Life on the streets of New York City for the poor and homeless is an unforgiving struggle. For those who also battle mental illness, it is marked by the additional pressures of fear, isolation and misunderstanding. “West 47th Street,” a remarkable new film, takes its cameras into the heart of the struggle as it rejects the invisibility of the mentally ill who inhabit America’s urban streets. Filmed over three years at Fountain House, a renowned 50-year-old rehabilitation center in New York, West 47th Street reveals the human face of mental illness — and the faith and courage with which its victims fight to recover control of
Nathaniel “Tex” Gordon, a former rodeo star who spent the majority of his life in mental institutions. Credit: Courtesy of Lichtenstein Creative Media.
In the tradition of cinéma vérité documentary, West 47th Street forgoes narration and direct interviews, letting the story tell itself in the unscripted words and actions of its subjects. Filmmakers Lichtenstein and Peoples, who are married, initially spent three months at Fountain House in 1996 gaining the trust of both staff and “members” before they started shooting 350 hours of videotape. The result is an intimate and illuminating look into a complex world of hard-won hopes, drug regimens, hospitals, work programs, group homes — and turmoil that may relent but never quite disappear. Through it all, the protagonists approach tremendous obstacles with humor, optimism and grace.
The subject of West 47th Street hits close to home for Lichtenstein, whose career as an ABC News producer came to a halt 18 years ago when he was diagnosed with manic depression. It took three years to struggle back from the brink of self-destruction. Following his recovery, he founded his own company, Lichtenstein Creative Media, in part to educate the public about mental illness.
West 47th Street focuses on four Fountain House members as they challenge the confusion, joblessness, alcoholism and drug addiction that so often characterize life for the mentally ill. Frances Olivero, a.k.a. Kenneth, comes to Fountain House in a flowered skirt, and the members’ acceptance of his self-assigned gender helps restore his self-respect and give him direction. Fitzroy Frederick, a volatile Trinidadian Rastafarian with schizophrenia, is determined to stay out of homeless shelters. But he continues to struggle with a demanding regimen of anti-psychotic drugs on the one hand, and the lure of street drugs on the other.
Zeinab Wali, who has schizophrenia, was abandoned to the streets by her abusive husband, who took their children to Egypt. At Fountain House, she begins to find a path back to reality by cooking the foods she remembers from her youth. Tex Gordon, another Fountain House resident, is on the verge of liberation. Committed by his stepmother when his father died, Tex spent 19 years in state mental hospitals, and another 20 years living in low-income hotels under a court order certifying him as incompetent. The order, obtained by his stepmother, has deprived him of the simplest freedoms — like taking a vacation — and it’s about to be lifted in court.
West 47th Street has an unerring eye for the emotions, misapprehensions and practical difficulties that make everyday challenges, like holding a job or living in group households, so difficult for people with mental illness. But it also shows the resilience of even the most stricken, challenging the notion that mental illness is cause for hopelessness. Faith is integral to the structure of Fountain House, and to the sympathetic but unsentimental behavior of the staff.
Frances blossoms at Fountain House, becoming an advocate for people with mental illness and even lobbying in Albany, New York’s state capital. His newly won confidence is shaken, though, when he is diagnosed with incurable cancer. Meanwhile, Fitzroy’s angry outbursts and uncertain drug intake threaten his ability to live in group homes, putting his membership in Fountain House in jeopardy. Zeinab, for one, is unnerved by his temper. Despite all her strides in regaining mental stability through cooking for staff and members, her paranoia is re-ignited by Fitzroy’s “evil eye.”
Tex all the while marvels in anticipation at his upcoming liberation, and takes a stroll down memory lane — literally over the grounds of the hospitals where he had been institutionalized — recalling the treatment of the mentally ill both in hospitals and, later, on the streets when the hospitals were closed. Through all, an important truth emerges: that people with mental illness, like everyone else, ultimately must be treated as individuals.