Even if someone has a score of emotional and psychological problems, there can be hope for a life to be well-lived and fulfilled. This is the central premise of the short documentary, “Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405.” The film is one of five Academy Awards nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject and marks the first bid for director, Frank Stiefel. In addition to this recognition at the Oscars, the film has received both the Audience Awards and the Jury Awards at the Austin Film Festival and Full Frame Documentary Festival.
The film centers on Los Angeles based artist, Mindy Alper. Since her birth in 1963 Mindy has had to overcome immense obstacles. Along with her lifetime struggle with severe depression and anxiety, she also grew up having to deal with an emotionally abusive father and a mother who couldn’t bring herself to even touch her. The one consistent saving grace for her is art. From the age of one Mindy has been expressing herself through various forms of art including drawing, sculpture and papier-mache.
Mindy describes the intense struggles she has gone through including being suicidal, hospitalizations, having bad reactions to new medication regimens, having nervous breakdowns that rendered her unable to speak and undergoing electro-convulsive therapy. Throughout all of it, her art has been her main form of expression, especially during her years of being incapable of speaking. As she is describing this painful personal history, we see her preparing for an exhibition of her work. The thought of displaying her work absolutely terrifies her but when she finally sees her work set up in the gallery she is overcome with positive emotions.
Could Mindy’s honest and inspiring story lead to Oscar gold? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of what the short brings to the table.
Artists overcoming difficult circumstances have won in this category before. Most recently, “Inocente” prevailed in 2012, about a young artist who is homeless, as did “Music by Prudence” in 2009 about a singer with severe physical disabilities.
Mindy’s incredible candidness and humor offer an amazing and revealing insight into how she processes all of her internal hurdles that she must continually jump over.
Getting to see her drawings that describe her perspective on life over the years gives the film a perfect personal touch.
Artists overcoming adversity have not always been so lucky in this category. Two years ago, “Chau, Beyond the Lines,” about a young Vietnamese man who dreams of being an artist despite having severe birth defects from Agent Orange, lost to “A Girl in the River.”
The overarching subject of people living with disabilities is a continuing one and doesn’t feel like something of great importance like the opioid crisis or racial tensions with police departments.