'Left on Purpose': DOC NYC Review

Left on Purpose Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Shadowbox Films

Left on Purpose Still - H 2015

This emotionally devastating, thought-provoking doc raises more questions than it can answer.

Justin Schein and David Mehlman's award-winning documentary centers on Mayer Vishner, a former Yippie activist who tells the filmmakers in the middle of shooting that he wants to kill himself.

Filmmaker Justin Schein became faced with a horrific dilemma when he began shooting his latest effort, about former Yippie activist Mayer Vishner, whom he had met and filmed for his earlier documentary No Impact Man. Originally intended as a portrait of the colorful Vishner, who had served in the trenches alongside such figures as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krasner, the project took a dramatically different turn when the alcoholic, depressed subject tells the director that he intends to kill himself.

"If this film happens, it will be a film about a suicide," he declares.

Needless to say, this stance puts Schein in a terrible quandary, having to decide whether his continuing to film the troubled Vishner will only encourage him in his plans. That ethical dilemma forms the heart of the fascinating Left on Purpose, which recently won the Audience Award at the DOC NYC festival.

But what makes the film, executive produced by Doug Liman, as ironically entertaining as it is tragic is its charismatic subject, who is articulate and fascinating even while spiraling downward emotionally. Still living in Greenwich Village (albeit a gentrified, NYU-dominated version that barely resembles its former self) in a rundown apartment filled with enough detritus to justify his self-description as a "hoarder," he laments his inability to connect with the current generation of young political activists.

"I don't speak the language anymore," he laments.

Desperately lonely and clearly in ill health, he asks his longtime doctor to assist him in his plan.

"I gotta get outta here," Vishner says. The request is refused.

Perpetually clad in one of the many items from his voluminous T-shirt collection ("Fashion Is My Life" is a highlight), Vishner briefly seems to snap out of his depression when he interacts with the Occupy Wall Street protestors. He's also noticeably perky while interacting with a pair of attractive young women who work at his volunteer community garden.

But the positive feelings are short-lived, as he's soon once again lamenting his current sad state even though he was, as he puts it, "the Forrest Gump of the late '60s into the mid-80s."

"I wasn't just hanging out with giants, I was helping them be giants," he adds.

Schein, working with co-director David Mehlman, handles the difficult material with admirable sensitivity, save for the occasional self-absorbed misstep as filming his wife complaining about his not paying enough attention to their newborn baby because of his preoccupation with Vishner.

By the time Left on Purpose reaches its conclusion, it has delivered a powerful examination of the debilitating effect of clinical depression and raised disturbing questions about the right to take one's own life.  

Production: Shadowbox Films

Director/director of photography: Justin Schein

Co-director/editor: David Mehlman

Producer: Eden Wurmfeld

Executive producer: Doug Liman  

Composer: David Mansfield

Not rated, 85 min.