Kings Park: Stories From an American Mental Institution, screened Monday evening at the to a record breaking 1550 people.
The movie, explores Winer’s time spent at the hospital as a 17-year-old suicidal teen committed to the female violent ward. It is a multi-layered tale sharing the experience of former patients, as well as former employees.
Winer begins her journey a decade ago at the time of her 50th birthday. It was a moment in her life, she says that she needed to return to.
Winer‘s story is brave, and in a way an almost coming out of the closet type admission of sharing what many see as the stigma of mental illness. It was one of the first steps she needed to take to start the process of making the documentary.
As the story unfolds, Winer begins to seek out former patients and workers. While some of the experience between the two groups are shared, when their stories are compared the feelings and perception of the institution are vastly different.
For some of the workers it was a beautiful, self contained Shangri-La with its own bakery, laundry facilities and working farm that provided fresh milk and sat on the edge of the Long Island Sound. Indeed, the hospital was its own microcosm, a town within a town that provided steady employment to the Irish immigrants and work through the depression. Those like Kings Park’s King Pedlar, a former hospital employee who lived on the grounds called the hospital home.
Patients from the movie, however tell of not having access to the grounds, being kept in brick buildings with staff that was at times cruel and often incapable of handling the complexities of the people they were hired to take care of. There were no holidays for them, no Christmas or birthday celebrations. Upon entering the hospital they describe feeling abandoned and without hope.
It took Winer a year to obtain permission to enter the hospital grounds. In the film she is with a former patient who is still gripped by the events that happened there and finds himself too overcome to enter the buildings; another wants to operate the crane that will knock them down.
In the layers of the story a sort of underdog develops; the former patients you begin to secretly root for, hoping that they, like Winer have managed to come out on the other end intact. Where some have managed to just survive, it is Winer who seems to have thrived.
The emptying out of KPSH began in the early nineties and by 1996 the hospital had permanently closed its doors, leaving in its wake patients who got lost in the system or even worse were just abandoned.
Winer’s documentary wraps with a look at mental health care today, which with the advent of medication and a better approach to the disease has resulted in better care. Gone are the days of electroshock therapy and straight jackets. As promising as those changes may seem, the warehousing of the mentally ill of the past has an eerie resemblance to the jails and prisons of today which are now the largest provider of mental health care services, begging the question, how far have we really come?
The end result is a documentary that sheds light on a still closeted illness made by a filmmaker who had the courage to reveal herself for the purpose of helping others.
If you have ever found yourself staring up at the looming, abandoned brick buildings wondering what happened there, see Winer’s film, it may just answer your questions.