After losing her husband and both of her sons, Helen Travis became a
Benedictine Nun. She was 56 years old at the time. Two years
later, she opened up a center for recovering addicts in the South Bronx
area of New York. This grey-haired little old lady who just happens
to be as tough as nails is the subject of a 1999 documentary Sister
It was 1988 when Sister Helen opened her recovery center, and in the
years since she's has lived with around 20 adult men in a city owned building.
Her house is run solely on private donations and the nominal rent that
she charges the tenants. Yet what she lacks in funds, Sister Helen
more than makes up for in moxie. She talks tough and swears like
a sailor. Yet she gets her point across to her charges: stay clean
or hit the street.
Filmed over the course of a year and a half, this documentary presents
an accurate look at what it's like running a home for ex-addicts.
You see Helen interviewing perspective tenants, telling grown men to their
faces that they are lying and that their sob stories won't wash with her.
The worry and anxiety that she feels when one of her charges doesn't come
home is apparent. The movie shows both the ups and downs of Helen's
life and the constant struggle she has with the very people that she's
trying to help.
Helen Travis is an amazing character, someone who took the pain and
trauma of her life and channeled it into something positive. Her
oldest son was 15 when he was murdered, and her second son died of a drug
overdose. Her husband was an alcoholic who died young. Helen
herself had a drinking problem, but these tragedies were the catalyst for
her to clean up her act. She felt it was her calling to help other
people get through their difficulties. As she says in the film, she
didn't do a good job raising her own sons, but she's been given a second
chance to helpl other people's sons.
This movie was both eye-opening and inspiring. Helen's force of
will seemed to keep the place running, and the ability of this little old
lady to get big burly men to do what she wants was nothing short of amazing.
Yet the film also had a sad streak running through it. Here were
men with wasted lives, people who spent a majority of their lives lost
in drugs or booze. When a tenant relapses or test positive fro drugs,
you can feel Sister Helen's disappointment. And not wanting to disappoint
Helen is the reason some of the men stay clean.
The direction of this film was very good and really made it the unique
movie that it is. Directors Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman were
really able to recreate the atmosphere of the recovery house up on the
screen. They were able to use the small rooms and tight living conditions
to their advantage. Though it must have caused a lot of problems
when shooting, these conditions also gave the impression that this was
just about the lowest that these men could drop.
A tribute to a unique individual, is a very interesting documentary
that is worth searching out.
The two channel audio was generally good. The dialog was easy
to hear just about all the time. Though it wasn't a very dynamic
soundtrack, it fit the subject of the film.
This movie was filmed digitally and it has the assorted artifacts that
one would expect. The full frame image has a lot of aliasing and
shimmering lines, especially in the backgrounds, and at times it became
a little distracting. Some of the scenes that were shot at night
or in dark conditions were grainy, but the colors were generally good.
There are is a good amount of bonus material included with this DVD.
Filmmakers Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman provide a commentary to the
film which had a lot of information that didn't make it into the movie
itself. Also included are 14 minutes of extra interviews with the
men, and nearly 18 minutes of deleted scenes which were fun to watch.
There was also a clip of the filmmakers winning an award at Sundance, as
well as text pieces about the filmmakers.
This is an inspiring film that illustrates what one person can do when
she sets her mind to something. The fact that Helen spends the end
of her life helping people and trying to atone for her own failings is
a powerful message. An interesting film that is worth searching out.