Frank Stiefel's short doc reveals struggles, gifts of Mindy Alper
For artist Mindy Alper the world has often felt like a disturbing place — of noisome clatter, chaotic imagery and creatures of menacing intensity.
Curiously, one environment where she has found peace is in the midst of nerve-jangling congestion on Los Angeles freeways.
“I spend that time talking to myself out loud about whatever it is going on that outrages me and I have a chance to vent — things that I don't usually say to people, especially politics,” she says with a laugh.
She's the most human of us humans... Just the very core of her is honest.
Understanding this sense of freeway freedom helps explain the title of a documentary about Alper — Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405 — directed by Frank Stiefel. The 40-minute film has earned a place on the coveted Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Short Subject and it won audience and jury awards at both the Full Frame Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival.
Stiefel initially met Alper through his wife who took an art class with her.
“I was intrigued by Mindy. I loved her art,” Stiefel tells Nonfictionfilm.com. “I said, 'Hey, do you mind if I film you making that sculpture?' and that began it… I had no idea what her story was.”
Her story, it turned out, was one of emotional and, one might even say, neurological complexity. She grew up an unusually perceptive and extremely sensitive child.
“I was a strange kid. I had so many phobia,” she says in the film.
Her refuge came in sketching.
“I was apparently doing it since I could hold something in my hand to draw,” she recalls. “I was so fortunate to have a mom who put me in art class at four or five. I always loved drawing.”
Making pictures seemingly helped her process incidents in her life that upset or frightened her — especially a fraught relationship with her domineering father. Although he knew she was sensitive to touch, her father used to squeeze her to the point she found it hard to breathe.
“My memories of my dad were really wanting to be the best kid for him,” she says in Heaven. “And that was a difficult thing because he was, I don’t think, so happy ever with me.”
At age 27 a nervous breakdown left Alper without the capacity to speak. She regained her speech in part by using words stored in a box that she could piece into sentences. Even today, her way with words and numbers remains highly distinctive. For example, where most people would use the word “forty” to say the number 40, Alper calls it “four circle.”
“I think the reason I might say 'four circle' is because I see it. I see a four and I see a circle,” she explains. “It’s what I see in my mind and I get very confused because I'm often pronouncing the word I see in my head.”
“At another point in the film she's describing years… She says, ’It was like 40 trips around the sun ago,’” Stiefel notes. “It's such a better way to visualize time than the word ‘years.’”
Stiefel includes shots of the impressive regimen of pills Alper takes on a daily basis to treat depression and anxiety. To create his portrait of the artist he did not shy away from personal matters.
“Frank asks questions in such a way that you have no choice but to tell him the truth. It's some kind of diabolical gift he has,” Alper observes with a laugh.
“We did six interviews with a total of over 20 hours of interview footage. And the interviews just got deeper and deeper and deeper,” Stiefel remembers. “As we got to know each other there was permission to go deeper into things that weren't comfortable at the beginning.”
“I just really answered Frank's questions… without really thinking what it meant later, that people would be hearing it besides Frank. It’s hard sometimes to watch it, especially some of the things in the film of like the [electric] shock treatments and the medication. 'Oh, I take so much,’” Alper recalls wistfully of seeing her life on screen. “ And this was supposed to be a comedy,” she jokes.
Despite the often debilitating nature of her illness, Alper has been able to create stunning large-scale sculptures and drawings noted for their psychological acuity. To this viewer, Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405 paints a deeply moving portrait of an endearing woman who has borne suffering with gentleness and humor — a noble and loving soul.
Stiefel, too, finds much to praise about the woman at the center of his film.
“She's the most human of us humans,” he says admiringly. “She's the only interview subject that completely answered every question that I asked her without that 'governor' that we all have in our brains that wonders whether we're being smart and who's concerned about how we look or how we sound. Just the very core of her is honest.”
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.