In Allie Light's absorbing "Dialogues With Madwomen," seven highly articulate women of superior intelligence tell us their stories of enduring and eventually overcoming mental illness. Neither a downer nor a dry series of case studies, the documentary is a warm, encouraging experience shot through with survivors' humor. What's unsettling--and properly so--is that so much of what these women have gone through is what countless others have gone through; by and large the only difference is that these interviewees' ordeals conspired to trigger mental breakdowns.
That Light, a veteran Oscar-winning San Francisco documentarian, picked an array of women who vary widely enough in age, education, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation reinforces the impact and implications of the substantial commonality in their experiences.
Most had nightmarish childhoods at the hands of crazed, sometimes alcoholic parents; several were sexually abused by fathers or stepfathers; several suffered as members of minority groups; a number are clearly highly creative and imaginative; and the majority had truly terrible, even devastating, initial experiences with the mental-health care establishment until they at last received the help they needed--even so, you have the feeling that they all had a great deal to do with their own healing.
On the whole, you're left with the feeling that their negative environments in childhood, rather than organic causes, had far more to do with precipitating their ordeals. Even so, you wish that Light had asked her subjects whether doctors had ever found any physical conditions that might have rendered them more vulnerable to what in their own persuasive words were terrible conditions.
They are an engaging group of individuals capable of speaking of themselves with wit and detachment. One young women, sexually abused by a father who enforced nudity and no privacy within his home, speaks on her multiple personality disorder and what it was like when she was finally able to integrate all 25 of them into one. A young African American, as brilliant as she is lovely, speaks of taking a leave of absence from law school to relieve tension only to become the victim of a rape at a spa where she had gone to unwind.
Two of the women own up to continuing vulnerability, one still working out rage, especially toward her abusive father, the other a thoroughly engaging free-spirited woman who once heard voices and believed she and her great dream love, Bob Dylan, would save the world together. At 44, this woman admits she has never experienced the passionate love relationship she has always craved. She says she would end her life if she didn't believe it could still happen to her.
Light is especially inspired in the ways in which she ends "Dialogues With Madwomen"--first with a genuine and positive surprise revelation and then with a heart-wrenching coda on the tragic fate of one of the women in her film.
* MPAA rating: unrated. Times guidelines: It contains intense adult themes and language and is not suitable for small children.
'Dialogues With Madwomen'
A Light-Saraf Films presentation. Director Allie Light. Producers-editors Light, Irving Saraf. Cinematographer Saraf. Vocal music by Rachel Bagby. Instrumental music composed and performed by Larry Seymour. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 478-6379.