Dialogues with Mad Women (1993): Allie Light’s Docu Of Mentally Afflicted Women

Sundance Film Fest, January 1993–Allie Light, the director and co-producer of the dramatically intense documentary Dialogues With Mad Women, while teaching at San Francisco State University, strongly identified with one of her student’s papers in her women’s studies curse.

In that paper, the student related her experience of having been institutionalized. The student illustrated her feelings toward her illness in a visual metaphor, one in which she walks, suitcase in hand, into the Pacific Ocean.

While Light concurs that that particular student’s recognition of that fantasy is one that, for herself, testifies to the woman’s courage and her “need for adventure,” she extends the metaphor to submission into the mentally-ill person’s own subconscious, however beautiful or terrifying that experience may be.

Light had herself been institutionalized. In late 1963, after being put on an anti psychotic drug, she panicked and checked herself in at San Francisco General. After 72 hours, she was transferred to the UCSF psychiatric institution, where she remained for three months. This depressive episode was overcome by her determination to continue her schooling and develop her artistic potential. Light says that had she remained drugged, and listened to her therapist, she might still be in a state of depression.

Light wished to convey her and six other women’s depressions, while making a strong point about the male-dominated psychiatry institution as a whole. Her own therapist’s behavior served as a motivational factor. Unwilling to identify him as a misogynist, she describes it as a “male-bonding” stance between her doctor on behalf of her husband. Other interviewees relate experiences that define their male psychiatrists’ “treatment” as downright misogynistic and thus harmful to their recovery.

Seven women (including Light) of varying age, race, class, and sexual orientation are interviewed about their journeys into the mysterious subconscious. Through these narratives, we hear treacherous accounts of their often-abusive backgrounds, manifest in their alter-consciousness to degenerate into “madness.” We also hear about their therapy, and whether they have surmised that the treatments had worked.

Light compliments the women’s stories with dramatizations (some realistic, some abstract), archive footage, stills, art, and music. That footage, what Variety critic Dennis Harvey identifies as “skillfully edited feature breaks,” interrupts the docu’s talking-head tendency. What illustrates effectively the torturous experiences of these women a photograph of a nineteen year-old woman’s slit wrists that the victim took herself.

“Dialogues” is an admittedly disturbing film and not just because of its topic. The women’s individual narratives bring credibility to the mentally afflicted women who appear to have overcome their illnesses by tackling the problems head-on.

In a N.Y. Times article, Bruce Weber attests to the chilling effect of Light’s own testimonial in which she tells of her psychiatric interview at SF General. Her physician, for reasons still unknown, asked Light whether she liked to kiss her husband’s penis. For Weber, this memory is illustrative of “how ordinary experience and depression are linked.”

Most of those interviewed “are not hysterical.” However, Light is careful to include the sporadic bursts of ecstasy and subsequent humor that derive from the women’s madness. Hannah, for example, is amused by her love letter to Bob Dylan making the five o’clock news (her fantasy love for decades), which lifts herand us–out of the profound sorrow she feels knowing that she has yet experienced real love or passion. Light told journalist Vicki Reid: “We used every funny minute of every funny thing that occurred in order to bring [the mood of the film] up a bit. Without that, I would not have had a film.”

Others find the use of dramatization and photographs somewhat distracting from the women’s’ faces, which are expressive of pain. Moreover, with few exceptions (the aforementioned photograph of slit wrists), Weber sees them as “clichs.”

At Sundance Festival, where the film world-premiered, some viewers questioned the authenticity of the “dramatized news events.” While applauding Light for her candid treatment of the subject, which Weber defines as “the line between wanting to live and wanting not to” and how close anybody can come to crossing that line, he is not left with an uplifting feeling knowing that these seven women survived their suicidal tendencies.

One poignant question that was asked after the screening is why Light has not updates the current standings in employment and relationships of her troubled subjects.

Co-written with Beth A. Mooney