SISTER HELEN(director/writer/cinematographer/producer: Rob Fruchtman & Rebecca Cammisa; cinematographers: Alex Aurichio/Andrew Holbrooke/Peter Pearce/Scott Sinkler; editors: Jonathan Oppenheim/Juliet Weber; music: Simon Gentry; cast: Sister Helen Travis, Mel, Ashish, Major, Robert; Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; R & R Films; 2002)
“Sister Helen is a larger than life character whose good will carries this necessary documentary forward by the urgency of her mission.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A conventional cinema vérité documentary shot on digital video that is striking because its subject is the caring and straight shooting Sister Helen Travis, a 69-year-old Benedictine sister who runs a private 23-bed halfway house for male drug and alcohol free abusers in the dangerous Mott Haven section of the South Bronx. It’s a challenging self-imposed assignment for the short on breath Irish lassie working with the downtrodden in a mostly Hispanic slum, where the rats are very much at home and where hopelessness and crime and substance abuse and unemployment and poverty are the norm.
Sister Helen is a Frank Sinatra loving, blunt, no-nonsense, gruff talking, gray-haired nun, who openly talks about her past married life and alcoholic problems she overcame and the family tragedy causing her to return to a spiritual life in order to try to undo her past mistakes. She regrets that she failed as a mother to her two sons, as her oldest drug using son who was raised by his granny was stabbed to death when he was 15. The middle child also died and her alcoholic husband died of heart failure at 55. Only her daughter Mary, now 36 and living in the Long Island suburbs has survived the mean streets of the Bronx. Sister Helen at age 56 became a nun and opened the John Thomas Travis Center that is financed through private donations. She believes God has given her a second chance to do good in this world and she tries to overcome her past guilt by now dedicating her life to helping those who can’t help themselves, something she believes she has a special calling for and would be selfish not to take advantage of this gift. She’s a proponent of the old-school of dishing out tough love, and her intense relationship with her difficult charges is a sobering view that most Americans rarely see in such close-up terms.
The filming of Sister Helen began in November 1998 and continued until May of 2000. In the course of shooting, the ailing Sister Helen collapsed and later died in Febuary of 2000 in Lincoln Hospital from a cerebral hemorrhage. The two-person film crew of Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa, who lived in the Center for most of the time when shooting, wanted to see how the Center would function after her death and continued filming for a few months afterwards. As expected, her death left a huge vacuum and many of the men couldn’t handle being on their own and relapsed. But the Center still remains as daughter Mary wished to see her mother’s good work continued and was able to help somewhat financially, though the Center remains in financial trouble nowadays because it has fallen behind in its rent payments to the city and the city is not looking to help. Instead the city is looking to change the drug image of the neighborhood by putting in a family-center where the Center now sits.
We follow Sister Helen as she relates with four of the diverse 21 men under her charge, who must abide by the strict halfway house rules of staying clean (meaning frequent unannounced urine tests to see if they are dirty) and abiding by a nightly curfew and paying their rent on time. Mel is a 54-year-old Jewish man recovering from alcohol and crack-abuse who has lived at the Center the longest. But because of his problematic nature, his future at the Center is uncertain. Ashish is a 41-year-old born in India, who is an alcoholic and has relapsed 4 times since the filming started. Major is a 59-year-old African-American who had a drinking problem and served hard prison time. He’s been clean for 8 years and sweeps the city park for his welfare check, but hopes to some day get a full-time job and get off welfare. Robert is a 43-year-old Italian recovering from a crack addiction. He was a six-figure corporation honcho who drove down from the suburbs to the South Bronx to score drugs and now is trying to stay clean and recover from his prior incarceration and get back into the business world, as ironically he’s now living where he never dreamed he would. But he just can’t stop his addiction as easily as Sister Helen did. He acts as Sister Helen’s most reliable live-in and also her most disagreeable when arguing that it is not possible for everyone to just quit. Even though he loves her as much as all the other men, he still argues that a lot of her goodness is done out of selfishness.
It’s a compelling view at the effects of substance abuse, and does not make for light viewing even though the film is entertaining in an unattended way. But it’s the image of the lone fragile figure of the sister in this man-made hell that gives the documentary its force. Sister Helen is a larger than life character whose good will carries this necessary documentary forward by the urgency of her mission. It is hard not to feel moved by the human crisis and impossible task faced by those who choose to help.
“The proof is in the piss” is one of Sister Helen’s fondest sayings to her delinquent men, men who loved her for being there for them in their time of need. Our role as a civilized country is to not be so cold-hearted as to forget those who have made some mistakes but need another chance, as this documentary is a reminder that everyone could use some help to get by and that there are those who are in desperate need of such help. Every once in a while there’s someone like a Sister Helen who puts herself on the frontlines by backing up her words with action, and helps those no one else does. “Hello” (the sister’s favorite expressive word when confronting one of the men who is trying to put something over) … it’s good to see that such saintly folks actually exist.
Sister Helen was a Sundance Film Festival award winner.
REVIEWED ON 10/12/2003 GRADE: B +
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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