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      Sister Helen
    Nun's the wiser

    The subject of the documentary "Sister Helen," an unorthodox nun whipping addicts into shape in the South Bronx, is no mere plaster saint, but rather the antithesis of Mother Teresa.


    "When I say piss, you piss," isn't exactly a phrase one expects to hear from a nun, but Sister Helen is nothing like the nuns in "The Bells of St Mary's!" She's a tough talking, 69-year-old member of the Benedictine order, who married the church late in life — at age 59 — after the deaths of two sons and her husband due to drug and alcohol related causes. And peeing into a cup, she's quick to tell us, is the one sure way to check whether someone is clean or not.

    Directed by: Rebecca Cammisa, Rob Fruchtman.
    Cinematography: Alex Aurichio, Rebecca Cammisa, Rob Fruchtman, Andrew Holbrooke, Peter Pearce, Scott Sinkler.
    A former drinker herself, she may not seem the stuff that saints are made of, until she reminds that Christ himself hung out with lepers and criminals. The unorthodox nun runs the John Thomas Travis Center, a combination rehab center and halfway house named for the men in her life, now gone.

    They've been replaced by a motley crew of assorted recovering alkies, addicts and prison parolees, all tended to by this blowsy tough-love dispenser — the surrogate mother cum therapist cum jailer figure at the center of this extraordinary 90-minute docudrama. There are moments as she shuffles through the Mott Haven streets, the wind whipping about her long skirts and shawl, that she seems like a contemporary version of Brecht's "Mother Courage."

    Her brood, composed of the dregs of humanity, are men no one else cares for or about. A few of their road-to-recovery (or not) stories take center stage. The saddest and most desperate of Helen's boys is Ashish, a 41-year-old East Indian alcoholic who looks 60, and who is in and out of the center many times during the film. He comes across as Sister Helen's favorite, perhaps because he needs her the most or perhaps because he calls her "mom." But when he says he "just likes to drink," there's no real argument for the statement, even if Sister Helen won't give up on him.

    "My life was like that movie, 'The Days of Wine and Roses,' " she says adding, "But I was the Jack Lemmon character, I walked away."

    All during the film, she spews out a steady stream of tough-love dogma and biographical data in a nonstop swirl of talk to show that she knows what they're going through because she's been there. And if she can do it, they can do it, she iterates over and over.

    Among the other men is Major, an older, very dignified African-American parolee and recovering alcoholic, bitterly resents the good sister's suspicions when opiates (from cough medicine) are discovered in his urine. And Robert, a formerly well-to-do Italian-American is another parolee and recovering crack addict who is openly antagonistic to Sister Helen's two-fisted tactics, even though he realizes that some of them work.

    This fascinating documentary (winner of this year's Sundance Director's Award) becomes a human drama when, towards the end of 18 months of shooting, Sister Helen unexpectedly collapses and dies. The filmmakers continue to film at the Travis Center for several more months, capturing the ultimate legacy of Sister Helen's influence on her wayward wards.

    I can just imagine some enterprising producer dangling promises of another Oscar in front of Shelly Winters, Ellen Burstyn or Estelle Parsons, if only she'll star in the fictionalized version of Sister Helen's life. Don't do it, ladies, unless the documentary's directors, Rob Fructman and Rebecca Cammisa, promise to direct the feature.

    NOVEMBER 3, 2003

    Reader comments on Sister Helen:

  • [no subject]   from Mary, Nov 19, 2003
  • SISTER HELEN   from JAN LAWRENCE, Nov 19, 2003
  • It's a shame   from Kathi, Dec 21, 2003
  • Re: It's a shame   from No shame, Jan 11, 2004
  • Sister Helen   from Norma ulmer, Feb 21, 2007
  • Addendum to 1st e-mail   from Norma, Feb 21, 2007
  • Intrested   from Sally Livingstone, Jan 30, 2009
  • Great Documentary   from Teresa, Jun 12, 2009

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