"You either go mad or you learn about metaphors." Allie Light, who made this remark, has done both. Years after being hospitalized for extreme depression, the San Francisco woman became a filmmaker. Her latest is Dialogues With Madwomen, and in addition to directing this unconventional and touching documentary, she is one of the seven title subjects who discussed--and reenacted, in visually flamboyant sequences--their mental turmoil. Light talks, in plain, controlled tones, about being molested as a child, the depression that dogged her through her life and the appalling nontherapy with which it was treated (and sometimes exploited) throughout her adult years. The other six women on whom the film focuses have stories sufficiently similar to suggest commonality, yet sufficiently different to suggest that quantifying these women by symptoms would be an obscenity.
Deedee, diagnosed as schizophrenic, discusses being abused by nuns in a parochial school and of the esteem in which Catholicism holds martyrdom. Mairi's multiple-personality disorder, borne of horrendous abuse by her father, was so extreme that all of her personalities exchanged Christmas presents one year. Karen, an Asian-American woman who had been a racial outcast at her school, joined a Communist group that eventually rejected her when its members learned she was mentally ill. She found herself, in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected, able to put nothing on her rsum but "ex-Communist madwoman." Susan, also abused by a stepfather, ran away from home and slashed her arms with a knife. R.B., a black law student with a euphoric condition, became a bag lady after being raped at a therapeutic retreat. Hannah, a manic-depressive, was for many years convinced that she and Bob Dylan were meant to redeem the world by becoming lovers.
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To some greater or lesser degree, all of the women in the film are attractive, humorous and likable. As they speak, Light interprets their stories in visual rhetoric, and, believe it or not, this technique isn't intrusive. When, for instance, Mairi describes the fragmentation of her personality, her image is broken into dozens of smaller images on-screen. It isn't particularly imaginative imagery, but it does bring the subject home to us more potently than would a camera staring blankly at a talking head. The point of Dialogues With Madwomen seems to be twofold. First, while society isn't the only culprit in the instability of these women--some of them simply have traitorous chemicals in their brains--society was a collaborator in madness in each case. Second, while madness may be difficult and dangerous, even tragic, it isn't completely negative. It's part of what gives these women their specialness (with one harsh exception, each of their stories ends at least hopefully). Potentially, this almost celebratory side of the film could be troubling, even offensive. But the businesslike Light cuts off any possibility that we'll leave the film with a rosy view of mental disturbance with a brilliant, quietly audacious sequence near the end. In the middle of one of the reenactments, Light cuts to a high shot in which we can see that the woman is performing for the camera, with Light and her crew in full view. Light calls "Cut," gives the woman some direction and starts the scene again. It's an offhanded scene--nothing showy about it--but it's absolutely key to what makes Dialogues With Madwomen seem like an honest work and not like a lot of Bay Area psychobabble flattery. It's Light's marvelous avowal that madness is madness and movies are just metaphors.