February 22, 2020

Film Reveals Woman’s Struggles for Her Art

At one point in the 40-minute documentary “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” artist Mindy Alper rocks back and forth, her hands trembling on her knees. Some of the medications she’s taken during a lifetime of depression and anxiety have stopped working, and she’s been experiencing hallucinations as her doctors search for a new regimen.

“I hear sounds of the city screaming in my ears,” she says.

How Alper uses her art to document and heal her traumas is the subject of the movie, which is among 10 short documentaries that will be up for an Oscar nomination on Jan. 23.

Alper’s medication dilemma was not the first time she experienced extreme mental duress. In the movie, the artist, who was born in 1963, reveals that when she was 27 a nervous breakdown rendered her unable to speak, on and off, for a decade. She became suicidal, was admitted to a mental hospital and underwent shock therapy in 1999.

Back then, as well as in the film, art has been Alper’s salvation — a way for her to express her troubles and what she still has difficulty outlining in words.

It’s not the first time Stiefel has made a film about an extraordinarily brave woman.

The movie displays several dozen such art works, including complex line drawings of frightening adults or monsters devouring Alper. A more peaceful piece depicts the Los Angeles artist sitting in traffic on the 405 freeway, where she feels safe and calm. Then there is the giant papier-mache figure of Alper’s beloved psychiatrist, Dr. Shoshana, which she is in the process of constructing for an art gallery show in Santa Monica.

Filmmaker Frank Stiefel was drawn to the artist and decided to create the documentary after meeting Alper through his wife, who is also an artist. “Mindy’s work was so emotionally sophisticated,” Stiefel, 70, told the Journal. “It was so psychologically precise about a given moment.”

It’s not the first time Stiefel has made a film about an extraordinarily brave woman. In 2009 his short documentary, “Ingelore,” captured his mother’s story as a deaf survivor of the Holocaust.
(She escaped Germany at 15 after reading the lips of a United States embassy official and convincing him that she could hear.)

During Stiefel’s more than 20 hours of on-camera interviews with Alper, the artist revealed how her fraught childhood exacerbated her mental illness. She grew up Jewish in Los Angeles with a father who was a rageaholic and a mother who couldn’t bear to touch her for much of her childhood. (Mother and daughter are
now close.)

Alper and Stiefel became good friends while shooting the movie over the past four years. When Alper became unable to drive as a result of her anxiety, Stiefel shuttled her to doctors’ appointments.

Production shut down two years ago when Stiefel was diagnosed with lung cancer. After six months of treatment, surgery and chemotherapy, he went into remission and finished editing the film.

Alper is shown coming out of her funk as her exhibition approaches. She’s initially nervous: “I have shpielkis,” she says of her trepidations about the public showing of her art. “I’m so embarrassed. I wanted no one to see how horrible these things are.” But when Alper sees her pieces on display, she says, “I actually was quite moved.”

“I describe Mindy as the most human of humans,” Stiefel said. “She’s willing to reveal all her vulnerabilities — those things that we hide and keep cloistered from one another.”

To view “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405” on YouTube, visit https://youtu.be/09M3C4VD1Fg.