After a private friends and family screening in advance of its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival this week, “Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405” director Frank Stiefel was asked by Dr. Kathryn Jeffery, the president of Santa Monica City College whether he might be interested in showing his portrait of the artist Mindy Alper and her ongoing struggle with extreme depression to the entire faculty of her school.
“It always strikes me that filmmakers don’t know what their film is about until they see how it is for other people,” says Stiefel. “So I asked, ‘Why was this important?’ And the answer was it normalized mental disorder – that once you meet Mindy and get to know her, suddenly this thing that seems distant from you actually is close to you and this was an opportunity for most people to really get to know somebody that they don’t get to meet.”
While the film may destigmatize mental illness, it also serves as a lovely introduction to Alper, an extraordinary artist who has channeled a different way of thinking into wildly innovative sketches and sculpture, often letting the fringe of lines or loose ends trail off as if it were a surge of electricity. In front of Stiefel’s lens, Alper appears as a bundle of energy, describing how she grappled with near-crippling anxieties as a child and found a creative outlet once she laid hands on pens and papier-mache, often with charming, self-deprecating humor. Having clarity where others see chaos – hence the film’s evocative title alluding to Southern California’s dire traffic conditions – and experiencing the reverse as well, Alper makes for a complicated subject, but one who the film presents elegantly as Stifel, who previously profiled his mother, a survivor of the Holocaust, in “Ingelore,” delicately chronicles years of therapy and breathes life into her illustrations through animation to gain further insight into the emotions she can’t communicate with words.
Shortly before the compelling 40-minute film premieres in Austin as part of the Documentary Shorts program, Stiefel spoke of how he first met Alper, what it was like to convey what was inside her ever-active mind, and how the film gradually revealed itself to him only after making it.
How did this come about?
More out of curiosity than anything else. Mindy studies in the same studio as my wife, and my wife would come home and talk about the work this woman does in the back of the studio. She wouldn’t speak to anybody, but over time, [my wife] would invite Mindy out for coffee and they developed a friendship. Then I met Mindy at a group [art] show and I was wowed by her work and over time, having met her at a number of other openings, I had this warmth toward her and tremendous regard for what her work was and curiosity as to why she was why she was. And you know, if you’re curious and you own a camera, you start making a film.
Did you know what form this would take?
I had no idea about any of it. [Mindy] was working on that enormous sculpture of her psychiatrist, and I asked whether I could just film her making that sculpture, so I would film her once a week or so as it happened. It was slow. Over time, I asked whether I could interview her, and eventually, I think I ended up interviewing her six times as the story just got deeper and I learned more and more about what was going on.
Did having another short, “Ingelore,” which was about your mother, under your belt help you figure out how you wanted to tell this story?
“Ingelore” is similar in one respect, which is in both cases, I didn’t want to just recite this is what happened. I wanted you to have an emotional experience of what it might be like to be her and in both cases, I wanted you to feel that isolation. [In “Ingelore,] I wanted you to feel what it was like to not be spoken to, to not understand what was happening as the Third Reich impacted her and this is different in that what happens in Ingelore happens in the real world – there was a World War II, there were Nazis. There was an immigration to America, and what happens in “Heaven” to a great degree happens in [Mindy’s] mind and spirit, so describing that which is internal is different from the external happenings in “Ingelore.”
You can express a lot about Mindy by her art, which you present beautifully. How did you figure out how to bring it alive, particularly the animation?
The art is the most compelling B-roll and because the art so dramatically expresses what she was going through at a given moment, the art was always going to be a very, very strong part of it. The animation came toward the end of editing where we realized we could really step this up a notch. The whole thing to me was can I get you to feel what this degree of depression and anxiety feel like? So it was always about trying to get into her world, and the animation just became another way to do that.
Was there a moment where you thought you might be telling one story and it changed direction on you?
Yeah, for the longest time I thought the story was about Mindy and the people in the studio. I thought it was a story about community because she was sort of adopted by and supported by [the group there], but that went away. There was also a wonderful story that I always loved that had to do with somebody during the period where she told everyone not to touch her, [and this person] picked her up, but it just didn’t fit. I just kept working on it without any sense as to where this was taking me. Every day I shot it, I’m thinking how does this thing end? Where does it go? At some point, I realized this film doesn’t tie together in a neat bow. That the very essence of mental disorder is that there is no bow. There’s nothing that sums it up and there’s nothing that’s predictable and I realized this would end obliquely because her days don’t end in a neat fashion.
It’s a 40-minute film now, but it was 84 minutes at one point and I knew I was lost. So I invited 15-20 friends to screen it – directors, writers, film professors, editors, just so I could get notes. And the notes were helpful, but what was really striking was that most of these people didn’t know each other and at the end of the screening, everybody hung around and they just started talking about mental illness. One of the guys there, somebody I’ve known for 25 years started talking about his father having been a manic depressive and the impact of that on he and his siblings. I had never heard that. People weren’t leaving, and at that point, while I knew that there was an awful lot of material in the cut that didn’t advance the story, it did strike me that there was a story here that was worthwhile. So [then it became a] function of taking out what’s interesting, but doesn’t propel the story and just leaving what powers the narrative forward.
How did the film’s intriguing title come about?
The direct quote [from Mindy] is “Heaven is a traffic jam on the four-circle-five” – she said that during one of the early interviews and I knew when she said it, it would be the title of the film. As my wife said, “If you make it ‘Four-circle-five,’ nobody knows what this is about. If you make it as ‘Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,’ you’ve now only excluded the people who don’t live in L.A.” [laughs] So it became that, but that quote really spoke to me about someone who looks at life differently than most of us do.