Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When The Devil Knocks Will Knock You Out

When The Devil Knocks is a brand new documentary about a courageous woman with multiple personality disorder.
Oh, you know --Joanne Woodward winning her Oscar in 1957's The Three Faces Of Eve. At least that's what I first thought.
I also remember being on the set of another of those dramas --this one a TV miniseries -- with the tables turned as Woodward was the psychiatrist and Sally Field the girl with many personalities. The title was Sybil (1976).
But that was showbiz. When The Devil Knocks is the real stuff.
It's less melodramatic but a whole lot scarier just because this is the unvarnished truth.
And these days it's called Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Vancouver filmmaker Helen Slinger got unlimited access to more than 40 hours of videotape of one subject (Hilary Stanton).
Stanton appears as a reserved, greying prairie housewife, seemingly introverted, with three children from a broken marriage.
Under the expert coaching of therapist Cheryl Malmo many other personalities began percolating forth until the number hits 35.
This hour profile looks at the effects on Stanton of the major figures who pop up again and again.
Until she hit her Forties Stanton seemed to think it was normal to have gigantic gaps in her memory.
Her daughter says coming home from school she'd often find another personality instead of mother Hilary present. The most demanding was the assertive Mary but there was also the little girl Hil and the outdoorsy young guy Tim.
Hilary grew up on a farm isolated from other families. Neglected by her mother and the last child in a big family she was subjected to abuse from the man who lived next door and frequently forced her to stay over for the night.
Places in the family barn became shelters as well as hiding places.
Another way of hiding out and coping with her horrific life was for other facets of her personality to come forward to protect her and shield her from the truth.
The tapes that were made are of remarkably high quality. Stanton's hair turns grey over the years but everything else is static: the comfy chair she sits in, the ritual of taking off her glasses, the sudden emergence of somebody else inside her.
Slinger directs in a flawless style that forces us to go on these journeys with Hilary no matter how uncomfortable we may feel.
This is also an examination of the art of the therapist as Cheryl Malmo coaxes remembrances from the different characters and stiches together what actually happened.
Some scenes are dramatized with actors standing in for Mary, Tim and Hill but that only makes the film compulsively watchable. And we see Hilary gradually changing over the years to the point she can actually visit the gravesite of her long dead tormentor and prepare for a second marriage.
And who is the strongest woman here: at first glance it's quiet Hilary who needs to effect closure.
But she couldn't achieve this without the steady, intense prodding of Malmo who knows when to press a point and when to let Stanton make the deductions for itself.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

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