Film Review: Bedlam

by Director Kenneth Paul RosenbergITVS
reviewed by Bilge Ebiri
Bedlam Directed by Kenneth Paul Rosenberg

Bedlam: An Intimate Journey into America’s Health Crisis
Directed by Kenneth Paul Rosenberg

“Do you have dreams?” “I don’t have dreams. I have nightmares.” In Kenneth Paul Rosenberg’s dense, disturbing documentary, we get a sobering look at the devastating toll of mental illness on patients, families, medical professionals, and society. The film’s most powerful moments come when Rosenberg drills down on the experiences of specific individuals.

The film was shot over five years, giving it the scope to accurately depict an ordeal that never really ends. One young woman is first seen in a mental health ER, uttering wild, stream-of- consciousness thoughts. A year later, we see her living with her father, taking her meds, seemingly happy and well on the road to recovery. The next time we catch up with her, her father has taken ill and is no longer living with her; she now seems unable to take care of herself.

Another man we first see at the ER, an addict and ex-con acting violently, continues to threaten his doctors even after he’s been restrained and sedated. One year later, he is in better shape, and looking to settle into a new apartment. Some time later, however, he is in trouble, facing drug charges, struggling with HIV and the prospect of losing his home yet again. These are not happy stories, but Rosenberg films with clarity, seriousness, and importantly, compassion. The director also shares with us his own family’s struggles: His beloved older sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a situation which tore their family apart. Bedlam gives us more than just experiences. Rosenberg also provides an overview of the history of America’s handling of mental illness, from the process of deinstitutionalization initiated by John F. Kennedy to the neglect of the Nixon and Reagan years, which pushed America’s mentally ill out into the streets (and eventually, for some, into the prison system). That is one area where the film might have benefited from more detail and context: Rosenberg’s depiction of the way that politicians have failed their mentally ill citizens (and, by extension, society in general) is just intriguing and troubling enough that we want to learn more about it. This would have also made the film’s closing scenes, which show us various activists and local politicians today working to pass more effective laws, that much more powerful. Still, this is an informative, potent documentary.

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