'Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405' Filmmaker: Short Was Once "As Long as 'Gone With the Wind'"

Frank Stiefel told the story of how the film started and won best short-subject documentary at the Academy Awards at a screening hosted by the Semel Institute at UCLA on Monday.

The 2018 Oscars awarded films set in cities and towns all over the world, but the winner of best documentary, short subject was perhaps especially relatable to the portion of Oscar voters who are Angelenos: It's a a line-drawn, animated documentary named after Los Angeles traffic: Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405.

In an evening dedicated to the education and advocacy of mental illness, The Open Mind — a community film and lecture series working to expanding the conversation about mental health — on Monday hosted Academy Award-winning producer and writer and the film's helmer, Frank Stiefel, in a panel discussion.

Joined by artist Mindy Alper, upon whom the film is based, and Dr. Michael Gitlin of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the panel spoke about the psychological messages weaved through the ironically titled doc.

The evening began with an introduction of the film by Vicky Goodman, the founder of Friends of the Semel Institute, which hosts the event series, and The Open Mind. "I know I'm supposed to make a joke about the traffic, but in all seriousness, we are delighted that you are all here," Goodman said to an audience of about 100 people.

Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 follows the life story and artistic work of Alper, who has suffered from severe depression and anxiety for most of her life. In some instances, her only means of communication was through her art. After Goodman's introduction, Stiefel, the film's director, producer and writer, addressed the audience.

"A few of you here have seen the film more times than you’ve seen The Godfather," he joked. “But this film was the net of thousands of decisions. Mindy was one of my lucky decisions.”

Stiefel explained that he first began filming Alper during her artistic process, capturing her movements every week. After a few months, he interviewed her. The process turned into a four-year-long venture, consisting of six interviews and an uncut version "as long as Gone With the Wind," he said.

During the making of the film, the project's editor had a child and Stiefel had lung cancer (don't worry, he assured the audience, he is fine). "A lot of life happened while making this film," he said.

After the special screening of the movie, Stiefel, Alper and Gitlin were invited onstage for a panel discussion and audience Q&A. "I really felt it this time," Alper responded when asked how she felt watching the documentary. "A lot of people I love are here. I really felt it."

Alper explained that Siegel first offered to buy her coffee when the idea of the film came about. "And I thought, 'Great, free coffee,'" she said. “I knew he would take care of it. I thought, 'OK, he won’t hurt me.'"

Dr. Gitlin reflected on his expertise with mental illness as well as the film itself: "If you happen to have the gift from the gods of artistic talent, the expression of your art is going to come out looking different than anyone else's. That’s what creativity is about, expressing one’s world."

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