Docurama // 2002 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // January 31st, 2005
"I try to do for other people's sons what I didn't do for my own. It's a second chance. In life you get so many second chances." -- Sister Helen
Sister Helen, a Benedictine nun who ran a drug rehabilitation shelter in the Bronx, is one of the most fascinating subjects I have ever witnessed in a documentary. Although I would never want to spend time with her in person, she is singular proof that it takes all kinds to make this crazy world work. Even a bitter, ex-alcoholic nun can change people's lives for the better with the right amount of caring, guts and tenacity.
After losing her husband and two sons to substance abuse, Sister Helen quit drinking, became a Benedictine nun and ran a private shelter for 21 drug and alcohol addicted men in one of the worst neighborhoods in America. This documentary includes a series of interviews with her and the men who stay in the shelter, as well as footage from their everyday struggles to keep things together, stay sober, and protect the house from rats.
Deeply rooted in our society are our ideas of redemption and penitence. Are we ever able to do enough good things in order to make up for our shortcomings? Is there any point in even thinking in those terms? For Sister Helen, running this house is definitely an opportunity for her to work off the guilt associated with the loss of her husband and sons. She did nothing to save them, but she hopes that she will be able to help others who have fallen so far off the path. One of the things that make this such a compelling documentary is that she is not presented as a glowing, saintly figure. She is rude, obnoxious, stubborn, domineering and occasionally cruel. She also cares deeply about the men she tends, though, and knows exactly what they need. Mother Theresa did a great job of bathing lepers in Calcutta, but Sister Helen understands what it's like to escape the horrible grip of drugs in inner-city America.
Although there is some hope and a limited amount of warmth in Sister Helen, it is not fluffy or unrealistic. This is not a long string of beautiful success stories. Even when there are moments of success, they are so small that they almost seem discouraging. One of the men focused on the most is Ashish, an alcoholic who slips back into his old ways numerous times. Each time he is kicked out of the house, but Sister Helen has a soft spot for him, and continues to welcome him back. Watching his failures throughout the film is crushingly sad, when he has no way of explaining why he would pick up the bottle again. The other man who gets a lot of screen time is Robert, who once had a six-figure salary but lost everything when he became addicted to crack and ended up spending time in prison. Now, he tries to patch the holes in the walls to keep rats out, and gets excited when he is able to get an interview at a local minimum wage job. He understands the system of the house the best, and also manages to stay on Sister Helen's good side the most often.
The filmmakers, Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Camissa, have done a remarkable job of crafting this film. In so many documentaries, it feels as though the directors think that the subject is so interesting that much of the work will be done for them. Here, though, concepts have been brilliantly weaved throughout, and there is a definite feel of progression through the film. It feels carefully designed and completely sincere at the same time, which is a massive feat.
The disc is also excellent, adding a great deal of extra value to Sister Helen. The transfer is totally unimpressive, delivered in its original full screen ratio and clearly filmed with camcorders. The audio is clear but bland. There are occasional examples of compression artifacts and jaggies. It's a television documentary, though, not an action movie, so we basically have to take what we can get.
People fascinated by the film will find quite a bit on the disc for further exploration of the story of Sister Helen and the men at the shelter. There are some additional interviews, including some with a pair of nuns that didn't appear in the film. These are revealing interviews, which fill out the background of some of these people better. As well, there are some additional scenes that didn't make the finished product. These are great scenes, obviously removed because of length and not because of quality. Their inclusion may have damaged the pacing of the film, so it was wise to include them in this way. These are supplemented by an audio commentary by the directors. It is a good commentary track, with the two of them discussing their own understanding of the things that they witnessed during their time at the house.
Also included is some footage from the Sundance awards, where the two of them won the directors' award.
I wouldn't be surprised, in a couple of years, to see a television Movie of the Week about Sister Helen. She will be played by some well-respected but aged actress. It won't have the same magic, though, because no one could ever capture quite who Sister Helen was. This documentary is one of the most impressive portraits I have seen on film, and it's been delivered on a disc that's totally worthy of it. Check it out.
Sister Helen, while flawed, managed to reach people that few others would dare. The documentary is fantastic, though, and is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Directors' Commentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Additional Interviews
* Sundance Awards Footage