demanding that we not look away. We can’t look away. It’s when we ignore our history that we are liable to repeat its errors. “Always in Season” reveals lynching not only as a traumatic part of American history but something that has reshaped and redefined a lack of justice in this country. If Claude Neal and the victims of the Moore’s Ford bridge can be murdered in public, why should we expect justice for Lennon Lacy being murdered under the cover of night? Justice for some is justice for none, and “Always in Season” is a nuanced, layered reminder of how far we still have to go to correct the injustices of this country’s past and present.

Another current injustice gets a harsh spotlight in Kenneth Paul Rosenberg’s deeply personal “Bedlam,” a document of the mental health crisis in America, particularly in Los Angeles. I subscribe to the belief that a civilization should be judged, at least in part, by how well it takes care of the members of that civilization who need the most help, including the poor and the sick. We’re not very good at it. As “Bedlam” details, stigma, the impact of Reagan-era policies, and the inherent difficulty of treating diseases that have no direct cures lead to widespread attempts to sweep our mentally ill under the rug of America. It’s not a problem that’s going to just go away, as the number of mentally ill in prisons and on the street continues to rise. “Bedlam” is partially a wake-up call and partially a somber reminder of how much we’ve failed people over the last century.

One of those people is the filmmaker's sister, whose mental illness was hidden by an over-protective father, who refused to recognize the degree of help needed by his daughter. Hers is only one of the stories in “Bedlam,” which tracks a selection of patients as they push their way through the revolving door of the mental health system. We meet Johanna in a deeply manic and delusional state, making incoherent noises and barely connecting thoughts. And yet medication and treatment return a semblance of normalcy to her the next time she’s on-screen. The impact is heartbreaking because what “Bedlam” really captures is the cycle and the bitter pain of the “good times” being shrouded by an awareness that an episode is likely to occur again, and Johanna may not get the treatment she needs. Mental illness never completely goes away and treatment needs to change over time to manage episodes, but people so rarely get the treatment they need.

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What elevates “Bedlam” above other documentaries that could have just easily chronicled a national disaster is two-fold. First, Rosenberg happens into the life of a woman who is really trying to enact change in the way this country perceives and treats the mentally ill. There’s hope for improvement, but it’s going to take protests and government officials willing to care. “Bedlam” could help with that. And then there’s personal touch. One can sense Rosenberg’s pain over what happened to his sister. At one point, the Lt. Governor of California comes right out and says, “The number of people we have completely given up on is just staggering.” Rosenberg never gave up on his sister, and this heartfelt call for change is a testament to that.

 

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